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“1917” was released on Dec. 4, cap­turing the horrors of World War 1. Courtesy | Wiki­commons

It was known as the “Great War,” the con­flict that changed the land­scape of the modern world, destroyed Europe, and killed nearly an entire gen­er­ation. Yet, despite its his­toric impor­tance, World War 1 has been largely over­looked and under­rated, espe­cially in cinema. While World War 2 has had more than 1300 films made about it, World War 1 has a measly 130 films. 

But with the Dec. 4 release of “1917,” director Sam Mendes has bril­liantly brought World War 1 and its night­marish trench warfare back to the screen. With a simple plot about two British lance cor­porals who are given the daunting task to cross the front lines and stop a bat­talion of 1600 men from walking into a German ambush, the movie shines not just as a story of human courage and resilience, but also as a tribute to World War 1 and a reminder of its horrors. 

Lance Cor­porals Tom Blake and Will Schofield, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay respec­tively, are given a simple, but nearly impos­sible mission by General Erinmore, played by Colin Firth. Since tele­phone wires were cut, Blake and Schofield are ordered to hand-deliver orders to Colonel MacKenzie, played by Benedict Cum­ber­batch, calling off the Second Bat­talion of the Devon­shire Regiment’s planned attack against the Germans. Though the Germans appeared to have retreated, recon­nais­sance showed that it was a tac­tical withdraw to prepare an ambush and over­whelm the British with artillery. 

“If you fail,” Erinmore said to Blake and Schofield, “it will be a mas­sacre.” 

Added to this daunting task is the fact that Blake’s older brother, played by Richard Madden, is in the Devon­shire Reg­iment. The two men have one day to cross the front lines, go through no man’s land, through the aban­doned German trenches where Schofield almost dies after a tripwire explosion, and get to the Devons in time. Halfway through the mission, Blake is killed and as Schofield com­forts the dying Blake, he promises him that he will com­plete the mission and save his brother. 

Schofield then alone con­tinues the daunting journey, finding the Devon­shire Reg­iment just as the first wave of men are running into the attack that he carried orders to halt. He reaches MacKenzie just in time to stop the attack before the second wave of men ran to be mas­sacred. 

Though the plot was fairly simple, director Sam Mendes shot the film to look like one long scene, from beginning to end. Not only did this tech­nique make a beau­ti­fully coherent and unbroken nar­rative as the beginning led to the end, but it also immersed the audience into the story. 

The camera fol­lowed Blake and Schofield on their mission, almost like a third, silent char­acter that was con­stantly watching with no breaks. And with the audience being the ones to look through the camera, viewers were fully engaged in the story, as if they were the ones walking behind, beside, and in front of Blake and Schofield. When they ran through the trenches or swam down the river, the audience was right behind them looking at their backs. 

Along with the cre­ative use of the camera, there was also graphic detail that accu­rately por­trayed the butchery of the war. Living in the shadow of World War 2, the horrors of the First World War are often for­gotten. Though World War 2 had more casu­alties, the slaughter of World War 1 is unpar­al­leled. The tran­sition from tra­di­tional, Napoleanic warfare, to modern, tech­nology-driven warfare made World War 1 unusually brutal. While there were machine guns and shells mowing men down, men were still bay­o­netting each other to death, fighting in muddy trenches. 

In an article from “The Tele­graph,” one German World War 1 veteran recalled the time he bay­o­neted a French soldier. 

“I thrust his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest,” the soldier said. “I nearly vomited.” 

Mendes accu­rately cap­tured this often for­gotten bar­barism of World War 1 warfare that many of its vet­erans recounted. With stomach churning depic­tions of rotting dead men and horses, bloated bodies floating in muddy holes, and bodies buried in the muck of the trenches, Mendes depicted the sav­agery of the war that shaped a gen­er­ation and changed warfare and the modern world. 

Along with cre­ating an accurate visual depiction of the war, Mendes also did an excellent job of focusing on the action. With the whole movie shot to look like one scene, the whole story was in the present. Being in real-time, there was little back­story to the char­acters or telling of their inner thoughts and per­son­al­ities. Mendes pow­er­fully showed Blake and Schofield’s char­acters through their present, ongoing action, thus making the story, not just about two indi­viduals, but making it an actual story of wartime and humans in action. 

Though it is filled with tragedy and the hell­ishness of war, 1917 is nonetheless a beau­tiful story of war, human resilience and deter­mi­nation, and a sobering reminder and tribute to World War 1. With an unbroken nar­rative and filming that immerses the viewer in both the courage and raw carnage of the war, 1917 is truly breath­taking.