A pure adrenaline hit of a movie that takes place mostly in the lethal glare of daylight, Sam Mendes’s stunning, sorta-single-take ‘1917’ hits its greatest heights when darkness falls. A single British tommy dusts himself off from a glancing wound, wanders to the window of a broken-down house and, in one invisible cut, emerges magically into the skeletal, hellish remains of a French town. The abandoned settlement glows with orange hues as Thomas Newman’s score hits a rare crescendo. It’s at once an epic piece of filmmaking, the launchpad for the second half of the movie and possibly the greatest ‘person walks into a town’ moment in cinema since Claudia Cardinale in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Needless to say, in a film that only stops to reload, the soldier is soon legging it.
‘Once Upon a Time on the Western Front’, as you could subtitle Mendes’s nerve-fraying rollercoaster of a war movie, is a simple men-on-a-mission dressed up with all the technical bells and whistles at the director’s disposal. The men are Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are summoned into the trenches for a hurried briefing with Colin Firth’s general. The entire German army, it turns out, has hit reverse to the tune of about 8 miles, holing up behind the Hindenburg Line and waiting for an unsuspecting British attack that will cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. The mission? To deliver a message to stop the attack before morning. (‘He