1917 (2019), the new World War I drama by director Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is at times cinematic and suspenseful, and at others brutal and shocking, but strangely it’s rarely moving.
In short, it’s not going to do for World War I trench warfare what SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) did for the World War II D-Day invasion at Normandy.
1917 wastes no time getting started. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) learn that they’ve been selected for a very dangerous mission. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that the battalion of soldiers on their way to engage the Germans are about to enter a trap. With phone lines cut, they have no way of warning them, so Blake and Schofield have been charged with racing across the front lines into no man’s land to cross into enemy territory in order to give the troops orders to stop their advance, since they mistakenly believe the Germans are on the run.
Blake has been chosen because he’s an expert with maps and will be able to navigate through the tricky enemy territory. And only two men are being sent to avoid detection. To make matters more complicated, Blake’s older brother is in the battalion that’s about to fall into the trap.
The movie then follows Blake and Schofield on their nearly impossible task of making their way through the trenches to warn their fellow soldiers in time.
Director Mendes filmed 1917 to appear as if it was filmed in one long shot, and for a while, especially early on, it heightens the effect of the movie. Honestly, later in the movie, I simply didn’t notice as much.
Like Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK (2016) at times there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there’s mostly running and trudging through mud, and what little dialogue there is doesn’t always resonate.
The cinematography is impressive, and there are certainly some major cinematic moments, especially approaching the film’s climax. There are also some shocking scenes, although nothing as brutal as what was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
The best part of 1917 is the way it depicts trench warfare. You can almost smell the mud and the decomposing bodies. Mud is everywhere, as are corpses. One scene involves some particularly nasty looking bloated bodies floating in a river. It really captures the sense of how draining and how worn down the soldiers were from the unending horrors of it all.
The screenplay by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is decent enough, although the writing is nowhere near as sharp as the cinematography. The dialogue just isn’t all that moving, nor are the characters. In fact, I didn’t really feel an emotional connection to the proceedings until the final reel.
Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are very good in the lead roles. They have to be. They’re in most of the movie. Everyone else is secondary. And heavy hitters like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong appear in nothing more than cameos.
While I definitely enjoyed 1917, it didn’t wow me completely. Visually, it’s striking, as the images throughout the film are potent and sometimes haunting. But the dialogue and the characters weren’t quite up to snuff.
1917 is an above average World War I drama. It gives you a thorough understanding and appreciation for what trench warfare was like.
It also has some things to say for present day audiences. In today’s world, where we seem to be at war nonstop, its message of soldiers wondering what they’re fighting for, and wishing just to get back home, says something of the importance of war as a last resort, as opposed to war as the first choice of world leaders.