By John H. Foote
Academy Award winner Sam Mendes returns to greatness with his stunning World War One epic, 1917, a breathtaking work that ironically comes to us the same year as the superb Peter Jackson documentary They Shall Never Grow Old. More on that later.
Mendes film, deceptively simplistic, yet undeniably compelling, is quite frankly the finest film to explore that horrible First World War, fought in the mud and blood of Europe, where industrial advances in weaponry tore bodies and shredded the minds of the brave young men fighting this conflict. It remains very surprising to me that so few films have explored the First World War. Chaplin did it first, boldly making a comedy entitled Shoulder Arms (1917) in the silent era long before anyone had ever thought of war as funny. At the cusp of the move to Sound films, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) became the most famous, and best, to explore that war, along with Howard Hughes dazzling Hell’s Angels (1931). Through the years Paths of Glory (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s often underrated film took an unflinching glimpse into WWI, followed by Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a TV remake of All Quiet on the Western Front (1977), the Canadian film Paschandaele (2009), and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011). For whatever reason, the Second World War has been explored on film far more than the First.
Earlier this year Oscar winner Peter Jackson, far from Middle Earth gave us the astounding documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2019) Which digitized arrived footage of the first world war, hired forensic lip-readers to decipher what the men were saying and like this new film plunged his audience headlong into that dirty, ugly conflict. Tolkien based his The Lord of The Rings trilogy on his experiences in that war, and readings of others’ experiences, so perhaps Jackson was not so far from Middle Earth. They Shall Not Grow Old remains among the very best films I have seen this year.
The First World War was really the first time the military-industrial complex had a profound impact on the fighting. While horses were still used, new dangerous killing machines and weaponry brought horrific means of death to the men, while German scientists work on deadly gasses to kill silently, more economically effective and mercilessly, sending a clear message to their enemies, the Allies and us.
Planes, machine guns, early tanks, and jeeps made their appearance on the battlefields. It was a dirty war fought in mud and filth, in trenches littered with decaying and maggot-infested bodies, with rats that feasted on the dead, and disease running rampant, infecting the men trying to fight. Horses lay in the fields shot full of holes, more recent horse deaths often provided meat for the men fighting, though sometimes the meat went rancid in the sun, stories state it was consumed nonetheless. With no water close by, the men drank their own urine in the filthy, appalling conditions worse than squalor.
And still, they fought, and advanced and eventually won the war. Yet the cost was horrific, men came home maimed, body parts ripped off, faces intensely scarred for the rest of time, but nothing compared to the scars cut into the soul.
1917 tells a deceptively simplistic story, yet in its narrative guides the audience through the horrors of that First World War. Two young soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) are tasked with moving through the shattered terrain, no man’s land, ordered to take a message to the advancing British troops that they are marching into a well-planned ambush. The Germans have indeed moved back, but only to draw the unsuspecting Brits right to them. The gruff General (Colin Firth) who assigns the young men to this directive makes clear they must deliver this message otherwise a slaughter will occur.
In a miraculous single shot, or what appears to be, the young men walk into apocalyptic no man’s land, barren of life, huge muddy lakes dot the landscape, created by rain falling into the massive craters caused by shelling, the terrain is bleak, muddy, with bodies littering the fields, both human and horse. The horrific results of machinery used to fight are evident in the destruction of the dead bodies, often torn to pieces. In the trenches of the British, it is as if hell exploded from the bowels of the earth, bodies are everywhere, blood mingles with the mud; decay, filth, a terrible stench of death and rotting flesh, and rats, literally thousands of rats feasting on the dead. We simply cannot imagine, cannot even begin to comprehend.
Imagine their absolute shock when they come to the German trenches, superior in building, much cleaner and not littered with rot. They must realize how better equipped and trained the powerful German army truly is at that moment.
Yet they continue, their courage no doubt fuelled by fear and patriotism. Among the soldiers possibly marching into doom is the brother of one of the two.
The best scene in a film filled with great moments occurs when a German bi-plane crashes to earth, nearly on top of the two soldiers. The German pilot leaps out of the flaming plane, himself ablaze and shattered of body, begging for water. One of the young men rushes to help, a startling scene of breathtaking humanity and shattering tragedy.
The performances of McKay and Chapman are simply superb, most of it conveyed in the eyes, haunted, aged, forever ancient. They are constantly in motion, not only their bodies but their minds, each actor gives an intimate, physical performance which captures the raw, visceral terror they feel, and that punishing will to stay alive.
Very much the mastery of director Sam Mendes and the genius of cinematographer Academy Award-winning Roger Deakins, the film is a technical marvel. That said, it is such very different than Dunkirk (2017), a fine film from director Christopher Nolan, but a chilly, remote work that never allows us to become attached or close to the actors. 1917 is not such a film, as Deakins brings the camera in close, ultimately capturing the anguish and fear of the two soldiers, but also is wise enough to give the film an epic quality. The shots from God’s point of view give the audience a view of the desolate destruction the men were running through, like hell on earth.
Expect many Oscar nominations for the film and exactly twenty years after winning his first Academy Award for Best Director for his scalding black comedy American Beauty (1999), Mendes will be back in the Oscar race. The film should easily win for Cinematography and sound, and however, it plays out 1917 will be a major player come Oscar time.
A dark, troubling work of art, one of the greatest war films ever made and the definitive film about the First World War.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”