1917 is a 2019 British war film directed and produced by Sam Mendes starring George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman in starring roles. The plot seems simple – two soldiers are given seemingly impossible orders to reach 1600 soldiers of the 2nd Devon battalion, who are about to launch an offensive against the Germans, who lie in wait for the attack by preparing an ambush with artillery. The two soldiers – Lance Corporal William Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake, must go across “No Man’s Land” to warn Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and call off the attack. What follows is a beautifully shot movie which captures the horrors and the futility of war and in this particular case, the Great War.
On 6 April 1917, aerial reconnaissance has observed that the German army, which has pulled back from a sector of the Western Front in northern France, is not in retreat but has made a strategic withdrawal to the new Hindenburg Line, where they are waiting to overwhelm the British with artillery. This would result in heavy casualties for the British troops on the line, who think the Germans are in retreat. In the British trenches, with field telephone lines cut and lines of communication destroyed, William Schofield, a veteran of the Somme, and Tom Blake, are ordered by General Erinmore to carry a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a scheduled attack the next morning that would jeopardize the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Joseph, a lieutenant with the Devonshire Regiment.
Schofield and Blake cross no man’s land to reach the abandoned German trenches, passing a ditched British tank, but Schofield injures his left hand along the way. In an underground barracks, they discover a tripwire set by the Germans, which is promptly triggered by a rat; the explosion almost kills Schofield, but Blake saves him, and the two escape. They arrive at an abandoned farmhouse, where a German plane is shot down in a dogfight with Allied aircraft. Schofield and Blake save the burned pilot, but the pilot stabs Blake and is shot dead by Schofield. Schofield comforts Blake as he dies, promising to complete the mission and to write to Blake’s mother. Taking Blake’s rings and dog tag, as well as Erinmore’s letter, he is picked up by a passing British unit.
A destroyed canal bridge prevents the British lorries from crossing, and Schofield chooses to walk through the lines. He uses what is left of the bridge to cross alone, and comes under fire from a sniper. Exchanging shots, Schofield wounds the sniper and advances, whereupon he and the sniper shoot each other simultaneously; the sniper is killed, while Schofield is struck in the helmet and knocked out. He regains consciousness at night and finds the town in flames. He discovers a French woman hiding with an infant. She treats his wounds, and he gives her his canned food and milk from the farm. Despite her pleas, Schofield leaves, after hearing the chimes of a nearby clock and realizing that time is running out. Encountering German soldiers, he strangles one to death and escapes pursuit by jumping into a river. He is swept over a waterfall before reaching the riverbank. In the forest, he finds D Company of the 2nd Devons, which is in the last wave of the attack. As the company starts to move toward the front, Schofield tries to reach Colonel Mackenzie.
Realising that the trenches are too crowded for him to make it to Mackenzie in time, Schofield goes “over the top” and sprints on the open battlefield parallel to the British trench line, just as the infantry begins its charge. He forces his way in to meet Mackenzie, who reads the message and reluctantly calls off the attack. Schofield then finds Joseph, who was among the first wave and is bloodied but is unharmed. Schofield tells Joseph of his mission and that his brother Tom has died, passing on Tom’s rings and dog tag. Joseph is deeply upset about his brother but thanks Schofield for his efforts. Schofield asks to write to their mother about Tom’s heroics, to which Joseph agrees. Exhausted, Schofield sits under a nearby tree, looking at photographs of his wife and children.
What is brilliant about the movie is the direction and a visually stunning technical achievement. The movie is shot and edited to appear as a single take, every camera movement is intelligent and serves a purpose as the film unfolds. The story itself keeps you gripped to your seats and the performances of the two young leads Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are engaging to say the least. The cinematography is mesmerising, choreographed and executed to perfection around the horrific elements of war. Some of the frames are visually breathtaking, and demand to be revisited to absorb everything they have to offer.
Watch 1917 now to be transported to the horrors of World War I and be thrilled by the brilliant direction of Sam Mendes and the thrilling performances of the leads.