“Get to Colonel McKenzie. Sixteen hundred men must be warned that they’re walking into a trap. Deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning’s attack,” says gruff British General Erinmore (Colin Firth). “If you fail, it will be a massacre.” “Is it just the two of us?” ask lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). “Yes. Who travels lightest, travels fastest,” the general says, quoting Francis Bacon. That’s the set up for “1917,” an extraordinary World War I drama, closely following two young British soldiers who cross the Western Front on a dangerous, time-is-the-enemy, life-saving mission. One of the lives to be saved is Blake’s older brother.
Can Schofield and Blake survive their nine-mile, eight-hour trek through northern France to Croisilles Wood? Do they arrive in time to save the two British battalions? Will you be caught up in their compelling story? I was.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are excellent as the film’s central characters, lance corporals Schofield and Blake. Unlike typical Hollywood war heroes, they look like “Everyman.” MacKay’s restrained Schofield is tall, thin and angular; Chapman’s fearful Blake – short, boyish and loud. We are with them in the post-apocalyptic World War I landscape, as the film’s expert camera work shows us the bleak landscapes, corpses, rats and bombed-out horrors they see and, in close-ups, their reactions – often courage, but sometimes, terror and heartbreaking tears.
Others in the cast include Colin Firth as General Erinmore, Mark Strong as captain of a group of soldiers moving to the bombed village of Ecoust and Andrew Scott as Lieutenant Leslie, who performs a blessing – or extreme unction – with his hip flask as Blake and Schofield depart. Another officer, played by Richard Madden, offers a cynical comment: “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow.” Benedict Cumberbatch is Colonel McKenzie.
Sam Mendes directed and co-wrote (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) “1917.” Its audacious cinematography, by master craftsman Roger Deakins, has the look of a single, continuous travelling shot, interrupted only by an unconscious blackout or an explosion. As critic Peter Bradshaw says, “[It] creates a kind of theatrical effect: the spectacle of two people moving through an unbroken space.” Lee Smith did the smart editing. Other filmmakers have sought the same one-long-take effect: Hitchcock, famously, in “Rope” (1948) and Aleksandr Sokurov, in “Russian Ark” (2002).
Rated R for violence, disturbing images and language, “1917” runs 119 minutes. Great moviemaking.
An Oscar winner? It could be.
“1917” – you should see;
The Western Front – WW1.
With one long take, movie’s done.