“On or about December 1910,” wrote the famed author Virginia Woolf, “the human character changed.” This line has been used to introduce World War I since time immemorial, and it couldn’t be more true. World War I blended old school military tactics with new and deadly technology. Around 10 million soldiers died, while many high commanders, sequestered well behind the carnage, ruled the conflict in armchairs. It has been called “the war to end all wars,” and yet few movies have dared to cover it.
So when I found out Sam Mendes was producing, writing, and directing a World War I movie, I knew I’d be among the first in line to see it. Forget the rumors the film is one continuous shot. We finally have a good-looking Great War film!
1917 is the story of two British soldiers who are tasked with relaying orders to travel into no man’s land and call off a daring offensive attack into the receding German front line. It is set in northern France and takes place on and around April 6, 1917.
As the pair travel to fulfill their mission, they encounter a wide array of characters and locales, from a jaded regiment with a fat, arrogant commander barking orders in a tiny coupe, to the graveyard-like ruins of a French town overrun by German soldiers.
This movie is remarkable for its portrayal of the grand disaster of World War I. It shows French countrysides pock-marked by craters and mazes of trenches, dead and dying men mortally wounded in various ways, all in stunning high definition. As a student of history, I was impressed by the realistic portrayal of the war’s horrors, and the brilliant contrast of the themes glory and reality. “Some men just want the attack,” said an officer to the messengers as a word of caution, fearing their orders to halt the attack might not be heeded. As the academy-trained commanders took the fields of France, some realized the way they learned warfare was obsolete in this new deathscape of gas and grenade, while others marched on regardless in pursuit of post-mortem fame.
Speaking on the movie’s final scene, Ridge Pickering, a sophomore and content creator, said the messenger was “glorified” at the end, “but it showed the war was still going on.” While the film was not shot in one take, a feat Pickering says would be “impossible, unfathomable,” the one shot perspective showed “what happened was what happened. It didn’t leave you guessing.”
Produced by DreamWorks Pictures, the movie was enhanced by the IMAX theater at Malco Grandview in Madison. The new theater is a sprawling coliseum with fourteen rows of seats bathed in sapphire lights. Enormous black speakers were suspended on either side before and behind us. The gray screen spanned the height and width of the wall and loomed like a large window into any number of worlds. The setting of the viewing was so intense and awe-inspiring, my friend Ben Stanzell leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we’re in a ride at Disney World.”
Loosely based on the stories told to him by his veteran grandfather Alfred (who hailed from Trinidad and enlisted at 17), Mendes reveals the terrible scope of trench warfare to a new audience. 1917 weds epic grandeur with the realism of documentary footage. The viewer feels they are traveling alongside the messengers, or crouching next to soldiers waiting to charge the battlefield. It is this generation’s Saving Private Ryan, a story for the ages.