Review: '1917'

Sam Mendes digs into WW I, editing his new film to look like one long take
GREAT CUT: Sam Mendes charges through the trenches of the Western Front in one long take.

It is April 16, 1917, three bloody and quixotic years into World War I, and a pair of dozing English soldiers—Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)—have been chosen to deliver an urgent message.

Surveillance shows that some 1,600 British troops have advanced to the edge of a German trap, and the unaware English are poised to charge at dawn. Horribly urgent as this is, the warning seemingly can't be delivered by plane, and the telegraph lines have been cut by the Kaiser's soldiers.

Delivering the message via a pair of runners is a mad plan, but their commanding officer (Colin Firth) recites Kipling to steady the two corporals' nerves: "Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne ..."

George Orwell cited the unspoken other half of that couplet as proof of how important a cliche can be: "Sooner or later you will have occasion to feel that 'he travels the fastest who travels alone,' and there the thought is, readymade and, as it were, waiting for you."

"Readymade thought" isn't a bad way to describe how director Sam Mendes proceeds; he makes a thrill ride out of the Western Front. It's the fastest-paced film he's done. Editing is supposed to be an invisible art, but this year the Oscar for best editing may be given to a film that looks as if it had no edits. It's formed as a single, long take, based on a soldier's tunnel vision of zigzagging through the crowded trenches. Outside the entrenchment, the spaces are wide open, and there's no place to hide. It's the driest World War I movie since Gallipoli, the famous muck and rain and fog of the trenches replaced by a spring of wildflowers and chalk soil.

Here is almost every nightmare story you've heard about the war: a trench caves in while the soldiers are prowling an abandoned German entrenchment. It's alive with rats so fat they can barely waddle. "Even their rats are bigger than ours!" There are corpses that, tangled in the barbed wire, still move in the wind—Schofield and Blake's first signpost is to "turn right at the Nodding Man." He's their guide to a stew of skeletons in a shell hole. Perhaps the nastiest matter is in the home stretch: hand-to-hand night combat amid medieval brick walls sliced into Dali-esque shapes by the artillery blasts.

In these scenes, cinematographer Roger Deakins recalls Pat Barker's novel The Ghost Road. It's not, as she wrote, the gas attack dimming the light, making a rising sun seem to be setting, but it's similar: under the parachute flares, everything is as yellow and orange and lurid as a carnival.

This movie with two stars is livened up by celebrity officers. Mark Strong is an intelligent-looking officer (Canadian, I think) who provides a handy truck. The ever-humane Daniel Mays is excellent as a soldier harrowed by the war. A maddened Andrew Scott blesses his troops with droplets of holy rum as they get ready to go over the top. Benedict Cumberbatch is a blood-drinking attritionist, another one of those top-brass fiends who believed World War I would be won by the side that stuffed the most meat in the grinder.

The problem is that Mendes sometimes gets into the kind of territory that Mark Twain condemned in James Fennimore Cooper. It's a movie on steroids, cooking up incidents when the truth is bad enough. First an escape in a river, and then a waterfall—in the Lowlands? A soldier is knocked cold by a rifle bullet to the helmet, by a sniper some 50 yards away who doesn't bother to find out if he's dead. Lastly comes the bad Hemingway scene of a soldier encountering the film's only woman (Claire Duburcq). And a final race gives us a runner seemingly able to outrun machine guns.

The Great War is all but lost from living memory—that's my way of suggesting a reading of Paul Fussell's 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory. There's also a long list of films that apparently haven't been seen by people celebrating 1917 as the best movie made about the Great War.

I succumbed to this thrilling, compelling film—though it's current, post-Golden Globes status as a best-picture frontrunner is baffling. Considering what they endured, it's probably best that the vets didn't live to see it and hoot at it.

R; 119 Mins.

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