Among fans of the subgenre of literature known as high fantasy, there’s a long-running schism between readers who skip over the detailed travelogue descriptions beloved by such authors of 1,000-plus-page novels as Tolkien and Martin and those who think that getting there is half the fun. The handy code for this florid writing style is “worldbuilding.” Tastes in this matter tend to transfer over to other literary genres, as well as to onscreen translations of beloved works. You probably don’t want to know how much irascible fansite verbiage was devoted to arguments about the narrative “jetpacks” that got characters from one distant place to another by the next HBO episode of Game of Thrones, for example.
Where you tend to fall on either side of the worldbuilding divide may determine whether or not you agree with this reviewer that 1917 is the best war movie of the 21st century so far. My impatient Millennial moviegoing companion was less impressed, wanting the story to “cut to the chase” more quickly. But, I stubbornly argue, the long, grueling journey here is the chase. It’s the terrible stage on which the two main characters develop, and the unspeakable, epic-scale horror and stupidity of World War I is this film’s core theme. The human capacity for endurance and commitment is up there for our inspection, too; but mostly 1917 is the film that the centennial of the Great War deserved, arriving a couple of years late but still welcome.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the bravura technical approach that director Sam Mendes brought to this project: filming the entire narrative as if it were one continuous shot. Remember the praise showered on that apparently uninterrupted five-minute backstage tracking sequence in Birdman in 2016? 1917 keeps it up for a minute short of two hours. The few actual edits are disguised with explosions, a cloud of dust, a plunge into water, cutaways to empty sky and a single blackout. Most of this movie was literally made by a single camera following behind two guys tramping through mazes of foxholes and across a corpse-strewn No Man’s Land.
One might conclude from this buildup that 1917 is merely gimmicky, a soulless exercise in the technical capabilities of contemporary cinematography. Nothing could be further from the truth, says the pro-worldbuilding critic. The relentlessness of what we see onscreen is essential to our full understanding of the magnitude of the nightmare of war in general and this idiotic, morally indefensible war in particular. I’m hardly the first reviewer to seize on the word “immersive” to encapsulate 1917, but there’s no better single descriptor. Following the release in 2018 of They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s extraordinary reconstruction of archival footage from the Great War, it was high time for a worthy you-are-there approach to that terrible human calamity.
The protagonists of 1917 are two lance corporals, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), who are summoned during a springtime lull in the fighting along the Western Front in northern France to carry out what seems like a suicide mission. Their commanding officer, General Erinmore (Colin Firth), explains that aerial reconnaissance has revealed that an apparent pullback from the frontlines by the Germans is in fact a trap. The 1,600-man unit in which Blake’s elder brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is a lieutenant, the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, is about to pursue the “retreating” enemy and plunge into that trap. Blake and Schofield are handed new orders to stand down, which they must carry to the Devonshires’ commander, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), by the next morning, or the entire battalion is doomed.
At first, Schofield, the more battle-seasoned of the pair, seems the more cowardly, throwing up objection after objection to Blake’s determination to set out in broad daylight. But they bond quickly on their ever-more-perilous quest across a ravaged landscape, each required to save the other’s life on more than one occasion, and Schofield’s greater experience proves invaluable. The abandoned German trenches conceal booby traps; a plane shot down in a dogfight crashes in flames into a farmstead they’re inspecting; hidden snipers guard a collapsed bridge they must cross. Brief human encounters with French civilians, German fighters and a British convoy occur along the way, and natural beauty occasionally peeps through the devastation, as when the travelers find a cherry orchard lately cut down but still in full bloom.
Known in the UK as the longest-serving performer in the title role of Billy Elliot the Musical and to American audiences primarily as the naïve boy king Tommen in Game of Thrones, Chapman as Blake evokes the faithful servant Samwise as played by Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings movies. Mackay made a powerful impression as Bo, the teenage son of the Viggo Mortensen character in 2016’s Captain Fantastic, and he truly comes into his own as an actor here, as the initially reluctant Schofield staggers on through a numbing barrage of wartime terrors. The swiftly developing rapport between the two leads is something to behold, and will surely resonate with viewers who have personally experienced the enforced fraternity of the battlefield.
A few quibbles: There’s one gaping plot hole, a scene where you’ll wonder why the convoy so recently left behind and still physically so close by doesn’t intervene in a helpful manner during a sudden attack. And if you’re aware that “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is an Appalachian gospel tune, you’ll be puzzled when a Devonshire lad is encountered singing it to his fellow soldiers. It’s an affecting scene, but…why not use an equally plaintive traditional British song? Mendes and his screenwriting partner Krysty Wilson-Cairns even added the oft-overlooked detail of including a sepoy – one of more than 600,000 Indian soldiers who fought for the English side during the Great War – among the motley group riding the convoy. So why break the spell of historical authenticity sustained up until that point?
When it comes to downsides, that’s all I’ve got. The acting, the art direction, the sheer cinematic sweep of 1917 are stunning and supremely award-worthy. While the Golden Globes are (not wrongly) regarded as indices more of fan popularity than of respect from industry peers, in this case I think their Best Picture choice may prove predictive of a repeat at the Oscars. 1917 is a genuine epic film – cutting-edge in its cinematographic technique, but old-school in its emotional wallop.