A technical feat, ‘1917’ is great storytelling, too

This image released by Universal Pictures shows George MacKay, center, in a scene from “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes

It’s been a good time for World War I buffs — especially if they’re also movie buffs. A year ago director Peter Jackson applied state-of-the-art technology to century-old war footage to bring the Great War alive with sudden, stunning immediacy in his documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.”

And now, in the feature film “1917,” another of our most talented directors, Sam Mendes, has similarly taken top technology — and the best cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins — to give us a different, equally compelling look at that cruel war, through the eyes of two ordinary soldiers asked to perform an extraordinary task.

The special sauce here, which you may have heard about: “1917” appears as if it were shot in one seamless take — or two, if you include one spot where it seems clear a break probably occurred. Actually, there are dozens of cuts, but they’re ingeniously hidden by editor Lee Smith, and the longest continuous shot is only about eight minutes.

Yes, it’s a dazzling technical feat. One could also consider it a gimmick, or at least a method that threatens to distract the viewer’s attention. But that ignores the fact that this very filmmaking style is also hugely effective at delivering this particular story, in the most visceral way possible.

It’s a tale — inspired by stories Mendes heard from his own grandfather, who fought as a teenager — of two frightened young men, utterly unprepared for what they’re asked to do. Schofield and Blake — George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, relative newcomers chosen to enforce the idea that these were unremarkable, ordinary men.

The action begins in the afternoon of April 6, 1917, in northern France. Schofield and Blake are resting under a tree when a commanding officer orders Blake to “pick a man and bring your kit” — it’s not clear why. Blake enlists Schofield, and the two men head to the trench. As they walk, the camera gradually pans wider and we see a field full of soldiers, more and more of them, resting, talking, doing their laundry.

In the trench, General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of several British stars, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden, who appear in brief cameos) describes their mission. It’s immediately clear why Blake was chosen. His older brother is part of a battalion planning to attack the Germans, believed to be retreating, the next morning. But the men — 1,600 of them — are heading into a trap, and will suffer catastrophic losses unless they can be stopped. The enemy has cut off all communications. “They have no idea what they’re in for,” says Erinmore, tersely.

The mission: to venture out into No Man’s Land and make the daunting journey on foot to warn the battalion, waiting in the woods near the town of Ecoust.

As they climb out of the trenches and head into perilous territory — abandoned and desolate, piled with corpses of men and horses — they get to know each other better. Blake, the younger at 19, is chatty, humorous, good with maps and always at the ready with an amusing anecdote. He’s also starry-eyed about battlefield glory, and aspires to a medal. Schofield, a few years older with a bit more experience, is less talkative, more stoic, and also more cynical. He won a medal but traded it for a bottle of French wine.

Both young actors are hugely appealing. MacKay in particular delivers a breakout performance that somehow feels both contemporary and timeless. You could call his Schofield a reluctant hero, but that doesn’t seem to sufficiently capture the essence of a young man who didn’t choose his fate — “Why did you choose ME?” he rails at Blake at one point — but slowly and surely rises to the occasion with determination and assurance born of utter necessity. You may not soon forget MacKay’s face. Jocelyn Noveck, AP

“1917,” a Universal Studios release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for violence, some disturbing images, and language.” Running time: 119 minutes.


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