Two soldiers: Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) rest against a tree in an open grassy field. Their peace is broken when they’re summoned by a fellow serviceman to report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for new orders. A slow tracking shot follows them as they pass by other soldiers in the field, while two trench walls—the mud and earthen barricades sheltering commissioned life—rises around them while the milieu of World War I takes over.
Their instructions? 1,600 men are preparing to attack the supposedly retreating Germans. But the Germans aren’t retreating. It’s a trap, and the British army is walking right into it. Without any way to communicate, Schofield and Blake must go through no-man’s land and the French countryside to link up with their comrades and stave off their impending assault. And to top it all off, they have only 48 hrs to do so. With a race against time, you’d think these ingredients would lead to a cathartic arc. Over the course of 119 minutes, Schofield and Blake work to evade capture and death, and in the process, Sam Mendes’ 1917 captures the most breathtaking war sequences of the century—even while his technical wonders subtract emotional weight.
In this regard, two scenes will remain with viewers: the town and the trench. Describing the latter would lead to some spoilers, instead the former will suffice. In a pulse-pounding chase, Schofield runs through a town of rubble. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which so often converts wide expanses into soulful visages, tightly tracks the soldier while Thomas Newman’s score crushes with heaps of gravity.
The scene’s vibrancy exemplifies the craft at work in 1917: from the sound to the visual effects. Most impressively, Lee Smith’s editing accomplishes Mendes’ one-take directive almost seamlessly. Though the picture isn’t a true one-take movie, Smith’s hidden cuts is a reminder that cinema, in the end, is a magic trick. And Mendes with Skyfall and Road to Perdition is particularly adept at discovering wonder.
Nevertheless, in this hellscape, the director provides very few instances of tenderness. One of the only occurs when Schofield comes into contact with a French woman hiding in a basement. A quiet sequence, the two’s desperation collides for a lovely exchange that flourishes with few words. More than a respite from impending danger, their humanity and depth are told through light grace notes. 1917 often lacks these microcosmic moments of emotion, not expressed through life or death, or blending in, but through careful character studies marked by the horrors of war.
Because while Schofield and Blake are meant to blend in, we learn very few details about their private lives. In a sense, they’re as expendable as the faceless nameless corpses that litter the battlefield. And while the scant character attributes contribute to understanding the lower-class soldier in the upper-class British army, the historical fact separates us from any empathetic connection to these men. 1917 lacks the emotional tendons that other great war films possess, even with the assured efforts of Chapman and MacKay. Moreover, film audiences are neither governed by strict orders nor dread. They’re guided by an affinity for thought-provoking characters—a component Mendes’ film lacks. While 1917 boasts some of the most incredible war sequences ever filmed, its technical achievements do not automatically equate a great or even good movie. Emotionally hollow, 1917 is the big what-if of 2019.