Sam Mendes’s name for his film is right. It hits you in the face with the mud, blood and gloom that was there, heavily, relentlessly, during that terrible year following three years of horror and followed by an even worse one. Out of this war that Mendes described as “a chaos of mismanagement and tragedy,” he has made a war movie like none other. Eschewing regular scripts for war films, the storyline is about how to stop a battle, not about how the players participate in one. Then, the one-take, the film never leaving the awful trek and never looking away from the permanent horror of the trenches, the destruction, the rotting bodies of men and animals.

The story is that of two young British lance corporals, Schofield and Blake, who have to cross a no-man’s land between the enemy lines of the Brit and the German to reach British troops on the other side, with an urgent message to stop a planned attack on the German. If not, 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother, will be slaughtered as the enemy, far from retreating, as announced, has planned a trap (the film takes place over a few square kilometers around the town of Ecoust-Saint-Mein in the Pas-de-Calais, a northern region in France).

Basing “1917” on the recollections of his grandfather who, at age nineteen, fought the war that came to be called “Great,” Mendes sticks close to the two characters, never giving more about them than their immediate dramatic trek through combat lines, with everything that involves. The choice is brilliant, providing an intimacy not often seen in war movies. Though we root for the two young men at the center of this horrific tale, we hardly know more about them at the end of the film than at the start. Here are no flashbacks, no reminiscences, no bright memories. Even at the worse moments, Schofield or Blake don’t have the respite of images of better days, of a mother’s love, of family meals. Intent on the mission, they cross the muddy, dreary terrain, never allowing themselves to remember a life before and think about the possibility of the one there might be after.

We follow, nay, we sometimes are, the two young men through the miles of trenches built for the film, the skeletons of towns looming above the desperate landscape and the near escapes in frightening circumstances.
This makes for a war movie like none other. The story line is about two young soldiers trying to stop a battle, not about multiple players including commanding officers planning and participating in one. Then, there’s the single take, much talked about. There are cuts, of course, this story unfolding in real time would last some ten, twelve hours, but the impression is of never-ending, permanent, relentless horror.

The name of the film, “1917,” brings to mind the extraordinary story of the fourth year of this war which started with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand. By 1917, “the war to end all wars” was raging across a good part of the world, mainly in Europe. By the time it was over, in 1918, a number of empires had ended (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian) a genocide had killed 1,5 million Armenians in Turkey. In 1917, the Russian Revolution had toppled the last czar and replaced the monarchy with a Soviet state. Altogether, some ten million soldiers and fifteen million civilians died. Whoever remained standing was mowed down in 1918 and 1919 by an influenza epidemic to end all epidemics. Some fifty million died there, with a recent upgrading of the figure to a possible 100 million. And barely twenty years later came the 1939-1945 War, with its own never-seen-before horrors.

Our own world may be slightly better off. Or we’d like to think so.

RELATED: SAÏDEH PAKRAVAN writes about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on her political blog 

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