" It’s a euphonium "
— Jim Carter(?), Brassed Off

MRQE Top Critic

Flawless

There are better heist films, but none of them are showing at your local movie theater this month —Marty Mapes (review...)

Caine is Flawlessly cast as a diamond thief

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With 1917, Sam Mendes has crafted a monumental war movie that’s a salute to resolve and resilience in the face of unspeakable horrors.

Cinema Interruptus

Schofield (George MacKay) on the run
Schofield (George MacKay) on the run

In short, 1917 sits comfortably alongside Dunkirk, Lawrence of Arabia and Saving Private Ryan in the pantheon of great war movies.

This is the kind of movie that flourishes on both primary levels of the moviegoing experience: the technical execution of the filmmaking and the personal, emotional resonance of the storytelling. It’s such a success, it’s almost a requirement to see it twice. Once simply to take in the precision of the superior filmmaking. A second time to focus on the human component of the madness that unfolds.

The details of the execution are astounding. Essentially, this is a one-take movie. Not just one extended take of a single, impressive action sequence, as seen recently in efforts like the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde and the opening sequence in Mendes’ Spectre. The end effect in 1917 is one (seemingly) seamless take across nearly two hours, essentially a real-time telling of the entire story.

Granted, there are — merely by the limits of technology — a few stitches here and there, but they’re accomplished in a fashion similar to what Alfred Hitchcock did over the course of 80 minutes in Rope way back in 1948. A dimly lit scene or dark foreground allows for covering cuts and providing for the visual illusion of the seamless experience.

Most impressive, though, Rope was set in a single room; 1917 moves across a much more complicated terrain with far more complicated human interactions.

For decades, Roger Ebert would hold a “Cinema Interruptus” event during the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs. He’d analyze movies ranging from stone cold classics like Citizen Kane to modern fare like Fight Club; 1917 is the kind of movie that warrants a close study along those lines, a complete frame-by-frame deconstruction.

No Man’s Land

As for the story, the premise itself is elegantly simple. A pair of British soldiers are given a critical mission in the heat of World War I. A troop of 1,600 soldiers is about to charge the German forces, but it’s a trap. They’re being steered into the false confidence they have the upper hand. The mission, then, is to cross through the heinous terrain of No Man’s Land and beyond, traversing barren landscapes and devastated cityscapes to deliver one crucial message: stand down.

It’s a strictly human endeavor. Email, text messages, smartphones — they’re all decades away from existence. In this world, self-reliance and perseverance (virtues sadly overlooked in modern society) return to their rightful place in the foreground.

As it happens, one of the men selected is Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light). His brother is among those in danger of entering the trap. Blake is accompanied by Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, Ophelia).

Together, Blake and Schofield endure the elements of war. The story unfolds through a series of vignettes — encounters with enemies, allies and civilians all help illuminate the gravity of life during the Great War. A 9-year nightmare, at one point it’s commented the only end to the war will go to the last man standing. In such an age of darkness, it’s said, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

April 6, 1917

An undertaking of this magnitude has to be driven by a singular vision and a level of choreography that towers above anything ever staged by Fosse or Astaire or Robbins. That vision comes from Mendes and it’s guided by a surprising personal connection: the movie is dedicated to Alfred Mendes, “who told us the stories.” Alfred, a novelist and World War I veteran, was Sam’s grandfather. Granted, the movie is a work of fiction and those stories merely served as a starting point, but even the way the dedication is worded sends the chill of reality behind the fiction coursing through the spine.

It’s a suitably simple start as the camera moves across a field — backward — to reveal Blake and then Schofield. It’s a calm setting. But the continuous movement slowly edges into the buzz of the trenches and then forward into the war zone.

Rats, corpses, skulls, open guts, blood, mud, barbed wire. The terrain becomes more treacherous for the two soldiers with nothing but their own two feet for transport. Dangerous obstacles, the dark of night, the light of fire, dim interiors. Haunted exteriors.

The complexity of the production and its exquisite execution — illuminated by Roger Deakins’ marvelous cinematography — is summed up in a scene of hand-to-hand combat. Blake is stabbed during an encounter with a German pilot; as Schofield comes to his aid, Blake returns to the screen clearly stark white in shock.

The devil is in the details and in 1917 Mendes wrangles a whole host of devils.