I suppose there have been one million films about the First World War, covering the battles, the human cost, the losses, the stupidity, the heroism and everything in between.
So why would Sam Mendes, brilliant director as he is, think he had a unique take on the subject? Why would we?
As usual partly it’s the story, this one set over a few hours in April 1917; partly its the acting. But mostly I think it’s the cinematography.
It’s filmed as if in real time. We meet the two heroes resting in a field. Their Sergeant calls them to come with him, to see the General, to receive orders. One has a Brother in a regiment, far ahead of the British lines. Received wisdom has it the Germans are retreating and this regiment is after them, intent on undertaking a devastating attack. But it’s a trick. Aerial evidence shows how well dug in the Germans are. If the orders to attack at dawn aren’t rescinded the whole regiment might be lost. 1600 men including the brother.
There’s a mission impossible feel to this: ‘your mission, which you have to accept’ schtick. Our two heroes beetle off to cross no man’s land – which they’ve been assured is empty of snipers and enemy generally but, let’s face it after three years of war who really believes this intelligence?
And after that? Well, it’s going to be a series of ups and downs, filmed as I say as if we are with the two chaps every step of the way. It’s clever, dramatic and, most of all, utterly absorbing and terrifying. Without the usual cuts in the action, you cannot help but shorten your breath, you imagine the build up of anxiety at the approach of every plane, every ridge, every tree and building which might involve lethal force being visited on you.
All of the above you can gather from the preview clips so no plot spoilers. It’s not easy, not straightforward and there are as many traps from their own side as the enemy. But it’s the terrain that strikes me as the real enemy. It’s not unimaginable – we’ve seen other images on the Somme, Ypres and similar – but the yellow clawing mud, the ubiquitous rats, the shell holes that are death traps counterpoint the times when the two men cross untainted countryside – rolling grass, trees, cherry trees, blossom, an abandoned cow. It’s painful when they discuss varieties of cherry, an absurd moment counterpointing the nervous twitching eyes as they advance aware they might be shot at momentarily.
At one point, one of them finds himself in a fast moving river, washed clean of the mud and blood and floating, watching the trees on the banks go past. But he needs to make the bank and a tree has fallen across the water. As he approaches, intent on using it as his way to shore, we appreciate as he does there are multiple corpses trapped by the informal dam and he needs to climb over the swollen rotting bodies. It’s horrendous, made more so by the earlier easy signs of spring all around.
Both my grandfathers fought in this god-awful conflict. Percy, my maternal grandpa was a pilot, spotting, mapping and ferrying. It had its glamour even if the estimated life span was some of the shortest of any category of fighter. But Gordon, my paternal grandpa was in that mud, from 1915 to 1918 as part of the 5th Irish Lancers. He trained to be in the cavalry but that was soon abandoned. I know so little of Gordon’s war. Even my dad passed on little, assuming he knew much.
The credits rolled and one paid tribute to Sam Mendes’ grandpa who acted as the catalyst to this story. But the universality of the men’s experiences makes it as much a homage to my grandfather and so many other grandfathers and great grandfathers.
By putting me – us – in the moment, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins – if he doesn’t get the Oscar, then I’m never watching them again – they have made me experience something of that conflict in a way no other film and no amount of talking heads or books could achieve. I want to say thank you, but, really? My chest still aches at the emotion of it all.
See it. Live it. And take cough sweets because if your throat doesn’t ache at the end you’re not human. Yes, 1917 is a truly great bit of celluloid. Now where are those tissues?