1917 is a movie that brings World War I to life, a story told in the trenches and meant to be sobering. Early scenes in the film are looking down into the trenches. The humble title sets the tone for a narrative that focuses the viewer on a specific time, place, and protagonist. This is a journey that one soldier must take in order to save a battalion of 1,600 men. The battalion is being ordered to stand down in order to avoid an enemy trap and two soldiers have been tasked as couriers to send that message.
Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) never expected such a dangerous, and pivotal, assignment but there he is, paired with another soldier (Dean-Charles Chapman) who he doesn’t really care for. But any callow sentiment is quickly wiped away once the race is on. As the two move above ground, they can’t help but remain low, crouching toward their goal. It’s not long before Schofield loses his teammate and the focus tightens upon the determination of one man.
Designed to play out in the form of a single, extended, endlessly mobile shot, 1917 is visually stunning, bringing The Great War into brilliant 21st century relevance. No, we are not at all that different from our early 20th century ancestors, even with our technological superiority and cultural awakening. Bravery is the overriding theme. Schofield is the unlikely hero who is but a little cog in a system. It has been foisted upon him to do the right thing and that will only happen if he follows his conscience and precisely follows orders. Now, the camera moves closer on Schofield and his silhouette often holds together the composition of scenes.
Director Sam Mendes pays tribute to his grandfather’s exploits in this epic film. Both Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns were guided by family war stories. The narrative is, by all measures, epic in the extreme. Influenced by the lore found in some of the best in cinema, literature, and even video games, this is a movie packed to the gills with intensity, a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows. Sandwiched between two heart-wrenching scenes of mortal combat, there’s even a quiet moment when Schofield stumbles upon a mother and child quietly surviving in the shadows. This tender scene inspires Schofield to sing a few lines from Edward Lear: “On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day, In a Sieve they went to sea!” Not long after that, Schofield himself is fighting the mighty life-threatening river currents. No doubt, this is a movie that can get caught up in its own grandiloquence. And yet, through it all, Schofield remains the stalwart understated hero and preserves for this epic film the irresistible charm of a fable. For all its grandeur, 1917 manages to retain a great sense of humility. Among its many influences is the classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, a story that is decidedly humble. Within this big epic film resides a modest human heart.