Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall and Brian Oliver   Director: Sam Mendes   Screenplay: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns   Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Robert Maaser and Nabhan Rizwan   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  A

World War I has served as the backdrop for some extraordinary films in the past—Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) remains the most notable, but Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary of last year, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” is another.  Sam Mendes’ “1917” now joins their ranks.  Like Jackson’s film, it’s a technical marvel, constructed by the director, cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith to appear to have been shot as a single continuous take—a far more stunning and convincing example of rare “simulated tracking” than Hitchcock’s “Rope”—admittedly an early experiment, constrained by the technology of the time—was. 

Of course, visual virtuosity is not enough to make a film great, or even worth watching.  Fortunately, “1917” has dramatic power to match its exceptional technique.

The fictional narrative constructed by Mendes and Kristy Wilson-Cairns, inspired by stories told to the director by his grandfather, a veteran of the war, concentrates on a single episode occurring on April 6, 1917, after the Battle of the Somme had ended, inconclusively, in late 1916.  The German high command decided to withdraw to more defensible positions, the so-called Hindenburg Line, but the British misread the move as a retreat, and planned an offensive to take advantage of what they presumed would be disorder in the German ranks as they withdrew.  Were the British advance to occur, the troops would fall into a trap and be massacred.

Last-minute recognition of the danger leads to a desperate mission:  two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George MacKay), are assigned by the commanding general (Colin Firth, in a brief cameo) to cross into No Man’s Land and make their way through still-contested territory to the British front lines to deliver a message ordering a halt to the planned attack.  The urgency is accentuated by the fact that Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden) is among the officers leading the charge that could end in disaster.

From this point the film becomes an episodic account of their journey, the initially showing their rushed progress through the crowded trenches to the point where they can hoist themselves, gingerly, onto the battlefield, still uncertain about whether a withering blast of artillery might meet them.  They first cross the desolate No Man’s Land, presented in Dennis Gassner’s production design as a wasteland pockmarked by decaying corpses and shards of equipment, and then proceed through broader German trenches that have been abandoned, but where, as soon becomes apparent, dangers still lurk.

As Deakins’ camera prowls behind them, capturing their every move and occasionally showing the fear and concern on their faces, the two men continue into still-contested territory, where they periodically interact with others.  They happen upon a deserted farm, where they observe from a distance a dogfight that sends a German plane, billowing smoke, in their direction, and an encounter with its wounded pilot (Robert Maaser).  There follows a linking up with a bedraggled British brigade led by an officer (Mark Strong) who provides as much help as he can (and whose men offer their commiserations) before an episode in a half-destroyed town, where German soldiers have overlooked a young French woman (Claire Duburcq) hiding in a basement with an infant.

The mission continues into ever more dangerous terrain, until the presence of the British forces is disclosed by an unusual occurrence that might call to mind the very end of Kubrick’s masterpiece, signaling a brief return to civilization in the midst of the war’s brutality.  The message is finally delivered to the commanding officer (Benedict Cumberbatch, in another cameo), but the outcome is bittersweet at best. 

Throughout MacKay, with his long-faced determination, and Chapman, with his more boyishly ebullient personality, offer performances that are compellingly focused, and under Mendes’ direction the supporting cast, including the well-known cameo performers, contribute sharp turns.  Their efforts are complemented by the exceptional technical work.  Deakins’ camerawork, with its serpentine moves, takes pride of place, but Gassner’s production design, the costumes of Jacqueline Durran and David Crossman, and Smith’s smooth editing are no less impressive, while Thomas Newman bolsters the action with a supportive but not overbearing score.

A century on, World War I has recently received a slight revival of attention—through Jackson’s film, Saul Dibb’s fine, if somewhat workmanlike, 2018 remake of “Journey’s End,” and some excellent television documentaries.  “1917” represents a uniquely powerful take on the carnage of the Great War: while some might chide Mendes embrace of the one-take technique as gimmicky, it serves—like Peter Jackson’s remarkable restoration of archival footage—to provide a viscerally potent view of a conflict often relegated to the mists of history.