As a young soldier overcomes harrowing obstacles to deliver a crucial battlefield message in British director Sam Mendes’ slice of life and death in The Great War, I found myself thinking, “Boy, if he makes it through all this, he’ll have some stories to tell his grandchildren!” Minutes later the end credits revealed that what we had just seen was based on stories Mendes’ grandfather, a WWI vet, had told him.
I’m guessing it didn’t all happen exactly that way. Mendes’ characters go through scenes that carry the unmistakable whiff of screenwriting, even if they may have been extrapolated from granddad’s wartime tales. One such moment sees the soldier encountering and lingering with a pretty girl and her baby, when everything in him (and the audience) should be screaming, “Hurry up! The clock is ticking! Thousands of lives are at a stake!”
But that sequence is also illustrative of what is truly magnificent about this movie, Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography. The interlude with the girl takes place amidst the smoldering ruins of a blasted French town at night, with flares and bombs bursting in air to create a fabulous nightmarescape of jagged walls and terrifying shadows.
The whole movie is set to that great cinematic challenge, the single take. It’s a device we’ve seen memorably in Russian Ark (2002) and as far back as Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Nothing says real-time like an uninterrupted two-hour shot, even if Mendes employed digital artifice to achieve that illusion (Rope also employed hidden cuts; Russian Ark was a true one-take wonder).
The story is an odyssey, a road movie with no roads, that sends two young men on a probable suicide mission to carry an urgent dispatch to a forward company preparing a disastrous attack. Adding to the urgency: The brother of one of the messengers is with the endangered company, which is about to charge into a German trap, and the brother will surely die if the warning is not delivered. The camera follows the two on an endless walk through their trenches, then up and over the top into a muddy apocalyptic terrain strewn with fresh and rotting corpses and scurrying, feasting rats.
The two corporals are Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), one a little more seasoned than the other. The screen is mostly theirs alone, though the cast is filled out with a few name actors like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who probably log five minutes between the three of them, and, as good as they are, distract with their star power.