Blundering through the mud-encrusted trenches by Richard Jones

A look at 1917 (MA 15+)

1917Director Sam Mendes had a large movie portfolio behind him before his interest in World War 1 was sparked by an ageing family member.

Some years back his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes, told him a tale about a young soldier instructed to cross enemy lines, alone, to alert a fellow-British outfit they were about to run into a carefully staged German trap. So Mendes took up the story although instead of a single soldier entrusted with the information he enlists two.

Lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are awoken from a nap during a temporary lull in the battles and taken to a meeting with their regimental general.

In the general’s bunker they’re given their secret assignment. Even though the English frontline commander and his men they have to contact believe the Germans in their area have retreated in reality they have laid an ambush. Blake wants to go with Schofield because his older brother, a lieutenant, is in that extended frontline and he desperately wants to save his life. Off go Schofield and Blake across surprisingly beautiful green fields before they eventually reach scenes of utter carnage.

The utter devastation and appalling horror of the frontlines in France is superbly re-created by Mendes. The huge shell holes, dead and dying horses, bombed out WW1 tanks and of course the trenches along which soldiers of both sides tear up and down.

Everywhere there’s mud and slush.

The now-empty German bunkers looked far more precision-engineered, much more securely buttressed and better appointed than their British counterparts. Blake and Schofield even come across a spacious hospital room dugout with bunk beds off one of the deserted general use, rat-infested back-and-forth German trenches.

Still underground, a little further along they spy a booby-trap wire but they’re too late. A bomb is set off by the tripwire and Schofield is partially smothered by the falling rubble. Blake digs him out.

Some of the best scenes are shot when the pair come across a deserted and looted French farmhouse. Above them there’s an aerial dog-fight in the skies. A shot-down German bi-plane crashes through the flimsy, barely upright barn and the two soldiers rush to the pilot’s assistance.

Mistakenly thinking they’re going to execute him the dying German pilot stabs Blake in the midriff.

The British lance-corporal lasts only a few minutes after the crash and the stabbing and dies in Schofield’s arms. And then what should Schofield come across? A pail containing what appears to be some fresh milk.

With a large dairy cow looking on he empties one of his water bottles, fills it with milk and heads off alone to find the advance British trenches. There’s danger in what appears to be a burnt-out French town. A German sniper pings a number of shots off a wrecked transport bridge’s steel uprights as Schofield tries to clamber along it to relative safety on the far bank. He comes across a terrified Frenchwoman, with a baby, in a bombed out house cellar. Who else would he give the saved milk to except this distraught French lady.

Quite a few internationally-known British actors have cameo roles. They all take officer parts. Colin Firth, Mark Strong and the frontline Colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) are all here along with everyman Adrian Scarborough who plays a Major in the advance trenches. But the best performance comes from MacKay. Admittedly his lance-corporal is the only character who lasts the entire half-a-day depicted, but he’s resourceful, courageous and intelligent.

This fim has attracted four-and-a-half star ratings from Melbourne Age critics along with a number of other writers and commentators.

It’s well worth seeing even though director Sam Mendes has taken a few liberties. There’s no shelling from either side during the lance corporals’ trek, the two soldiers wander through pristine green farmland which contains not a single shellhole and most important of all why were just two men sent out to contact a too-far forward British unit? Wouldn’t a combat-ready patrol have been entrusted to take the written message from the behind-the-lines HQ to the colonel way out front?

And dismiss any thoughts of this film being made in one take just because it covers less than a full day. Mendes probably took in 30, maybe 40, separate takes. Nonetheless it’s a gripping movie, encompassing just 10-12 hours in real time from when the pair set out to when Schofield arrives at the front line.

Mendes and his crew have done a great job with their re-creation of the rat-infested, shambolic and horrific Western Front.

  

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