Their Urgent Mission: 1917
Two British lance corporals are summoned to a meeting with a general and other high ranking officers. They have been assigned to deliver a message to nearby British troops in 1917. The movie takes place over the course of an April day as they make their way to their fellow fighters. Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) was selected for the mission because he does well at reading maps. When the officers ask him to bring another soldier, he chooses Will Schofield (George MacKay), to whom he'd been speaking when summoned. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs the corporals that aerial photos have abandoned the trenches adjacent to their position. They have left to join other German forces in a planned ambush of another British platoon. Since the Germans cut phone lines as a part of their exit, the corporals must reach this platoon on foot. Since Blake's brother is a part of that force, Blake agrees to leave with Schofield immediately.
When they leave the trenches, the soldiers find much death and devastation in this No Man's Land. They discover the Germans made foot pursuit hard by leaving traps for those who might try. After a trip wire detonates and nearly buries Will alive, they follow the maps to get to their final destination. That doesn't mean that the Germans have completely abandoned the area. An aerial fight between British and German aviators has fatal consequences for Tom. Will gets the map and some good fortune by catching a ride with other British soldiers that include Captain Smith (Mark Strong). They take him to the spot where the map directs him and continues the journey into the night. He encounters more Germans, as well as French citizens seeking shelter from the gunfire. When he reaches his final destination, he discovers that Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) has already begun the first wave of the battle.
Three different war films of recent years have used western France as a setting. Dunkirk, set in World War II, told the tale of British troops seeking rescue from Nazi forces that surround them. They Shall Not Grow Old used actual footage from World War I and combined it with soldier testimonials to talk about the battle in France from beginning to end. In 1917, director and co-writer Sam Mendes tells his tale in one continuous sequence. Each of these movies focus on the lower-ranked soldiers, and tell their tales in a simple and straightforward manner. The bleak somewhat graphic approach helped to give cinematographer Roger Deakins an Oscar for his cinematography, which also shows seamless long takes. While I admire the aesthetics and narrative approach, I don't have the same level of reverence for 1917 that I do for two classic World War I movies I have seen. The Grand Illusion and Paths Of Glory tell their stories from two different perspectives, and do more to include the actions of soldiers and officers alike.
The biggest names in 1917 - Firth, Strong, and Cumberbatch - make brief appearances. I'd never seen Chapman in a movie before this, and the last performance I saw MacKay give was years ago in the World War II movie Defiance. These young actors put a human face to the conflict in different ways. Each does a fine job here. Will is more reserved about his feelings, choosing to focus more on the task at hand. He takes lethal action when necessary, though he can't do anything to save Tom. He also shows a personal side when he leaves some milk for the French people he encounters. His final scene shows a glimpse of his home life. Chapman is a bit more open as Tom, and that openness leads to his downfall when he assumes a German pilot will be grateful for being extracted from his burning plane. Tom believed enough in Will to make him the partner of this journey, and it turned out to be one of his last good decisions.
As Peter Jackson stated at the end of They Shall Not Grow Old, Sam Mendes likewise stated a personal connection to an ancestor who served in World War I. He also began the tale of 1917 on the very day that the United States entered the conflict. As new allies made their way there, two men embarked on a journey to save the lives of who don't know the trouble they're about to face. The journey may be small in number, but it is much larger in its scope.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give 1917 3.5 stars. Going through enemy lines.
© 2020 Pat Mills