Odd, perhaps, to start a review about a film by talking about another film, but do you remember Peter Weir’s Gallipoli? I saw it with my dear old university friend Jeff, now sadly no longer with us; with nothing to do on a Friday night, we’d been out for a few pints then, charged with bonhomie, decided to catch a movie – and we settled on Gallipoli. As the ghastly inevitability of the carnage of war grew stronger and stronger through the film, by the end we were stunned into a sad silence. Walking back to our student digs, all Jeff could say was “well that’s one way to ruin an evening.”
-Big Spoiler Alert –
1917 reminded me of Gallipoli because both films examined a strong bond between two soldiers, and, when one of them dies, you get a big wallop of teardrop in your eyes and wonder how mankind can do this to each other. Answer: if we’re still doing it today after millennia of war, why would we ever stop? The two films also share similar climaxes – Will Mel Gibson’s Frank Dunne get his message to the frontline in time to stop the final wave of troops going over the top (and thus save the life of his friend)? And will George Mackay’s Lance Corporal Schofield get his message to Colonel Mackenzie in time to prevent the 2nd Devons being wiped out in an equally pointless charge? You probably already know the outcome.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is, on the face of it, a magnificently impressive film. Giving the appearance of being filmed in one shot – although, for practical purposes, you can actually see the joins, and it was probably done in four or five – its exciting, pacey sweep follows Schofield and his pal Blake as they risk everything in pursuit of getting a message from General Erinmore to Colonel Mackenzie on the other side of No Man’s Land. Technically, one can only marvel at the detailed rehearsal and choreography that must have preceded those long shots, the faultless delivery of every line by a large cast, the planned positioning of the camera equipment in amongst the men in the trenches, and even the expectation that a well-placed rat will do the right thing. The “one shot” look adds enormous suspense, urgency and a real sense on the part of the audience of actually being there. Truly an extraordinary achievement.
The story itself – apparently inspired by a tale that Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him – takes a back seat in comparison with the style and the realism. Two men are on a mission to deliver a message – will they make it? Apart from tidying up some loose ends with the brother of one of the men, that’s about it, although it does also makes some very clear points about the hierarchy of life in the trenches and how the class system dictated what kind of position you held in the army. However, the excitement and the suspense of the action mean you forgive any holes in the storyline.
You do have to suspend some disbelief from time to time; there’s a scene where Schofield is running around some ruins, being shot at by Germany’s least efficient sniper; he really ought to have got him with at least one of those bullets. That scene also takes on an air of games console – for a few minutes war has become a game rather than a horror. Look at this still, for example – it’s pure X-Box. The occasional use of powerfully surging music, that swells up to fill the cinema with heroic passion, means that at times you feel the film is glorifying war. Maybe that’s inevitable – it’s been years since I’ve seen a war film, so I’ve not much with which to compare it. For my own part, I much preferred the scenes inside the trenches, where you saw the everyday tedium of war mixed with fear and disgust. That’s where the film totally succeeds, in my opinion.
I’m not sure there’s meant to be any element of fun in this film for the audience, but I have to admit I enjoyed the star-spotting moments; a wealth of famous, top quality actors who were hired to deliver one line, or share the screen for about ten seconds. Starting with Colin Firth’s bluff Erinmore and ending with Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant Mackenzie, blink in the trenches and you’ll miss Jamie Parker, and Adrian Scarborough briefly lending Schofield a scrap of comfort. Richard McCabe never gets out of his jeep or even faces the camera as the grumpy Colonel Collins, Nabhaan Rizwan has two tiny scenes as a comradely Sepoy, and Bodyguard’s Richard Madden has almost five minutes at the end as Blake’s brother in a very smartly performed, emotional-though-stiff-upper-lip performance.
But the film completely revolves around the two central performances of Dean-Charles Chapman as the brave and ultra-keen Blake, and George Mackay as the more cynical but ultimately heroic Schofield. The two never put a foot wrong with two technically perfect performances that may well stay with you long past the final reel. It’s not a perfect film but I’d be very hard hearted not to give it anything other than five Sparkles.