World War One films are typically set in the muddy, fetid horror of the trenches - a dark and dank world of rat-infested boredom with the occasional "relief" of going over the top into barbed wire, decomposing horses and machine-gun fire. The typical theme is one of madness - both personal and of the entire enterprise. And the style is static. The war doesn't move. In the words of the inimitable Blackadder: "Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin." Films of this type reach their apotheosis in JOURNEY'S END.
The innovation of Sam Mendes' new film is to set it in the final phase of the war, when the German's had retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, leaving miles of French countryside, previously so viciously fought over, empty. Of course, the Line was itself heavily fortified, and this sets up the plot of 1917. Two young soldiers are selected by a general (Colin Firth) to get an urgent message to the new front line. The next morning, British forces will launch an offensive that will be a massacre: their commanders don't know about the fortifications. So these two lads have to cross No Man's Land, pass through the old German trench, get to a now destroyed French town, and down to the woods to the new Line.
What this plot does is give us high stakes and fixed timeline, as well as - crucially - a dynamic style. The entire film is a two hour journey against the clock, largely on foot. And the emotional stakes are made even higher because of the boys, so carefully selected for the trip, has to save his own beloved elder brother, who is part of the new attack. To give the movie an immersive and intensive feel, the director has worked with his DP, Roger Deakins (COEN BROS PASSIM) to make us feel as though we are with the boys every step of the way. We never move away from their gaze - we experience the film as they experience the journey - in a simulated single-take movie. The result is absolutely impressive and emotionally involving. But it doesn't feel like cinema in a way - more like playing Red Dead Redemption or Call of Duty, World War One edition. That's fine - it just goes to show how influential video game style is in modern cinema.
There's much to love in Sam Mendes script (his first). By taking us over No Man's Land, and then into the French countryside behind it, he shows us the contrast between the rural paradise before the war and the bombed out nightmare after it. He takes care to show us the better quality of the German trenches compared to the British ones. And he doesn't shy away from showing us the devastation of the German razed earth policy - cities destroyed, livestock shot, a land made unfit for humans. We also see the change in landscape, from the mud of the old line to the chalk of the new line. It makes for an impressive visual contrast.
His casting is also superb. Mendes even took care over the extras to show us that the war took really young men and made them weary and traumatised. we see it in the faces of the men - in particular at a choral scene in a wood that's deeply moving. In the speaking roles there are some misfires. Colin Firth is a bit pastiche as the noble, stiff-upper-lip British general who sets the film in motion, and Mark Strong's commander is similarly one-note - compassionate weariness. But I really loved Andrew Scott (FLEABAG) ias a cynical but actually helpful front-line officer. And the way in which Mendes overturns our view of Benedict Cumberbatch's front line commander in a very brief cameo is masterful. We start off thinking he's a gung-ho martial nut job but he's humanised very quickly. However, it's GAME OF THRONES' Richard Madden who gets the best of the cameos - with a deeply moving performance all the more affecting because of the character's need not to fall apart. This is quite probably his best acting performance to date. In the lead roles, I rather like GAME OF THRONES' Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) as the soldier trying to save his big brother, even if his accent does rather veer from cockney to posh and back again. It's George Mackay as his companion who really steals the show and epitomises that combination of youth and weariness I spoke of earlier.
The result is a film that's technically impressive and deeply moving and largely well written and acted. It is, however, not without its flaws. First, there's a mid-film scene involving milk that jumps the shark in terms of schmaltz for me. Second, there's a moment involving the Mark Strong character that had me almost yelling at the screen as to why he didn't do more practically to help. And finally, while Mendes is to be applauded for showing the contribution of Imperial troops to the Western Front war effort (in sharp contrast to Nolan's DUNKIRK) he seems quite uninterested in showing the Germans as anything other than barbaric shits.
1917 is rated R and has a running time and has a running time of 119 minutes. The film is on global release.