Sam Mendes’s Oscar-nominated 1971 should serve as a slap on the face of any stripe of warmonger. A potent plea for pacifism, here is a disturbing and an often harrowing depiction of the horrors of military conflict.
Three years already into the First World War (1914-’18), two young British soldiers are dispatched on an against-the-clock mission to inform a battalion that the enemy is merely playing possum for a while and intends to re-attack. It’s a journey to the depths of hell – and maybe back – for Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his mate Schofield (George MacKay).
Blake has been chosen by his commanding officer (Colin Firth) to deliver the cautionary message since his elder brother is in the about-to-be-tricked battalion. Schofield has been chosen randomly. As they traverse through no-man’s terrain in the German-occupied French countryside, we keep hoping that at the end of the 119-minute screen time, the mission impossible will somehow succeed.
To avoid spoiler alerts of the faintest kind, suffice it to say the pair of callow servicemen experience extremities of the physical and psychological kind. If they are vulnerable to horrifying surprises about the dangers ahead, they can be intuitively alert too. The most powerful sequence in the screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns relates to the soldiers’ encounter with a grievously injured German pilot. Amidst the cruelty, there are snatched moments of compassion that are played out authentically without resorting to manipulative sentimentality.
A great deal of the film’s power can be attributed to the staggering cinematography by Roger Deakins, which doesn’t bank on special effects or an intricate lighting code. Shot in an illusory single take with barely discernible digital splices seamlessly binding the narrative, here is a visual choreography that is even more effective than a similar attempt in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (2014).
Why World War I specifically, you might ask. The concept was apparently inspired by a fragment of an anecdote narrated by Mendes’s grandfather about a “messenger who has a missive to deliver”. Cryptic as that may be, on occasion we are also reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 masterwork Paths of Glory, which delved into the traumas suffered by guileless soldiers in the trenches.
This isn’t Mendes’ first foray into the proverbial heart of darkness. The director of the Oscar-winning debut American Beauty (1999) and the recent Bond thrillers Skyfall and Spectre, had helmed Jarhead, a look at the US Marines during the Gulf War back in 2005. With a far more assured touch and with unrivalled intensity, Mendes gives us a film that encapsulates the madness and futility of war from way back in the last millennium right down to this day and age.