I’m not exactly sure when I started to really enjoy watching war movies, but anything involving World War I has absolutely intrigued me for a long time. Maybe it’s the fact that my Great Granddaddy was a veteran of the War to End All Wars. Maybe it’s the lack of modern-day technology that proved each side had to actually outwit and out-strategize the other, which is a little different than today. It could even be the lack of many other big-screen outings focusing on the timeframe that entices me to watch the latest battle at the movie theater. Enter Sam Mendes’ 1917.
Much different than Taika Waititi’s war-torn satire, I knew nothing about this storyline, the actors involved or the historic events this movie represented — which is generally how I prefer to enter movie theaters: with zero spoilers. Two young British soldiers (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay and Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) receive a life-or-death mission involving entering enemy territory alone and attempting to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of their allies — which includes the older brother of one of the soldiers. Given little hope and chance to succeed, these underdogs must just survive somehow by any means necessary in order for the good guys to actually have any chance of succeeding.
Written and directed by Sam Mendes, this is definitely not Skyfall (which might be my all-time favorite James Bond film). Just as one character gets introduced as the protagonist, an ill-timed incident turns the tables on the viewer and it’s time to root for someone else. In fact, the only big-named actors I instantly recognized were Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, but their roles are nothing more than quick cameos. So, the battle is the main attraction here — occurring in two consecutive days of April 1917 — and Mendes, along with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, keep the mission impossible.
The European landscapes are beautiful, which is balanced with gory battlefields. The action is relentless and it’s a wonder anybody survived this bloody conflict at all. Much like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, the action feels incredibly realistic, which is important for war movies. This story is full of horrors, apparently inspired by tales told from Mendes’ grandfather. There’s not a ton of dialogue, but plenty of grisly frontline action detailing the bravery of our heroes.
Through multiple stretches, Mendes follows the characters as if he’s filming one long, continuous take, with many of the gruesome moments seen in the periphery and in passing. While the brutality isn’t the main focus here, it’s definitely a brutally honest look at wartime conflicts without getting preachy. Apathy briefly emerges (“Some men just want the fight.”), but the resounding feeling is that of hope for the good guys to survive, and they do… eventually.
Where does 1917 rank in the overall, very long list of war movies? I’d say it’s up there and really hope moviegoers give it a chance. The bigger names seem to be behind the camera and featured in cameo roles, but the main attraction is the story here, which all too often gets the backseat in terms of focus for modern-day movies.