There’s a reason that for Sam Mendes, landing the slot as director of this movie about a single mission during the First World War is his most heartfelt project. “1917” is based on an actual episode in northern France taken from an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes. Mendes is following up his direction of such films as “Spectre,” based on a mission executed by James Bond, and “Skyfall,” based on a threat to Britain’s MI6 that Bond must destroy. If “1917” were a James Bond vehicle, the title character would likely be called upon by his country’s military to prevent the British army from falling prey to an ambush that would have resulted in a massacre: the deaths of the entire unit of 1600 men. This war movie will doubtless remind cinemaphiles of Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli,” in which Australian troops were massacred in Turkey by following terrible orders.
The mission here to which two lower officers Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned to a perilous mission to go through German-hold territory in France and warn a division under Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch in his smallest role) to stand down from a plan to attack Germans when the enemy are allegedly on the run. The truth is that the Germans encouraged the attack given the ambush that they had in store. At the same time Schofield makes a promise to Blake, his partner in the mission, to find Blake’s brother in case Blake were to die during the run, a theme that will remind you of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” an attempt to find Ryan and send him home since his brothers had all been killed in the Second World War.
What proceeds largely as a two-hander, Schofield and Blake, becomes a one-man project as Schofield must survive a booby-trapped shack abandoned by the Germans, in which a rat crosses a trip wire that the retreating foe had left to blow up trespassers. Schofield falls into ditches, he dodges bullets with only a grenade, his primitive single shot rifle, and assorted packs on his back. He must deal with a German pilot whose plane had been downed just a few steps from where he is standing, and fight to the death, hand to hand, with a German soldier that had remained back from the front. You may wonder how the Germans (luckily) are such bad shots that they are unable to get Schofield in their metaphoric cross-hairs.
When Schofield does ultimately make contact with the division, he receives retorts from a Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) and Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbath). They refuse to accept the plea to abandon the wave, so sure are they that they could knock out an entire German division.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman perform their roles with aplomb, running, jumping, shooting, seeming to do their own stunts. In a period in which the #Me-Too movement is ascendant, only one woman, a French lass with a baby who have survived the massacre of her village by Germans.
Thomas Newman’s music on the soundtrack does much to pump up the thrills while Roger Deakins, behind the camera, films the horrors of war fought in mud and raging waters. The production design team under Dennis Gassner does indeed transport us to the year 1917, to a war that historians are still trying to discover which country was the guiltiest party. In fact, since the victors write the histories, many believe that the harsh treatment of the defeated Germans under the Versailles Treaty was the principal factor leading to the rise of the Nazi party and the next world war.
110 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dean-Charles Chapman, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Colin Firth
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 11/23/19
Opens: December 25, 2019
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+