Film Review: ‘1917’: A Brilliant, Muddy Meditation on a Miserable WWI Mordor Mission

December 23, 2019 Updated: December 30, 2019
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R | | Drama, War | 25 December 2019 (USA)

“Lord of the Rings” fans: Ever wonder what Gollum meant when, in describing Mordor, he says that everywhere are “Pits, pits, pits!”? Go see the World War I movie “1917,” and you’ll see.

soldiers in WW1 trenches
Extras portraying British soldiers in the Universal Pictures film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

Author J.R.R. Tolkien was describing the battlefield bomb craters he’d experienced, filled with megalithic rats and rotting corpses—almost like ponds half-filled with unholy water—and some such pits brimming with blood. Truly hell on earth.

soldier with rifle in no-man's-land
Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) negotiates barbed wire in No Man’s Land, in the film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

Good artists borrow; great artists steal. Director Sam Mendes, telling a tale based on stories that he heard in his youth from his grandfather (who at age 19 had been a messenger for the British Army during WWI) has here combined elements of “Dunkirk” and “Saving Private Ryan,” among others, and used Alejandro González Iñárritu’s single-shot storytelling method (used for “Birdman” and “The Revenant”) to create some impressive, innovative world-building. You are there.

two soldiers enter a bunker
George MacKay (L) and Dean-Charles Chapman in the film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

It’s very visceral storytelling all around, but the immediate takeaway is the mud. It is all-encompassing. It becomes apparent that when it comes right down to it, human beings are basically, physically made of mud: We live in the mud, we roll around in the mud, and when killed, we return to the mud—and sometimes that return is expedited via rat excrement. Lovely. Such is human existence.

The Story

It’s springtime, 1917, in northern France, and two young lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chaplin), are summoned to a meeting with Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth).

two soldiers in a WW1 trench
Dean-Charles Chapman (L) co-stars as Blake, whose older brother is in imminent danger, in the Universal Pictures film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

Erinmore’s got a mission for them. As he explains, at a point beyond No Man’s Land, the Germans have strategically withdrawn; two British battalions led by Col. MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) are poised to smash the retreating Germans. However, all is not as it appears.

British army officer leans on table
General Erinmore (Colin Firth) divulges some disturbing info to his troops, in the film “1917.”

Since there are no phone lines, the two young soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land and locating said battalions on the front lines, in order to deliver the message that the Germans have laid a trap and the Brits are about to walk into an ambush. If this message doesn’t arrive in time, approximately 1,600 men will be wiped out, including Blake’s older, officer brother (Richard Madden).

Which is why Blake is chosen. He’ll have more motivation to brave the horrors and not turn tail and flee. His friend Schofield just happened to be in the vicinity, and since Blake needs a mission buddy, Schofield, to his great unhappiness, is by default the man for the job. And there you have it. The general goes on to offer something about fewer men being able to travel faster, but it’s really just to set up the use of the continuous shot.

two soldiers and a warplane
Dean-Charles Chapman (L) and George MacKay in the film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

Why? The use of a camera seamlessly following two men through the trenches, barbed wire, and the various and sundry horrors of No Man’s Land is a sight we’ve never seen. It’s something we didn’t know we needed to see. But we need to see it. Because it adds to the heap of things about war that we should never forget.

Mendes may or may not have used this single-shot approach to speak directly to the younger millennials, because it makes “1917” feel more than a little bit like a role-playing video game. It also allows it to function more in a thriller capacity; it’s got thousands of lives—not to mention a brother’s life—hanging in the balance, and a ticking clock spurring the long-shot mission.

Performances

The two principal actors are mostly unknown to American audiences, but it’s a nice touch, as their presence is juxtaposed with a who’s who of well-known mature British actors. Mark Strong and Colin Firth are officers functioning in warrior/elder capacity, Cumberbatch plays an ambition-addled officer who needs his cage rattled in order to get some human perspective on the young men he’s all too eager to send into harm’s way, and Andrew Scott plays a seen-it-all, fed-up officer who injects a bit of exasperated humor into the proceedings.

British army officer with helmet
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a WWI British army officer in the Universal Pictures film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

In a sense, this is a coming-of-age film because this is a literal hero’s journey, a staggering ordeal that challenges these boys on the verge of becoming men.

man crawling out of river
Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) escapes a corpse-filled river, in the film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

They will either return from the war as true men or die trying—that was traditionally the dichotomous option built in to all tribal male rites of passage. Chapman and MacKay’s best-friend chemistry is palpable.

two men in WW1 trenches
Dean-Charles Chapman (L) and George MacKay in the film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

Ultimately, though, it’s the nonstop claustrophobic, musophobic odyssey through the muddy, bloody trenches; the German sniper-overwatched hamlets;

man jumping off building
Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) dodging sniper fire, in the Universal Pictures film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

and the here-a-hand, there-a-blown-off-foot, pits, pits, pits of real-life Mordor that will remain with you as a meditation on the human condition. There has always been war, and there will always be war; war is hell. We never, ever learn from our mistakes, and history repeats itself.

extras playing troops in trenchs with boom mics
Extras portraying British soldiers, and sound technicians, on location for the Universal Pictures film “1917.” (Universal Pictures)

’1917’
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 25
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch