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Monday, January 20, 2020

1917: REVIEW

(Benedict Cumberbatch)

Sam Mendes’s gripping Oscar-nominated Great War movie is, to use the word of current coinage, thoroughly “immersive”. (Review by Patrick Compton - 9/10)

This is a war film that effectively combines a real feeling of authenticity – trench warfare on the Western Front – with artifice, namely the fact that the entire film appears to be shot in one, long, take. This, presumably, is an attempt – brilliantly successful in my view – to create a simulation of the uninterrupted flow of time from the point of view of two soldiers sent on a crisis mission to a newly established front line.

It is April 1917. The impression has been given that the Germans are in full retreat on the Western Front and a battalion of about 1600 men is about to launch an attack that is intended to rupture the German line and, who knows, help win the war. The grim truth, however, is that this is part of an elaborate German trap that will bring down disaster on the attackers.

At this stage, two historical points: First, people may complain that the battalion should have been radioed. Much quicker. The problem was that in those days, radio communications were extremely fragile, largely because of primitive technology and the destructive effect of shellfire. Instead, human messengers were invariably used to relay orders to different parts of the battlefield.

Secondly, a brief historical background to the German withdrawal (as opposed to retreat). Late in 1916, at the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, the Germans decided to withdraw their troops from the immediate battlefield area and establish a new defence system (the Hindenburg Line) further back with the effect of shortening the line and economising force, thereby creating defences more formidable than any yet encountered by the Allies.

In actual historical fact, this clever strategic decision resulted in a French disaster at the Chemin des Dames battlefield which led to mutinies that virtually sidelined the French army as a potent attacking force for the remainder of the war.

Mendes has, of course, made an imaginative film based on stories told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a combatant in the war. So, although the film is a remarkable work of fiction, it’s as well to know that it carries a personal as well as a general link to historical fact.

The two messengers, Schofield and Blake (wonderfully played by relative newcomers George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) have been given 24 hours to reach the battalion before the attack is scheduled to begin.

First, they have to negotiate their way through a largely deserted no-man’s land full of floating corpses, rats, barbed-wire and of course, mud. This part of the film is a masterpiece of historical accuracy that should surely win production designer Dennis Gassner an Oscar. For example, he’s done his research to such a degree that he shows the superior construction of the German trenches to those of the British and the French. The latter, politically driven by the need to push the Germans out of France, were never content to build “permanent” structures: the aim was always to push forward.

As mentioned, the halting and extremely dangerous progress of the messengers is followed by a camera that not only captures their point of view through these hellish landscapes, but frequently circles around to show them against a background of mud and blood. This is a technical aspect of the film that will surely thrill the art movie crowd.

The episodic nature of the film focuses not just on the trenches; there’s also a semi-phantasmagoric night scene in a destroyed town where one of the messengers meets a French woman and a child, a brief moment of sentiment and emotional warmth in this otherwise brutish environment. And there are even glimpses of green countryside with cherry trees in blossom to suggest the greater world is waiting to be renewed.

The film is not just spectacle, brilliant sets and cinematographer Roger Deakins’s magnificent tracking shots. The script, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, establishes an intimate relationship between the two messengers, the young, idealistic Blake and more damaged Schofield, that gives the film its personal force and human warmth.

The structure of the film is episodic. Essentially a quest movie, the cast includes cameos from distinguished actors such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott who each play a brief but significant role in the emerging narrative that culminates in a quietly wrenching climax.

1917 is currently showing at Ballito Junction, Cornubia Mall, Galleria Centre, Gateway IMAX, Musgrave Centre, The Pavilion, Shelly Beach and Watercrest Mall. – Patrick Compton