World War I was a gruesome few years full of horrible tragedies. Lance Cpl. Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are forced to see this up close. Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders them to stop a British-led attack meant to take place the next morning. “1917” is an intense drama full of suspense, cruelties of war and shocking twists that pull on the audience’s heartstrings.
The film follows the pair on a perilous journey to save 1,600 men from a fatal mistake. Ironically, it begins at the calm before the storm with both men attempting to nap before being sent to the general. Two battalions of soldiers have chased German forces that retreated from all current lines, falling into a trap that could kill them all. With Blake’s brother among those in danger, both men quickly take off on their mission.
Each new environment is an exciting place explored carefully by Blake and Schofield. Whether they’re in an abandoned German trench, a home destroyed by fire or a bombed-out city, the barren land perfectly displays the creepy atmosphere of a war-torn Europe. The rare meeting of allied soldiers is a welcome sight that gives the often desolate land a breath of life before moving on. Nature not destroyed by the war feels like a wonderful addition given the often bland color scheme, allowing Blake and Schofield a sense of ease compared to the crumbling remains of towns.
The lack of noise throughout most of the film only adds to the tension, as the slightest sound becomes a strange event. Even the noise of a disease-riddled rat or cow becomes more pleasant than just footsteps and the wind. Battles feel much more intense due to sudden eruptions cracking through the air, jolting all characters into panicked action.
Realism is taken to the extreme, refusing to shy away from disgusting scenes that took place in World War I. For Blake and Schofield’s first act of travel, they’re forced to traverse the infamous No Man’s Land. Along the way, they take injury from the waves of barbed wire while crawling through mud.
Other scary details include rotting corpses being devoured by rats, the destruction of all animals and property the Germans controlled to impede Allied progress and massive piles of cannon shells that each seem to be the height of half a person. Seeing each detail hammers down haunting images of the cruelty humans can inflict on each other.
Although brief, moments involving others are endearing. A ride with Capt. Smith’s battalion shows soldiers mocking and joking about their commanding officers. Their attitude switches dramatically when their truck gets stuck in the mud, as they’re annoyed with Schofield’s bossiness as he rushes to fix the bothersome delay.
In France, a woman is found hidden in a basement, struggling to survive while Germans burn the town and leave limited rations. These scenes give more heart to an already deeply personal war story, making sure to switch between camaraderie and injustice to show as many aspects of World War I as possible.
Several twists occur with emotional impact too difficult to ignore. There are snippets of tragic scenes, such as an airplane crashing and leaving the pilot to burn until rescued. Every action in the film has consequences — both immediate and long term — that give minor details,like a canteen being filled with milk, some impact on the story.
Even from a technical aspect, “1917” is impressive. The entire film is shot on one camera, using clever editing to hide when a scene ends to give it a continuous flow. This also limits what the audience can see, forcing the camera to move around to appreciate details in the sprawling and cramped landscapes.
“1917” captures the essence of why World War I is considered one of the most brutal wars of all time. Every minor detail and character leaves a strong impression on Blake and Schofield. Despite the amazing quality, it’s still an emotionally draining film that feels fitting to only watch once every few months.
Contact Caleb Barbachem at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.