A Lyrical Love Letter to a Grandfather and World War I: ‘1917’ ☆☆☆☆☆

There was one moment in the Q&A when Sam Mendes lost me, a but still, that came after the captivating tale of two friends who volunteer for a mission that takes them literally through no man’s land and to the depths of their friendship and to the edge of humanity. While another movie speculates that kindness  matters, in war, at least in this part of World War I, kindness can get you killed.

On a lovely field of green with a sprinkling of small sprays of white and yellow flowers, two friends sit under a tree. One is called Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is summoned by his superior officers. He’s asked to choose a companion. He picks Schofield (George McKay) without knowing the mission. Colin Firth’s character explains, aerial photographs show that the Germans have withdrawn, but lie in wait.

Another unit under a man named MacKenzie has orders to attack at dawn, mistakenly thinking that the Germans are withdrawing.  Firth’s character explains, “Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow’s attack. If you don’t, we will lose 1,600 men, your brother among them.” Failure is a heavy burden. “If you fail, it will be a massacre.”

Blake is chosen because he reads maps well. He’s determined and ready to roll while the more jaded Schofield wants to wait until dark before they enter no man’s land.  “The last time I was told the Germans were gone, it didn’t end well,” Schofield says. He’s already gotten a medal, which he calls just a bit of tin. Blake reminds him, there’s ribbon. “Nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer a widow,” Schofield replies. He traded his medal for some wine because he was thirsty. He has a way of finding food where there is little.

As they make their way through the trenches they are warned. Beware the craters; they’re deeper than you think. Dead horses and dead bodies become landmarks.  Corpses litter the landscape which is ruled by rats and crows. They are to send up a flare if they make it into the German trenches.

Once there, everywhere they look they see evidence of superior means. Shells and trenches. Caves shaped into rooms with multiple bunk bed barracks. Even the rats are bigger and a rat almost get Schofield and Blake killed. There’s a subtle shift in between the men, sometimes Blake leads and sometimes he recedes to Schofield. Blake is the heart of the film and director Sam Mendes said that in a way, Schofield will end up carrying Blake in spirit.

The film is dedicated to Alfred H. Mendes,  the grandfather of Sam. According to Sam Mendes, his grandfather never spoke about the war to his children, but for some reason, he opened up to his grandchildren. Alfred arrived in 1916; he was 17 years od. He was gassed and went home and then went back again. “He was very small, very fast” so he did well as a messenger. The image of “one man carrying a message always stuck with me.” Sam remembers that “one of the things he used to do is washing his hands incessantly. Sam’s father told him that in the trenches, the soldier could never get their hands clean.

Essentially, “George (McKay) is now playing my grandfather.” McKay is not small although he may or may not be fast. He is tall, slender and pale. This is where Sam Mendes momentarily lost me because I know what it is to be small. McKay said that during the two scenes for audition, “I remember thinking, I know this man or at least I know who he is. I feel I understand him.”

McKay and Chapman did research.Chapman found that his great-great grandfather had a diary entry in one of the books he was reading.  They also did a couple of research trips–including one when they discovered the museums were closed during January. The lads quickly recovered and did find something else to do.

Sam said he wanted “the audience to feel these two are among millions. Their heroism is not a given.” There is a “beautiful parallel” between them. Schofield is “quiet” and “dignified.” Blake is younger and “more working class.” He’s also “warmer” and a “natural storyteller.” Both McKay and Chapman influenced facets of their character, Sam explained, “Because we rehearsed for so long, they began to inform their roles” and the writers did “craft the roles toward what they were best at” after “watching the way they interacted.”

McKay said the two “spent loads of time together” and despite the problems on the shoot, Sam said, “no one on this movie complained” because “what we were doing was 1/1000” of what the reality was.

The film also starts and ends with a hand shake by a tree, in what could be a peaceful meadow of small white and yellow wildflowers. Getting there was a technical challenge. Decisions needed to be made as to where the camera should be and if it should be close or far “so you can understand the geography.”

Coming from a theater background, Sam was totally comfortable with allowing the actors to develop their characters, “that feeling of handing something over was familiar to me.” He added, “I didn’t want to interfere” but just to break in for “just an occasional steer.” The actors, McKay and Chapman “are the actors of their characters.”

There continuous flow is broken when Schofield loses consciousness after a confrontation with an enemy soldier. “He wakes up” and although he doesn’t have total mental clarity, “he keeps walking” and he enters a haunting landscape of ruined buildings and flickering lights from flares or bombs as well as actual fires burning down the buildings. In this “hallucinatory landscape,” Sam said, “You don’t know whether he’s in a dream or awake,” but reality eventually does sink back into his awareness.

In planning the footage for a continuous shot, McKay said, “We kind of did it in layers. Sam roughly blocked out. We would just run the scenes and get our layer down then the layer of environment would be added.”

Sam explained there was “over a mile of trenches because we couldn’t repeat anything.” He pointed out there were moments where “suddenly the power structure flips” and you can observe where there’s a change in relationship. While Blake feels the mission to save his older brother and it is his assignment, Schofield has more experience in battle.

Spoiler alert. As a director, Sam said, the “trickiest scene is where Blake dies.” Chapman confessed, “I got so wrapped up into just the two of us, every single day I was being Blake.” Then suddenly after six months of rehearsal all that “suddenly stopped” when Blake dies. Sam said that the actor actually went physically pale, something visible on film. Sam said that after Blake dies, Schofield “takes his entire spirit; he carries the ghost of Blake with him.”

“There is no exposition” because Sam believes “you have to dramatize” the emotions. For example we see the desperation in Blake in how he eschews the wisdom of waiting for nightfall but we see the “rage at having his friend die in his arms” when Schofield gets out and insists that all the soldiers push the truck out of the mud. The other soldiers know something is wrong and when they get back in the truck, there’s a feeling of quiet respect and then understanding.

There’s a point where an officer cautions that the commanding officer the two men seek (Benedict Cumberbatch as MacKenzie) might not listen and tells them the should have witnesses because “some men just like the fight.”  Cumberbatch has a devastating line: I hoped today would be a good day; Hope is a dangerous thing.” Yet hope is all we have to a better tomorrow, for a better world after the battle is won or lost.

The movie “1917” is for the most part, beautifully shot. There are a few moments when the focus and the camera shake don’t help the moment. I do wonder about the milk. You do become immersed in the experience, and feel the desperation, partially due to the soundtrack by Thomas Newman (“Bridge of Spies” and “Finding Dory”).

This is a lovely lyrical memorial to Mendes’ grandfather. Beautiful and yet heartbreaking. We see the natural beauty of Europe contrasted by the barren mud ruled by rats, flies and crows of no man’s land, the farm lands and then ruined villages. We see how kindness can be treacherous or hesitantly repaid. We see the cost to our humanity. All this without much exposition because we feel as if we are there. This is a two-hour tour into the tragedy of the so-called greatest generation and well worth the journey.

“1917” opens on 25 Dec. 2019.

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