'1917' Takes Audience on Front Lines of Epic War Saga

George MacKay stars in the World War I movie "1917." (Universal)

Sam Mendes' impressive, at times stunning WWI epic "1917," which earned best picture drama and best director prizes at the Golden Globes and has a new urgency given recent world events, fits on a shelf next to Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk."

Set in northern France in the spring of 1917, Mendes' film tells a story inspired by the wartime recollections of Mendes' paternal grandfather. Two young British soldiers -- Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) -- are assigned a virtual suicide mission to cross a corpse-strewn No Man's Land, where twisted barbed wire has wrapped itself around dead men and horses alike, creating a frozen tableaux of decomposing flesh.

Charged by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth, here and gone), the men carry a letter to tell the leader of a regiment at the front not to charge the Germans (aka the Huns), who have retreated to the Hindenburg Line, because the retreat is a trap. Blake's older brother, a lieutenant (Richard Madden, TV's "Bodyguard"), is with the doomed regiment, adding to the suspense.

Even more urgent are the machinations of Academy Award-winning director of photography Roger Deakins ("Blade Runner 2049"), who was tasked with making "1917" appear to be filmed in one continuous shot. The non-shaky-cam effect makes us feel like we are there right beside the characters in the film, usually following them or just in front on foot at eye level, and it gives "1917" an immediacy, authenticity and a rare intimacy. If you like to feel like you have been thrown into another world by an "event" film, I suggest you see "1917" on the biggest screen you can find.

Inevitably "1917" also begs comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's 1957 WWI anti-war landmark "Paths of Glory" with its tracking shots on rails inside the trenches. Equipped with extra armament, Schofield and Blake are war's innocents sent to the slaughter. Schofield cuts his hand badly on a length of barbed wire almost immediately and then proceeds to get the most awful things smeared on the wound. Biplanes bob overhead. Primitive tanks lie on their flanks dead in the mud like creatures from a lost world. If the bodies and landscape had not been designed by "bio-mechanical" artist H.R. Giger, they should have been. The score by Thomas Newman ("Spectre") is a knot of raw nerves and fear.

Co-writers Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (TV's "Penny Dreadful") have created an ambulatory "Journey's End," a military "Alice in Wonderland" and a WWI-era "Saving Private Ryan." If "1917" is a bit of a pastiche, it is nonetheless remarkable for such miracles as a crashing German plane that barely misses the protagonists, who save the pilot from being burned alive and proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

Did you notice the windblown cherry blossoms? Unlike "Dunkirk," "1917" shows us colonial British soldiers, who fought to the death beside their native brethren. Hope is sparked by an orphaned French baby Schofield gifts with a canteen of milk.

But then English poet Edward Lear's "The Jumblies" is used to summon the mad, self-destructive futility of war. "They went to sea in Sieve, they did./In a Sieve they went to sea." Yes, they did, and they're still going.

("1917" contains graphic war violence and gruesome images.)

Grade: A-

This article is written by James Verniere from Boston Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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