“1917” and the Unpredictability of War

Matthew Gaetano

“1917,” directed by Sam Mendes, follows Lance Corporals Blake (Dean -Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) on their mission to call off an attack that will lead to the death of two battalions of British soldiers in World War I. The attack is being led by the bull-headed Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he has the German army on the run; in his mind, if he can break through the German line, he can turn the tide of the war. In actuality, the Germans have pushed back to a second line in an effort to snare the 2nd Devons in their elaborate trap. With British telecommunication lines cut off by the Germans, Schofield and Blake are left to delve deep into enemy territory to deliver their message before it is too late. What follows is the perilous undertaking of two men in a mad scramble to save 1600 men, including Blake’s brother who serves as a lieutenant in the Second Devons.

The narrative of the film plays out less like the average war movie, a group of men being tormented and more like an epic quest. Blake and Schofield travel by foot for the greater portion of their journey, with moments that are both peaceful and harrowing. The peaceful, focusing more heavily on dialogue and serene hillsides work to the film’s benefit as they add a greater impact and shock to the harrowing. The calm segments of the film play out until the audience has been drawn into a false sense of security, which of course is when Schofield and Blake are plunged into chaos. Towards the middle of the film, our protagonists reach a French pasture where they pause to refresh themselves with a drink of milk. As they take a moment of rest, they spectate a dogfight that comes to an end with a German fighter plane being shot out of the sky: the same plane soon arrives feet away from Schofield and Blake as they narrowly avoid the deadly crash. Moments like this depict “1917” at its most successful, in its artful portrayal of the unpredictability of war; an aspect of the film that is heightened by Roger Deakins’s highly praised camera work.

As a whole, “1917” is largely unforgettable. With a brilliant narrative, cast, score and cinematography, it is successful in almost every aspect. At times the alternating pacing of the calm and the chaotic can become somewhat tiresome, but never to the point that the film is bogged down. Overall, “1917” is a movie for those who want a war movie that will subvert their expectations; those with an eye for cinematography should equally enjoy a viewing. “1917” has received a total of 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.