.War Stories

The Western Front is anything but quiet in '1917'

On April 16 in the year 1917, during the First World War, a pair of dozing English soldiers—Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)—are chosen to deliver an urgent message.

Surveillance shows that some 1,600 British troops have advanced into the edge of a German trap. Horribly urgent as this is, the warning seemingly can’t be delivered by plane, and the Kaiser’s soldiers have cut the telegraph lines.

Delivering the message via a pair of runners is a mad plan, but their commanding officer (Colin Firth) recites Kipling to steady the two corporal’s nerves, “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne …”

George Orwell cited the unspoken other half of that couplet as proof of how important a cliché can be: “sooner or later you will have occasion to feel that ‘he travels the fastest who travels alone,‘ and there the thought is, ready-made and, as it were, waiting for you.”

“Ready-made” isn’t a bad way to describe how director Sam Mendes proceeds; he makes a thrill ride out of the Western Front. It’s the fastest-paced film he’s done, formed as one long take, based on a soldier’s tunnel vision of zigzagging through the crowded trenches.

Here is almost every nightmare story you’ve heard about the war. Perhaps the nastiest matter is in the home stretch: hand-to-hand night combat among brick walls sliced into Dali shapes by artillery blasts. In these scenes, under the parachute flares, everything is as yellow and orange and lurid as a carnival.

This two-protagonist movie is livened up by celebrity officers. Mark Strong is an intelligent-looking officer (Canadian, I think) who provides a handy truck. Benedict Cumberbatch is a blood-drinking attritionist, another one of those top-brass fiends who thought that World War I would be won by the side that stuffed the most meat in the grinder.

The problem is that Mendes sometimes gets into the kind of territory that Mark Twain condemned in James Fenimore Cooper. It’s a movie on steroids, cooking up incidents when the truth is bad enough.

I succumbed to this thrilling, compelling film—though it’s current, post–Golden Globes status as a best-picture frontrunner is baffling. Considering what they endured, it’s probably best that the vets didn’t live to see it and hoot at it.

‘1917’ is playing now.


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