Review: Riveting '1917' lets viewers feel horrors of war

Sam Mendes' WWI epic is an engrossing tale told in a revelatory style

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

War is hell alright, and the completely immersive sensory overload of "1917" throws viewers smack dab in the middle of it. 

Director Sam Mendes, an Oscar winner for "American Beauty," frames his WWI epic with a nifty narrative device: the entire film unfolds as a one-shot exercise (the cuts are hidden, à la "Birdman"), which heightens the tension and the suspense of its heroes' journey. And it lets its audience smell, taste and feel the horror of war in all its mud-caked, blood-drenched soullessness and brutality. 

George MacKay in "1917."

It's April 1917 and two British soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given orders to hand-deliver a message to call off a planned attack on German forces.

If carried out, the attack will result in the loss of 1,600 lives, including Blake's brother, who's fighting in a different battalion. To make matters even more urgent, the attack is to occur the following morning, and there's barely enough time to get there in optimal conditions, let alone in the thick of war through the dead of night.

So our two soldiers, barely old enough to have to shave, head off across fields of twisted barbed wire and rotting dead bodies, across bloated animal carcasses and craters filled with rats, skulls and damp puddles of mud. Their mission is an almost impossible one, and their resolve to carry it out is all they have pushing them forward. 

Mendes, who co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns ("Penny Dreadful"), frames "1917" like a video game, and that's not meant as a slight. Schofield and Blake encounter a handful of officers — Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and "Fleabag's" "hot priest," Andrew Scott, among them — who act as checkpoints, and serve the role that non-playable characters do in video games. "1917" understands and utilizes video game-style storytelling better than most actual video game movies, "Jumanji" and its sequel included. 

 That narrative structure and the one-shot style with which it unfolds allows viewers to go along with the two soldiers on their quest, by their sides. It's a tense, unnerving ride that accomplishes its goal of translating the first-person experience of war better than any war movies that have come before it. It's a level up.

But "1917" is not just a war time version of "The Revenant"; Mendes and Wilson-Cairns also have plenty to say about war and how it corrupts from within, and the uselessness of medals used to reward soldiers in battle. Cherry blossoms bloom as a reminder of the beauty of the world and how far removed from war and conflict is from the tranquility of nature. Yes, war is hell, and its atrocity is entirely man-made. 



Rated R: for violence, some disturbing images, and language

Running time: 119 minutes