Movies: 1917

Picture 1 - Blake and Schofield
Lance Corporals Tom Blake (L) and Will Schofield are given a perilous mission in “1917” (photo – Universal Pictures)

ASHEVILLE, NC (May 2, 2020) — While there are certainly some good sports movies out there to pass the time, limiting yourself to a steady diet of them while confined to quarters might only make the pandemic feel that much longer. 

An easy alternative is to rent the epic “1917” which made its way into theaters late last year and is now available to stream/rent for those who missed it on the big screen. The film won two Oscars and two Golden Globes and was directed and co-written by “American Beauty” and “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes.

Its premise is simple and proves the cornerstone of its overall strength. It begins with two short sentences, “Blake – Blake, pick a man. Bring your kit.” Blake is Lance Corporal Tom Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman), and the man he picks is fellow lance corporal, Will Schofield (George Mackay). In response to the abrupt order that awakens him from an open-field doze in northern France, Blake rouses a nearby sleeping Schofield and the two are quickly directed to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to find out why they’ve been summonsed.

Erinmore informs the pair that they are to hand deliver an urgent message to call off a British attack planned for the next morning, one that has been baited by a refortifying German army feigning withdrawal.

The second battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, or “Devons” as they’re called among the troops, is under the direction of Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is planning the attack under the mistaken belief that he has the Germans on the run. The Devons are some nine miles from where Blake and Schofield are stationed, in woods just beyond the French town of Écoust and – critically – on the far side of what is believed by the British rank-and-file to be the German front line. The two need to reach Mackenzie by the following morning if they are to avert a looming massacre.

A slight insight as to why a general would randomly select a lance corporal for such a critical task comes when Erin tells Blake, “The sergeant tells me you’re good with maps.” Erinmore also chooses Blake as the corporal’s older brother Joseph is in the Devons, and is likely to die in the attack along with 1,600 other troops if it isn’t halted. That gives Blake ample motivation, coupled with an important working skill, to take on the nearly impossible task with the needed zeal.

With that scene, Mendes quickly puts the audience on a soldier’s footing. For the remainder of the film, we only know what has just happened or what is unfolding at the moment. There are no long descriptions, no cutaways, no subplots developing elsewhere that are then woven back into the main of the story or that afford viewers some insight that the soldiers lack. Through the use of an innovative filming method, Mendes simulates a single, continuous take, and we move along with the two men immediately from Erinmore’s dugout and into the fray.

Picture 2 - Schofield
Lance Corporal Will Schofield contemplates a critical decision in “1917” (photo – Universal Pictures)

Shortly after their meeting with the general the pair encounter a grizzled and battle-weary Lieutenant Leslie played briefly (and perfectly) by Andrew Scott. Leslie’s job is to inform them of where the best spot is to go “over the top”, the WWI term for climbing out from a trench and into the cratered, barb-wired, and casualty-laden stretch of earth separating the stalemated British and German front lines known as “no man’s land.”

The lieutenant’s response to what he sees as a ludicrous request is first contempt and then resigned sarcasm. Despite both, Leslie maintains a practicality under duress that is far more valuable to the two than his lapses in social niceties are costly. He provides Blake and Schofield with critical information on what awaits them once they enter no man’s land. 

The interaction with Leslie gives a glimpse into the heart of the movie, one which proves especially valuable in the throes of a pandemic and couldn’t possibly have been anticipated when it was being made. The success or failure of the two corporals on their mission to save the Devons ultimately falls not on their skill with a rifle or a map (although both help), but on their ability to read people who have lost or kept some semblance of grounding as the normal world abruptly gave way beneath them into the lethal unreality of World War I. 

The simple structure of the plot and the movie’s unique filming leaves viewers with ample opportunity to focus fully on those moments when the two come upon others, without fear of missing some important thread of the overall narrative. It is through those moments that the message of “1917” is delivered, and to this eye it is done exceptionally well. 

Nowhere is that better illustrated than through Schofield’s chance encounter with a young French woman (Clair Duburcq) and an infant hiding in the midst of a war-ravaged Écoust. The infant is not hers, nor does she know whose baby it is, but she retains the humanity that is fully absent from the horror engulfing her village and cares for it. We watch Schofield’s reaction to the woman and infant and wonder if his own trials in simply reaching Écoust have cost him the ability to extend kindness to the two. 

For the full answer, you’ll need to watch “1917.”

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A novel of WW I, Venable Park

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