1917 is an Absolute Masterpiece

1917 (2019)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Universal Pictures, 119 minutes, R (war violence)

The Friday before the Oscars I confessed I hadn’t seen most of the films up for Best Picture, but it would be okay by me if Parasite won. Irony is often a harsh mistress. Less than 24 hours later, I saw 1917. Parasite is a superb movie, but 1917 is a masterpiece, and I’m talking masterpiece in the sense of being the first English-speaking movie of the 21st century that warrants that label.

Director Sam Mendes’ take on World War One builds upon Peter Jackson’s 2018 restoration They Shall Not Grow Old to give us a look inside the trenches that feels and looks right. I’m sure there are some military uniform and hardware cranks out there who will tell us that Mendes got some minor details wrong, but 1917 is intended to be more metaphorical than historical. It has been many a moon since I have seen on the screen such a powerful depiction of the utter senselessness of war.

On the surface, 1917 is one of the simplest plots imaginable: a race-to-beat-the-clock movie. In April of 1917, aerial reconnaissance revealed that a German withdrawal from their position was a faux retreat, a strategic pullback designed to lure British troops into a deadly trap. This left just 24 hours to get a message to the new front to call off an assault on what is assumed to be a lightly defended German position. More than 1,600 lives depend on a stand-down message getting to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) before the lads go “over the top.” In World War One, that meant summiting their trenches to charge across “no-man’s land” toward the enemy. When barbed wire, mines, machine guns, and heavy artillery were in play, “butchery” would be a more accurate term than “warfare.”

Two men are charged with delivering the message, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the latter of whom is especially motivated as his brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is a member of a unit in extreme harm’s way. If this sounds like a thriller, be assured it’s nothing that simple. There is neither glory nor honor in a surreal quest that begins by leaving a safe position and finding a path through a no-man’s land filled with blood-drawing wire, burnt out tanks, decaying horses, deep mortar holes, and maggot-ridden corpses. All of that just to jump into rat-filled German trenches presumed to be enemy-free. Survive that, reconnoiter every tree and farm house one encounters, cross a broken-bridged canal whose opposing bank has buildings in which the enemy can hide, make one’s way through a sniper-infested burning town, endure untold other obstacles, and hope to arrive before soldiers rush into the teeth of certain death.

Mendes’ direction is flawless, Lee Smith’s editing is nothing short of brilliant, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography a dazzling array of contrasts between human-made ugliness, natural beauty, darkness, shadowy light, and the utter mundanity of death. Novelist Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried, “It can be argued … that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty…. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope….” If that line baffles, watch the journey through the burning carnage of the northern French village of Écoust-Saint-Mein and you will understand. I also cannot imagine a more perfect ending for the film than the feather with which Mendes knocks us senseless.

Chapman and MacKay are not household names, but Mendes choose them wisely. In keeping with contrasting imagery, he plays the baby-faced Chapman off against the blank-faced MacKay to convey wordlessly themes of innocence and hopefulness versus wrung-out jadedness and amoral resignation. (I would not care to be in a poker match with MacKay!) By avoiding cinematic idols, we see the character within the character rather than fixating on celebrities in uniform. It is all the more effective in reminding us that the tools of war are usually ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. When World War One ended, much of the Western world wrestled with cynicism. What, it was asked, was the point of all the bloodshed and destruction? An old Edwin Starr song answered the question of “War, what is it good for?” Response: “Absolutely nothing.”

Oscar got it wrong once again. I’m sure that Mendes and his crew can take solace in having won most of the other big awards–from American Film Institute honors, critics and producers awards, and the Golden Globes. We the viewers ought to ask hard questions about why the “war to end all wars” was but a prelude to a sanguinary future.

Rob Weir

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