It's been said that war isn't pretty, but director Sam Mendes did his best to put a shine on a conflict that took the lives of tens of millions of unfortunate souls in the recently-released "1917."
The highly anticipated movie, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (of Showtime's 'Penny Dreadful'), is beautifully filmed, quickly paced and innovative in its use of long scenes photographed without a break. What it's lacking, however, is heart. The dialogue was at best vapid, the characters wooden and the plot so thin you could see through to its faults.
The story documents the quest of two young British soldiers, Corporals Schofield (George MacKay of 'Captain America') and Blake ('Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman), during the later stages of World War I in France. The pair are charged by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth in a performance surprisingly bereft of emotion) with crossing miles of enemy territory to get word to a battalion of soldiers preparing to attack what they believe is a retreating German army. But it's an elaborate ruse the Huns have planned to lure the Brits into a massacre and turn the tide of the war in their favor.
It's never made clear why Schofield and Blake, both obvious newbies with not a lot of combat experience under the belts, are chosen for the assignment. The more cynical viewer would surmise it was because Blake's older brother is a lieutenant in the battalion they are charged with warning and, therefore, the younger Blake would stop at nothing to reach him.
The lads' journey, as you would expect, is rife with danger as they cross a once bucolic countryside nearly devoid of life, except for the legions of rats. The dead, soldiers and livestock alike, are everywhere and in various level of decomposition, representing a feast for the rodents.
Yet, compared to the abject destruction visited on France and other countries during that unfortunate war, the scenes depicted in this movie are fairly benign – again, it's been 'prettified' by Mendes ('Skyfall' and 'American Beauty') and his gang.
And that is a great injustice, not only to those who fought and died in the war but also to the grand tradition of war movies who have got it right.
In "Saving Private Ryan" and HBO's "Band of Brothers," for example, Steven Spielberg and friends crafted the backstory of the characters at war so carefully that the viewer couldn't help but be invested. In '1917' Mendes has robbed his characters of virtually any foundation; they have nothing to stand on as they unsuccessfully attempt to endear themselves to the viewing audience.
To be sure, this film is a spectacle for the eye. The locations are such that if there wasn't a war there it might be a nice place to vacation or sightsee. Even the villages depicted in the film, most bombed beyond recognition and aflame, have an eerie beauty. But all that can't overcome an incredibly thin plot.
This film should be much better than it is and that's the greatest pity.
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