Bock’s Office: Technical triumphs, personal attachment make ‘1917’ a war film for the ages
If you thought you’d seen it all in wartime cinema, you have yet to glimpse the intense focus of “1917.”
With The Great War raging across Europe in April 1917, it’s all British troops can do to find a moment of peace off the battlefield.
A respite from the fighting on the Western Front for Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) ends abruptly as the young men are summoned before a general (Colin Firth) with a mission.
The latest intelligence shows an apparent retreat by the Germans is in fact a trap for the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, whose plans to advance into the newly open area are certain to result in an ambush and the possible deaths of hundreds.
With officers’ communication limited, the two fresh-faced soldiers are tasked with traveling on foot and delivering the warning in person, a journey that takes them beyond No Man’s Land and into the most dangerous situations they’ve ever faced.
Though it takes time for the dynamic to develop, the back-and-forth between MacKay and Chapman is a brilliant one as we learn little about their characters’ personalities but plenty about their courage.
On one hand, you have Schofield as the more jaded of the pair, who’s disregarded the regalia for some of his past exploits, with more of a focus for getting through each day alive rather than being bedecked by medals.
Suffice it to say he’s not thrilled about being picked almost randomly for a mission that in the first few minutes sees his hand impaled on barbed wire before being accidentally sunk into the torso of a rotting corpse.
Chapman is the more optimistic of the duo, although maybe that’s because Blake has a greater stake in preventing the bloodshed with his brother among those about to walk into disaster. In any case, the young actor balances finely the wide-eyed naiveté of a boy thrown into war and a dedicated military man who doesn’t hesitate to do what he must.
Though the entirety of the film’s action follows these two, there’s no shortage of strong supporting roles as seasoned actors Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch are among the bigger names providing additional gravitas as those they encounter along the way.
While there’s no shortage of World War II movies made from every possible perspective — including the past year’s “A Hidden Life,” about a conscientious objector in the Nazi regime and the outrageous satire of “Jojo Rabbit” — it’s far less frequent that audiences these days see the details of World War I.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
Running time: 119 minutes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
Now playing at Craig’s West Theatre and Steamboat Springs’ Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
Director Sam Mendes takes care to make this story — partially based on a narrative of his own grandfather, which he adapted for the screen alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns — a unique one in every sense.
Besides being honed in a minimal amount of experiences, it’s the cinematography by Roger Deakins that expertly conveys the hazards Schofield and Blake see, with the camera following their every step through the muddy, claustrophobia-inducing trenches, into the deathly quiet of enemy territory, the horror of devastated villages and more.
You don’t know suspense until you’ve watched in terror as a rat dangles above a trip wire that could obliterate you and your comrade.
Though it appears as a single, two-hour camera shot, it’s not quite that ambitious as sequences are cut short at perfect moments of peril to both keep us interested and give us the occasional breath of relief.
Granted, it’s sure to be a stomach-churning experience for some, but if you’re not willing to share a portion of the emotional chaos, why else are you watching?
The personal touch, the visual expertise and the overall sense of making some small tribute to the bravery of those who did the impossible are all excellent reasons to see a film like “1917.”
Yet, when all those aspects come together, that’s when the magic of movies shines at its utmost.
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When you hear an unholy shriek or a cacophony of chest-pounding hundreds of feet high, you know you’re about to see something fantastic.