In the spring of 1917, German forces in France’s Western Front retreated en masse, moving the front line back miles in Operation Alberich. On their way out, they were ordered to burn every building, crop and animal deemed potentially useful to their British enemies. German generals deemed it a successful operation, but Allied leaders lambasted the scorched earth warfare as barbaric. To the soldiers involved on both sides, however, Operation Alberich was just another day in hell. “1917” takes us there.
The movie throws the viewer into the inferno of World War I with the thunderous force of an artillery blast. George MacKay (“Captain Fantastic”) and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) play the two leads with endlessly complex yet subtle performances. These characters grab the viewer’s heartstrings and pull them with white knuckles all the way through No Man’s Land, on a desperate mission to save thousands of lives.
The unrelenting, unpredictable story is more survival horror than war flick, eschewing the nationalistic pitfalls that even the best war films (ie. “Dunkirk” and “Saving Private Ryan”) fall prey to. “1917” shows that war isn’t celebratory, necessary or heroic. It’s total apocalypse. The movie is presented in one take, a literally unblinking look at one of the worst and most momentous periods of history when war became fruitless, complete and mechanical destruction. Director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall”), composer Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”) have created a revolting, pulse pounding hellscape that, out of context, would likely be called a fantastical creation. Yet this is no Mordor. In “1917,” nightmare is everyday reality.
Bodies are buried in mud, frozen in rubble and draped in barbed wire, skin peeling to reveal stark white bone. Shrieking artillery, popping rifle fire and droning airplanes are permanent fixtures of the landscape, echoing through miles of charred desolation that was once quaint towns and green pastures.
In some scenes, especially those set in a burning medical city at night, the grandiose, insane destruction is almost beautiful, like a supernova that rips galaxies apart in a flurry of color before flaring into total darkness. Yet even in the face of this devastation, miraculously preserved pastoral landscapes emerge and disappear like portals to a different, peaceful world. In “1917,” dairy cows graze quietly next to farmhouses crushed by shellfire, and a river babbles through a thicket of green trees, then into a smoldering city filled with dead bodies. One sees the beauty that war obliterates, giving the film’s gut punch of a plot broader stakes that make it all the more terrifying.
“1917” grapples with the plague that is total warfare, right where it all began. What does a time like 1917 do to the people who inhabit it? Some soldiers buckle and cower, while others embrace the carnage. Perhaps most tragically, the majority simply become numb. MacKay’s character says he hates going home, because it reminds him that he has to go back to the trenches. Total war isn’t just confined to the battlefield. It destroys everything and everyone in its orbit, maybe indefinitely.
As 2020 dawns, more than a hundred years away from 1917, the futility and unstoppable destruction wrought by modern warfare shows no signs of stopping. Somehow, leaders can’t or don’t notice that behind every operation on a map are terrified men and women, most of whom just want to survive and come home to their families. “1917” isn’t just thrilling, unforgettable cinema. It’s an urgent warning from a century ago that, as thousands of American troops head across the sea again, could not be more vital.