Sam Mendes’ breathless drama throws everything you knew about WWI at the screen. Rats, trenches, no mans land, gas, senseless waste of life, cheery privates, weary corporals and blustery generals.
It’s all there, from Journey’s End and your schoolboy poems to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Peter Jackson’s more recent documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.
This being Mendes, there’s a certain theatrical flourish to it all, attempting dizzying long takes to create the impression of relentlessness. It’s not all done in one shot, nor is it in real time, but the impression that it is so works well. It’s a cheat, but a worthy one.
The central narrative follows two young Lance Corporals, Schofield and Blake (George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman), sent on a ridiculously dangerous mission to order a General at the front to abort an advance into what he doesn’t realise is a German trap.
We follow them, with Roger Deakins’ unblinking camera, through the trenches, up and over into the rotting cesspool of No Mans Land (dead horses, barbed wire, bodies in the mud), into German trenches, into desperate searches for allies who can help them, up through cherry orchards and farms, into bombed out villages – each scene is a nightmare, interspersed with moments of lull, when they chatter about home, and girls.
There are times when the cinematic conceit distracts – Deakins’ camera floats across a deep puddle while the boys slip and slide around it, and sometimes you think ‘oh, where are they going now?’ – but while you’re in the movie, immersed in it, the cumulative exhaustion builds up. You might be distracted, too, by the starry cameos who keep popping up in the form of Andrew Scott, or Colin Firth or Benedict Cumberbatch. They’re all very good, of course, but you do find yourself thinking; “oh hello, it’s you it is,’ and ‘who’s it going to be this time…?’
On the whole, I liked the idea very much, and there’s a video game quality to it that crucially doesn’t cheapen the horror of the experience for the young men at its heart. For that Mackay in particular deserves praise – his is a supremely physical performance, one of determination to survive and complete his duty, and his face is always set on the goal.
There’s an added incentive for Schofield to do with helping his older brother, too, which brings a personal aspect to it, and it never forgets to be honest about there being a sense of adventure about it all, too. For that reason, it’s far more empathetic than, say, Christopher Nolan’s cacophonous Dunkirk, which was all about the God-like skills of the director rather than the clammy instincts of a young man trying to save his soul, and those of a thousand other comrades.
There might not be glory, but there is sweat, fear, skill, wit and a fight for survival that brings out a very primal watching experience. It has echoes – as all war movies must – of those that came before, from Apocalypse Now to The Thin Red Line to Come and See and while it’s not as amazing as those films (it’s certainly up there with Saving Private Ryan, and is indeed better than that film), you can’t take your eyes off it while it lasts and I would like to think it will become a British classic, watched by school kids for years to come.