Mendes' Great War long shot pays off
Film of the Week: 1917 (15A, 119mins) *****
We tend to have a very fixed idea about what the Great War was like: young men huddled in trenches enduring mud, filth, cold, rats and foot rot, while they waited for the dreaded captain's whistle that would send them over the top into a hail of bombs and bullets.
This vision has been conjured often in sombre war films but, over time, has ossified into cliché. Sam Mendes' 1917 lifts the conflict out of this aesthetic straight-jacket and brings it vividly and terrifyingly to life.
At its heart are Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), English soldiers who can't be more than 24 or 25, but have been hardened by long months of action in northern France. They're stationed along the Hindenburg Line and Schofield is looking forward to a trip home when they're summoned by their commanding officer, General Erinmore (Colin Firth).
The Germans have pulled back from their advance positions, leading some optimists to suppose a retreat is underway and prompting the hot-headed commander of the nearby Devonshire Regiment 2nd Battalion to order a mass attack. But it's a trap: the Germans have only feigned a pull-back and intend to surround and massacre the 1,600-strong advancing British force.
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Its leaders cannot be contacted by conventional means, so Blake and Schofield will have to sneak through hostile enemy territory to avert pointless slaughter. The men's mission is given extra urgency by the fact that Blake's brother is among their number, but he and Schofield will quickly realise that the odds are stacked heavily against them.
Many of the enemy trenches they tiptoe through have been booby-trapped, and as they near the Hindenburg Line, the prospect of direct encounters with the enemy becomes inevitable.
Mendes has toyed for years with the idea of making a First World War drama inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who volunteered at the age of 17 and told grim stories of his time carrying messages across no man's land.
He finally found the time to make it while recovering from the exhausting task of directing two Bond films (Skyfall, Spectre) in a row. And after the frenzied sprawl of those productions, making 1917 must have seemed splendidly focussed and direct.
Its production is a masterpiece of movie-making, and while certain sly cuts were necessary, the whole film is shot to seem like one continuous take. Once Blake and Schofield begin their mission, we and cinematographer Roger Deakins' cameras follow them minutely to the end. Along the way, Blake and Schofield meet bombs, bullets, crashing planes, meddlesome rats and the bloated corpses of friend and foe, their rotting uniforms now indistinguishable.
They also encounter comrades in various states of disillusionment. Mark Strong is Captain Smith, a man with eyes so sad they seem to stare right through you, who offers Schofield a lift. Richard Madden is Blake's equally battle-scarred brother, and Benedict Cumberbatch is Colonel Mackenzie, the arrogant upper class Devonshire Regiment commander who will not react reasonably to this threat to his battle plans.
Best of all is a delightfully bitter cameo from Andrew Scott as Leslie, a front-line lieutenant who seems to have lost all hope, and laughs in Blake and Schofield's faces when they explain their mission. War has shattered his illusions, but not his pity, and as the two young men wander off towards possible death, Leslie looks heartbroken.
It's a moment of wonderful stillness in a film that barrels forwards with compelling momentum, hurling its unfortunate protagonists from one nightmarish scenario to another. Chapman is very good as Blake and George MacKay is superb as Schofield, the tight-lipped protagonist who will not be diverted from his goal.
The scale and ambition of this film are overwhelming: Mendes' long, continuous takes and Deakins' soaring camerawork combine to drag you through the trenches and sink you into the ugly chaos of war. It's an extraordinary achievement. There've been one or two truly great anti-war films over the years, and this is right up there with them. In fact, it's an instant classic.
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