How do you define heroism? For more than a century, movies have shaped our collective idea of the individuals and actions that qualify, often making the word appear out of reach to ordinary mortals. Now, along comes Sam Mendes’ “1917” to smash those assumptions, revisiting a day in World War I when two ordinary British soldiers — Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay) — distinguished themselves by undertaking a mission for which neither was the slightest bit prepared.
Heroism reflects courage, of course. But that’s not the same as an absence of fear. There are scenes in “1917” when audiences will see Blake and Schofield panic-stricken, terrified and even in tears. Their errand calls for bravery, and yet, at times the pair can’t help second-guessing their decision to deliver a message that could save the lives of 1,600 fellow British soldiers. To do so, they must cross the battlefield in broad daylight, infiltrate booby-trapped German bunkers and confront the enemy face to face. One can hardly fault them for being afraid. If anything, the tension they feel makes the characters more relatable.
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Heroism is about doing the right thing, but also about doing the thing that no one else wants to do. To a certain degree, it’s about luck, for many a heroic act has been thwarted by chance, leaving no one to acknowledge the sacrifice — although as “1917” demonstrates, glory plays no part in heroism. “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow,” one officer cynically remarks. Drawing from war stories shared by his grandfather Alfred, who fought in the trenches, Mendes brilliantly re-creates the terrain — physical and emotional — navigated by its unlikely heroes, seen peacefully napping beneath a shady tree in the opening scene.
In the two hours ahead, Mendes will follow the pair into the realm of nightmares, depicting WWI as we’ve never seen it: simultaneously horrific and beautiful, immersive and detached, immediate and impossibly far removed from our own experience. These paradoxes define the unique sensibility of “1917,” which isn’t necessarily “better” than such iconic WWI films as “War Horse” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but different. Mendes has found an original approach to a familiar subject, refreshing events from a century ago in a way that looks, sounds and feels absolutely cutting-edge.
To maintain a sense of anticipation, the studio shared little about “1917” in advance, apart from the fact that Mendes had designed the entire movie to play out in a single shot — a “plan-séquence,” as the French call it, or “oner” among film students and cinephiles — à la Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Such an audacious choice can often feel like a stunt, drawing audiences’ attention to the technique over the substance, which is intermittently the case here. The way Mendes collaborates with DP Roger Deakins, it’s as if someone pressed pause on the war and allowed two low-level infantrymen to poke around the spaces where it all went down — an almost-virtual-reality version of events, conveyed through the continuous-take (but not quite first-person-shooter) aesthetic of video games. All that’s missing is the ability to choose for oneself where to point the camera, though such decisions are better left to Deakins.
The day is April 6, 1917. German forces have retreated from the position they were holding in northern France, although they’re not “on the ropes” or nearly ready to surrender, as some of their British rivals mistakenly believe. The Fritzes have fallen back to meet up with reinforcements, hoping to lure the Allies into a trap, and two British battalions are about to fall for it, ready to send their men to certain death the following morning. With communication channels cut and no way of contacting those outfits, the commanding general (Colin Firth, one of several stars cast as officers, each appearing only briefly, à la George Clooney and John Travolta in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”) sends two lance corporals, Blake and Schofield, across the French countryside to deliver the warning and call off the attack.
Given the importance of the message, it seems odd that two unproven foot soldiers should be chosen for the task, although Blake has a personal stake in seeing the mission through: His older sibling is among the first wave of troops to be dispatched in the morning. When we meet him in the film’s final minutes, the elder Blake comes across as the more conventional hero: tall, handsome, covered in blood and mud and the scars of battle. By comparison, his kid brother looks soft and altogether too young to be enlisted, as does best friend Schofield — in MacKay’s case, that’s a reflection of his performance, which seems aptly intimidated by the mission.
Thomas Newman’s score ticks nervously through the first act, which takes place in the trenches, as the camera pushes behind Blake and Schofield through crowds of soldiers — alternating between following over their shoulders and hustling backward so we can study their faces — to track these two foolhardy volunteers to the front line. At times, the camera can make us feel like a third character along for the ride, and we the audience share in their anxiety. Seventeen minutes in, they hoist themselves up to the surface, and we hold our breath as the camera lifts alongside them, taking in the surreal wasteland so few of their comrades live to see, with its half-decayed horse corpses and monstrous rats.
As if the aboveground trek weren’t daunting enough — a Homeric micro-odyssey that unfolds in real time against awesome outdoor sets — it gets more intimidating still when they reach the newly vacated German trench. No matter how much we know about WWI going in, Mendes and Deakins’ visual design meticulously withholds and reveals vital information about the surroundings, such that stepping into darkened spaces requires nearly as much nerve from us as it does the characters. At times, the camera lags a split-second behind, subliminally agonizing as we sense Blake and Schofield suddenly exposed to something beyond our vision. At others, we see what’s coming before they do, as when a distant aerial dogfight ends with one of the biplanes crashing almost directly into the camera.
During moments like these, it’s easy to forget the single-shot gimmick, although the conceit comes at a price: Traditional editing allows filmmakers to tighten and manipulate time for dramatic effect, whereas here, Mendes and editor Lee Smith (whose job involves hiding the splices) must commit to the pace that was captured on set. “1917” drags in places, and though a bit of quiet introspection is welcome in a war movie, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns fill these with forgettable stories: A scene involving a cherry orchard chopped down by the Germans during their retreat serves as a good example, pairing the surreal imagery with banal observations about the different varieties of cherry trees.
The script feels most exciting when other characters are involved (note: the next two paragraphs contain spoilers), especially after a shocking off-camera setback forces Schofield to carry on solo. Things pick up about midway through when he crosses a group of soldiers led by Mark Strong, who take him as far as the bombed-out French village of Écoust, where a scuffle with a German sniper knocks Schofield unconscious. It’s here that the film’s only discernible cut occurs, during a long subjective blackout that drastically shortens the amount of time the lone messenger has left to finish his mission. Awakening at night, Schofield stumbles out into a vision of hell, and Newman’s score swells to full orchestra as flares illuminate the godforsaken ruins.
The young man still has quite a distance to travel to reach the battalions at Croisilles Wood, arriving as the raid is underway — which explains the iconic sight, so central to the film’s marketing, of MacKay running perpendicular to a swarm of charging soldiers as bombs erupt around him. That shot (or “segment,” in light of the film’s long-take aesthetic) is outrageous and exhilarating, an act of last-minute desperation by a character who’s proved far more sensible about his own safety until now. It also serves as a metaphor for the entire mission, whose heroic dimension has been revealed gradually over time: While the British forces’ attention were focused elsewhere, Blake and Schofield set out in an entirely different direction, exposing themselves to danger.
Perhaps its Mendes’ theatrical side that can’t resist the temptation to bring “1917” full circle, back to a viewpoint that rhymes, ironically, with the film’s opening frame. That intellectually driven choice underscores what a different filmmaker he is from Spielberg or Nolan, with Mendes looking to imprint some kind of poetic sensibility on the technical accomplishment we’ve just witnessed. Astonishing as the filmmaking can be at times, it’s Mendes’ attention to character, more than the technique, that makes “1917” one of 2019’s most impressive cinematic achievements.