War is by any measure one of the most evil and nightmarish of things that humanity has ever inflicted on itself.
For most of us, those fortunate enough to have been spared the bloody pointlessness of armed conflict, it is a universally acknowledged truth and nothing more; it is only through films such as Sam Mendes superlatively-executed 1917 that we can understand, in some small way, what it must be like to be plunged into the hellhole of war and wonder if you are ever going to emerge out the other head.
For many of the men who fought in World War 1 or The Great War as it is also known, there was no return – upwards of nine million military combatants and seven million civilians perished in the chaos, blood and violent dislocation of a conflict that endured for four long years, destroying much of Western Europe and the lives of many of its people in the process.
Capturing the full horror one of the darkest passages in humanity’s history is beyond the scope of any film, so 1917 wisely limits itself to documenting one small moment of the battle in northern France where two soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with calling off a major offensive led by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) which is doomed to failure because of a strategic German retreat to the new Hindenburg Line, only uncovered through the use of aerial reconnaissance, intelligence not available to Mackenzie’s Devonshire Regiment Second Battalion.
With telephones line cut by the enemy, the British have only one way to stop the needless death of 1600 men – send Schofield and Blake through the hazardous wasteland of No Man’s Land, where unceremonious, instant death is a real possibility, and onto Mackenzie’s position in the miraculously still-verdant woods beyond the wrecked town of Écoust-Saint-Mein.
It is in many ways a suicide run, one that would normally have caused the men to think again, but when it emerges that Blake’s older brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) is one of the people who will die in the fruitless advance, there is no choice but to go as fast and as hard as they can and hope at least one of them survives long enough to pass on the message and avert a calamity.
This personal link to the looming disaster of wasted lives on a pointless campaign is what gives this mission such a deeply personal aspect.
While soldiers like Schofield and Blake would have followed orders regardless – though in an amusing aside, the former does gripe to the latter at one point that he shouldn’t have been picked him to come along given the objective; we find out the very personal reason why he’s unhappy at the very end of the film – knowing that they are racing to fulfill their orders for a motivation beyond that of following orders adds a powerful dimension to a story that is already bursting with an edge-of-the-seat atmosphere.
You cannot help but feel every urgent step that Blake makes as he frantically races to meet the “Devons”, as the regiment is known, in time, and admire the support that Schofield offers his friend through their perilous journey.
The enduringly resonant emotional impact aside, and it is considerable – it’s well night impossible to watch 1917 without feeling every lost drop of the fear, sadness, boredom, loss and pain that is a soldier’s daily lot in this macabre unnatural theatre of life – what strikes you with palpable force is the sheer horror of war at every turn.
Whether the men are racing past horse carcasses and dismembered bodies upended in pooling craters on the bleak and arid landscape of No Man’s Land or racing through a town which is being bombed to smithereens while civilians shelter in basements below, you cannot escape the nightmarish awfulness of almost every single frame in the film.
War isn’t pretty, it is monstrously cruel and unfeeling and it is horrifically pointless, a stark reality which is driven by the cinematography (by Roger Deakins) which never once pretends the characters are in anything but a violent hellscape.
Driving the momentum of this story is the spectacularly good editing which is executed in such a way that 1917 appears to be have been in one long continuous shot.
It wasn’t of course, though that has been done before, but by appearing to be done in that manner, it adds an increased franticness to the race to save the Devons.
Such is the onward pace, leavened only by a brief pitstop at a near-ruined farmhouse, where events take a shocking turn, that you feel propelled forward on a mission for which the clock is ticking at a fearsome and unforgiving pace.
You feel that tension every step of the way; you know Blake and Schofield have to get their before a certain point in the early morning to stop the advance but seeing their desperate efforts to fulfill their objective adds a physical element to what you know in your head.
Adding to the emotional richness of proceedings is the deep friendship of Schofield and Blake who may be afraid and may wish they were on any other mission but who, now irrevocably committed, are determined to support each other come what may.
It is profoundly moving to watch their mutual devotion in action, partly borne of necessity but more so by an innate understanding that what matters to your close friend matters every bit as much to you.
And by extension, thanks to a taut, heartfelt but nuanced script and standout performances by the two leads, especially MacKay, matters deeply and with deep, abiding impact to us.
1917 is a magnificent, profoundly moving, stirringly melancholic film that is powerful beyond belief – a visual feast, even as it depicts the horrors of war, that demonstrates the power of love, friendship and family, celebrating the very best of what it means to be human even as it exists in the midst of the very worst of situations humanity can visit upon itself.