THE SADDEST CASUALTIES in 1917, the highly feted First World War film earmarked for Academy Awards in 2020, are the important memories of the Mendes family. Clearly premised on precious tales of war passed down through generations, this is quite obviously a film with a lot of family love invested. Sam Mendes directs and there is a Joe Mendes in the cast, but also a tribute to Alfred Mendes, Sam’s grandfather, in the credits. Perhaps it may be argued that it is this lack of distance from the story’s heart that damages the film as an entity. This yarn about two British Lance Corporals instructed to go on an ostensible suicide mission in order to save some 1 600 troops caught in a German sleight of hand tactic is told with clean narrative lines and lots of CGI energy, but as a story woven into the history of a particular war, it loses itself in the hero’s mission.
If you take a step back from this unrelenting landscape of ruin and errant enemies, you could believe that this is a video game of sorts rather than a history film. With a couple of red herrings tossed in the path of the grand narrative, the work is basically one-dimensional. There is a moment of lyricism with a young tenor singing to his squadron mates before they go out to war, and the overriding futility of war is revealed in the story’s interstices as is the disarming face of youth as cannon fodder, but none of it is strong enough to save this dull film.
Further to that, none of the direct and rich poetry that came out of young men in the mystery that got mooted The Great War, such as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, is apparent. It’s assumed that you know your history as you follow the heroes in question through the ravaged bits of unrecognisable Europe. And then there are the corpses. Any foray into the kind of art that commented on the horrors of war, from the work of Goya to that of Otto Dix reveals the obscenity of trench warfare. The construction of the corpses in this film resonate with the kind of plastic monsters you may associate with ghost trains at a fair: things that go boo! when least you expect them to. Here’s one grinning out of a trench wall, there’s a whole bunch of swollen bodies that our hero must wade through. The real horror of the war thus gets diluted.
Be warned, says the general, don’t look into any of the holes on the way, just before the two stalwarts leave their men in their quest for brotherly salvation, and you think of Frodo Baggins wading through the Dead Marshes, in the Lord of the Rings. In short, 1917 is too loosely tacked to real life. Somehow, if the work has the title of a year in traceable history, you expect a little more than fudging around the specifics. Indeed, the title evokes Peter Jackson’s astonishing quasi-documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, but in fact, it’s an heroic mission cast with such loving care that objectivity falls out the window, and you, who don’t know the Mendes family, are left with a long, unyielding tract.
- 1917 is directed by Sam Mendes and features a cast headed by Benjamin Adams, Gabriel Akuwudike, Andy Apollo, Daniel Attwell, Elliot Baxter, Jacob James Beswick, Anson Boon, Pip Carter, Dean-Charles Chapman, Phil Cheadle, Bradley Connor, Samson Cox-Vinell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josef Davies, Richard Dempsey, Claire Duburcq, Elliot Edusah, Justin Edwards, Colin Firth, Tommy French, Kenny Fullwood, John Hollingworth, Luke Hornsby, Gerran Howell, Adam Hugill, Michael Jibson, Taddeo Kufus, Bogdan Kumsackij, Jonny Lavelle, Spike Leighton, Merlin Leonhardt, Robert Maaser, George MacKay, Ivy-I Macnamara, Richard Madden, Daniel Mays, Richard McCabe, Kye Mckee, Joe Mendes, Ryan Nolan, Jamie Parker, Billy Postlethwaite, Nabhaan Rizwan, Michael Rouse, Jonah Russell, Adrian Scarborough, Andrew Scott, Jack Shaloo, Jos Slovick, Mark Strong, Paul Tinto, Chris Walley, Ian Wilson. It is written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Produced by Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver and Jayne-Ann Tenggren, it features creative input by Thomas Newman (music), Roger Deakins (cinematography), Dennis Gassner (production design), Nina Gold (casting), Lee Smith (editing) and David Crossman and Jacqueline Durran (costumes). Release date, Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau: January 17 2020.