CHRIS MILLER FILM REVIEW: ‘1917’ is a technical masterpiece about a brutal war

There are thousands of World War II movies out there, including many truly great ones. “Casablanca,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Schindler’s List” easily come to mind.

It’s much harder to think about classic World War I movies, though Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary film, “They Shall Not Grow Old” — created using original footage from the war — is absolutely magnificent. So, too, is Sam Mendes’ hauntingly brilliant and realistic “1917,” which hit theaters Friday.

The film, set in Northern France, follows two young British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who are given a mission to hand-deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment several miles away, calling off their planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have feigned retreat and are planning to ambush the battalion of 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother. 

The treacherous journey takes Blake and Schofield through numerous obstacles including no man’s land (the area between enemy trenches), a bombed-out village teeming with German soldiers and booby-trapped enemy trenches.

Along their journey, they pass decaying bodies along with flies, crows and rats attracted to the flesh. War is hell and the soldiers are disposable — one dies and another will be around to take his place. Mendes’ film, with its many shrill explosions and intimate firefights, is teeming with a sense of real life unseen in many war films. 

The film reminds us what a brutal mess World War I was. Soldiers often stayed fortified in their respective trenches because to venture out into no land’s land meant inevitable death.

The war seems so real because the audience is literally following the men every step of the way, starting with an extended scene where the camera follows the men along a series of byzantine walkways in the trenches.  Thanks to the camerawork of the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film looks like it was made with a single continuous shot. At times, it shows you what Blake and Schofield see, though the camera sometimes moves like another person — weaving ahead or behind or above the main characters as they frantically rush to deliver the message that could alter the outcome of the war. 

In several instances, the camera simply pans high above the men as they are walking around a muddy pond replete with floating bodies or trying to survive the tumult of a raging river — as if the eyes of God are looking down upon them, wondering what will happen next. 

The film’s pace — which is pretty relentless at times — relaxes in certain moments to allow the soldiers time for temporary quiet and peace. One such scene involves soldiers sitting in the woods silenting listening as one of their compatriots sings a gospel song as they prepare for battle. Even in the midst of war, beauty and stillness can still shine through. 

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film involves Schofield running through a maze of dilapidated, dusty buildings in the nighttime dodging gunfire, the rubble lit only by blinding white flares. 

Though the film is a technical masterpiece, there is minimal character development and little dialogue. But that’s okay. The movie focuses on the epicness of the journey these soldiers have been tasked with completing and that’s more than enough to make for one truly magnificent, and immersive, film.