Review: Astounding WWI thriller '1917' takes an innovative approach to the battlefield

Brian Truitt

Director Sam Mendes’ excellent and innovative World War I movie “1917” artfully begins in a peaceful grassy field before plunging its memorable young soldiers – and audience – straight into battlefield carnage and claustrophobic terror.

“1917” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Dec. 25 in New York and Los Angeles, nationwide Jan. 10) is filmed as a thriller rather than a conventional war movie, with a ticking-clock aspect for its heroes and the thousands of lives depending on them to complete their death-defying mission. But what makes the vivid film such an astounding effort – and one of the year's best movies – is that it’s edited seamlessly as one continuous real-time take, following a couple of Brits through rat-infested trenches, sniper-filled towns and even empty battlefields where the Grim Reaper’s been busy yet danger still looms.

Lance Cpls. Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) begin their survivalist odyssey when things are relatively quiet on the Western Front. The Germans have pulled a strategic withdrawal in France and two British battalions led by Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) are set to go after them, wanting to break their lines.

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Schofield (George MacKay) goes to dangerous lengths to deliver an important message in the World War I thriller "1917."

But Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) learned that it’s a trap, with a huge force amassed to lay waste to the unsuspecting English. Because the enemy has cut off telephone lines, the general enlists Blake and Schofield to march through no-man's-land and hostile territory to meet up with their compatriots and give Mackenzie the order to call off the attack. Making things extra stressful for the young soldiers? Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden) is one of the 1,600 men in harm’s way.

What follows is an immersive and intense journey that digs deep into each of its main characters’ souls: Blake is wide-eyed and new to combat, while Schofield has already seen some seriously bad things. MacKay and Chapman have great chemistry as best friends who know when to tell a joke to get their minds off the war, and each deftly portray the utter fear of always being a few steps away from being killed or mauled by a crashing plane, with small details at times seemingly determining their fate from scene to scene.

Dean-Charles Chapman co-stars as Blake, whose older brother is in harm's way, in "1917."

Though Chapman was on "Game of Thrones," the pair are relatively unknown to American audiences and they act as a nice balance to the “1917” supporting cast, which is filled with a who’s who of older famous English thespians. Firth and Mark Strong both play officers imparting wisdom on our heroes, Andrew Scott (“Sherlock”) is a war-weary lieutenant who acts as a bit of darkly comic relief, while Cumberbatch plays a military man whose ambition threatens to overtake common sense.

The film is an original tale written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) and based on stories Mendes heard as a boy from his grandfather Alfred, who was a 19-year-old messenger for the British Army during “The Great War.” In that sense, “1917” feels fresh, since you can’t Google the outcome and, more importantly in a time when viewers can see movies on all sorts of devices, demands to be seen on a big screen.

General Erinmore (Colin Firth) delivers some unfortunate intel to his troops in "1917."

You’ll flinch as a sniper’s bullets whiz past and might even find your jaw agape realizing that the hills that Schofield and Blake navigate are comprised of dirt and corpses. And through the lens of Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”), “1917” gloriously captures the haunting views of the soldier’s surroundings, their sacrifices as well as the pure emotion in rare moments of hope.

The film proves once again that war is hell, but the aftermath can be just as visceral and thoughtful.