It’s easier not to go back at all.
While it appeared the Germans retreated, they were really just gathering their strength at the easier-to-defend Hindenburg Line as part of Operation Alberich in northern France. With British forces fooled and following closely behind to mount what they believed would be an offensive, their opponents were primed to turn the tables via ambush instead. After consulting aerial photographs of the Germans’ new position, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) realized 1,600 of Colonel Mackenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) men would be slaughtered without his intervention. So he called for the one man nearby with a vested interest in doing whatever was necessary to run through enemy territory with a letter ordering Mackenzie to stop: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). His brother (Richard Madden) was set to become one of those casualties.
With friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) as his second, Blake salutes before making his way towards the front line. Pushed and berated along the way by men who’ve lost their own friends the previous night, Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) can’t help scoffing when they tell him they’re ascending out of the trench into no man’s land despite only having Erinmore’s word that the Germans were actually gone. Blake and Schofield will face craters, barbed wire, booby-trapped explosives, and more as they continue their insane suicide mission with nothing but a hope and a prayer that success is even a distant plausibility. The Great War had suddenly grown personal for them because they could now put a face on the ensuing carnage. Save Blake’s brother or die trying.
That’s the harrowing logline director Sam Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns have used for their war epic 1917. Inspired by the former’s veteran grandfather Alfred and the stories he used to tell, Mendes latched onto the idea of a messenger holding the power of life and death on a piece of paper and went from there. Not enough to create an ever-escalating series of tragic events pitting Blake and Schofield against an unrelenting foe and Mother Nature’s own wrath, he and Wilson-Cairns also embraced the challenge to have everything fit together in a way that rendered it a seamless narrative keeping its heroes forever in frame. From the moment Erinmore summons them until our arrival at the Hindenburg Line, Roger Deakins‘ camera follows every single move.
Like most one-take cinematic wonders, this aesthetic choice is both a boon and detriment to the whole. Its advantage is proven on an emotional level with the claustrophobic nature of real-time and our proximity to the action causing us to hold our breath. Every gunshot or explosion is a jolt to our system because we’re perpetually unsure about what the aftermath of such sounds will entail. Our only chance at reprieve comes from Blake and Schofield’s brief moments of respite on the battlefield, but even those are bursting with suspense because we know they cannot last long. Between sniper fire, the German unwillingness to show signs of humanity (good and bad are very clearly delineated here), and random acts of fate, only a miracle can save them.
The problem, though, is that the film isn’t in real-time. Unless I misheard, Schofield explains to Blake that their mission should take about six hours to complete and thus doesn’t have to be undertaken at quite as rapid a pace as their early departure provides. He wants to wait for dark because he’s been burned before by superiors saying there weren’t any Germans where many Germans still resided. Blake doesn’t care, of course, because he wants to get to his brother as quickly as possible. If that means having hours to spare rather than seconds: even better. Besides a couple minutes on a truck and even fewer in an admittedly swift river, however, these men are on-foot. So how do six hours become less than two?
An answer lies in the fact that our investment makes time illusory because Mendes cares more about emotion than geography. This war’s weapons play a factor too. We’re talking about two young men with rifles running through hostile strongholds without the advantage of surprise. Not waiting for dark means becoming fish in a barrel for the skeleton crew of Germans left behind as sentries. The result guarantees that survival hinges on everyone else missing them. That’s okay the first and second time, but a third and/or fourth? We can only suspend our disbelief so long before divine intervention replaces tension. So rather than hold the stakes it truly needs, 1917 feels more like an amusement park ride where your cart always stops just short of danger.
And that’s okay in the long run because the ride itself is unforgettable. A technical marvel with stunning cinematography and a gorgeous atmosphere (the scene with burning fires illuminating a night sky behind destroyed buildings is breathtaking), Mendes places us in the throes of war without an escape. I can’t say I actually cared whether Blake and Schofield succeeded, however, since their personal difficulties always overshadow what might befall the men they’re trying to save. My favorite bits were therefore short interactions with peripheral characters that say so much with so little. Maybe it’s a Sikh wishing luck in contrast to his white British counterparts’ pessimism or an officer’s (Mark Strong) bleak advice concerning men at war seeking immortality. Hope is in short supply during these dark days.
Blake and Schofield move forward despite this, though. They take on their mission and refuse to quit even when their own deaths seem all but destined. In some respects Mendes and Wilson-Cairns intentionally play God in this way because everything that happens will eventually happen for a reason whether finding a pail of milk or letting their humanity kick in above duty to devastating effect after witnessing an enemy plane crash. These are two regular guys thrown into an extraordinary position to prove what we’re all capable of accomplishing if possessed by a strong enough motivation and ample amount of luck. While a bit too stiff in its execution to be the masterpiece many hail it as, its adrenaline rush nature almost had me believing it was nonetheless.
 (center) George MacKay as Schofield in “1917,” co-written and directed by Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 Colin Firth as General Erinmore in “1917,” the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 (from left) Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) in “1917,” the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.