April 6th, 1917 and in Europe the First World War is raging seemingly without end. For two British soldiers, Lance Corporals Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), they are making the most of a rest in a field by the trenches when they are sent for by one of the Generals (Colin Firth). Making their way through towards him, Schofield is plainly not happy that Blake told him to go with him as a "volunteer", but when they hear what the General has to tell them, he is even more unhappy. It appears that British troops are being led into a trap by strategically retreating Germans, and these two young men are the only ones who can prevent tragedy...
When the notion of a war movie directed by a man best known for his James Bond movies came up, you might have anticipated something like a remake of Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen, even Kelly's Heroes, one of those men on a mission flicks that were more akin to violent caper films than anything more intended to be taken seriously. But Sam Mendes had a sincere motive for making this World War One story, for he wanted to pay tribute to his grandfather, to whom this production was dedicated, and that meant trying to render the wartime experience as vividly as possible for an audience a century later who had no experience of this era outside of what they had been told.
His solution for that was to create it as a single continuous shot, and thanks to the magic of computer graphics that's what he was able to do, with viewers emerging from it crediting his work as one of the most realistic combat movies they had ever seen, and his cinematographer who assisted him every scene of the way, Roger Deakins, as a genius of his art. It was accurate to say Deakins had surpassed himself, which considering his previous triumphs was saying something; yes, he was helped along the way by a team of computer animators, but he had provided the raw material for them to arrange and edit together, adding the effects where necessary to succeed.
So as a technical exercise, 1917 was undeniably impressive, though there were naysayers complaining that the prevalence of technological trickery actually took them out of the film rather than immersing them in it, more comparable to a combat computer game which would be the method most audiences would envisage what it would be like to fight in a war, since that would be their most regular experience of it. While there was truth to that, and you could argue this was an issue with many a blockbuster seeking to thrill the viewer with spectacle and action, there remained the fact that Mendes and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns had been careful to stay accurate to the Mendes grandfather's life as possible, albeit with the caveats that they needed to use shortcuts and artistic licence to tell their tale in a compressed span of time.
They needed to fit everything in they wanted to say and depict, after all, cherry picking various anecdotes from real life and stringing them together. What Schofield and Blake are doing is undertaking a journey into Hell, and the blasted landscape the Germans have left behind them is as close to that as you could get on Earth in 1917. Over and over the imagery of an infernal atmosphere was invoked, that sense of suffering so great it has burst from the mental anguish of the troops and affected their surroundings in an overwhelming blight, razing the place to the ground, and leaving skeletons both literal and metaphorical of what used to be standing or lying in amongst it. This makes it sound churlish that you may be tempted to point out it was basically Peter Weir's Gallipoli with a slightly happier ending, and more technological bells and whistles you could shake a stick at, and if there was nothing here that matched the impact of that film's conclusion, it did move in its final stages by making the global personal to bring home the terrible loss that countless families suffered. Music by Thomas Newman.