After watching “1917,” a war film co-written and directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and two James Bond pictures), I stepped outside the theater and took a moment to appreciate the relative safety of my surroundings.
No enemy of war was gunning for me from across the parking lot, and there were no hidden dangers lurking in crumbled buildings. For the first time in a couple of hours, I was enjoying a view of the world that did not make me feel the hot breath of my mortality on the back of my neck.
The two young soldiers audiences meet at the beginning of Mendes’ harrowing epic are afforded no such view. Wakened from a nap somewhere on the Western Front, they are sent across a battle-torn landscape to deliver an urgent message to another battalion, which is about to step unwittingly into a German trap.
The general who sends the boys on the mission chose his messengers well, as one has a brother fighting with the doomed brigade.
Since time is short, Mendes uses every tool at his disposal to tell the story, beginning with the casting of his leads. Both soldiers look too young, not just for the task at hand but for being placed on a battlefield to deliver justice to an evil enemy. But as they make their way across the gruesome carcass of a demolished countryside, their words and actions show us who they are.
One of the young men is resourceful but also a little reckless. Disturbed by the death that surrounds him, he tells a funny story. His fellow soldier doesn’t want to hear it and, for that matter, seems to be a reluctant participant not just in the mission but the war.
I was thankful for the lack of campfire storytelling and other cheap devices filmmakers sometimes use to develop character and tell a story. Mendes tells us who these two men are through their responses to the dangers that surround them and the things that happen to them.
The director also uses their surroundings to fill in the gaps in the narrative. Although the dialogue gives audiences a sense of where they are and what is taking place, the backdrop tells more of the story.
Corpses half-submerged in miles of muck paint a horrid picture of the skirmishes that took place there, while the wrecked tanks and cannons anchor the viewer in a time different from those covered by most other war movies.
The imagery in “1917” is both appealing to the eye and hard to view. While the film is not as aggressively gory as “Saving Private Ryan,” a shot of dead cattle stayed with me because of what it says about what humans are willing to do to each another and their planet to win a fight. “1917” tells a simple story, but like a good book, there’s much to read between the lines.
Likewise, Mendes’ direction is subtle. Although “1917” was filmed in a series of long takes designed to make it appear as though the movie is one continuous shot, his direction isn’t flashy in the way a Michael “Pearl Harbor” Bay war movie is. Rather, he concentrates on small details, including never fully showing a German soldier’s face and lingering on a photo of a woman taped to a bedpost in an abandoned barracks.
Despite the refinement of Mendes’ direction, the setting still provided cinematographer Roger Deakins with the opportunity to capture several jaw-dropping shots, with the camera winding through crowded trenches or rising over an obstruction to reveal an area that’s littered with brass artillery shells.
I believe Deakins secured an Oscar with his beautiful but haunting shot of shadows cast by a flare crawling across the shattered facades of a devastated French village at night. (Deakins has a filmography that includes more great films and collaborations with noteworthy directors than I can list here.)
Credit must also be given to George MacKay and Chris Walley, the talented actors who played the two soldiers. I cannot imagine the difficulties of occupying nearly every moment of screen time and flawlessly executing long, complex takes, but “1917” is a true showcase of their skills for these reasons and more.
Also interesting is how Mendes cast the big names and recognizable faces in bit parts. Could he be saying something about the great political powers that send the nameless and faceless to fight their battles? Again, there’s a lot between the lines in “1917.”
Even so, the film also serves as a suspenseful and riveting action picture. There are moments in the film that are far more gripping and tense and better choregraphed than anything the computer-generated Marvel epics have thrown at the screen.
Mendes based “1917” in part on stories told by his paternal grandfather. There’s been much criticism lately of how films based on real events often skirt the truth for narrative convenience. But I remember how a Korean War veteran I knew didn’t like to talk about his experiences in the conflict. When he did, he chose his words carefully and spoke as though he were passing on the carefully guarded essence of history.
I therefore think it’s safe to say “1917” is the visual fulfillment of an oral tradition in Mendes’ family. It’s also a fresh and brilliantly executed vision of the inhumanity of war and the triumph of the common man.
If you see it, I believe you’ll look at the world a little differently when you step out of the theater.