Sam Mendes’s stunning World War I story is one that must be experienced on the big screen. It is visually stunning, action packed, and heartbreaking. Mendes tells the story of Lance Corporal William Scofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they are sent on what seems like an impossible mission across the battlefield. The plot is slow and deliberate at times and juxtaposed with quick and visually mesmerizing action sequences that draw the viewer in. Knowing that the plot is based on the stories of Mendes’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a World War I veteran, brings a certain level of intensity to the story.
One of the main complaints I have heard from other critics about this film is that there is very little character development and I do not believe that could be any further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, this cast is full of blink and you miss it appearances by big names like Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Colin Firth. However, the two main characters are very well developed. It is a slow burn, but we are learning about these characters until the very last shot. The character development is very deliberate in that these men have been ripped away from everything they know to fight in a war they don’t necessarily support. I am sure many of them were leery of sharing the intimate details of their lives back home. Not to mention the fact that is was also probably very difficult for them to speak about their loved ones when there was little hope they would ever see them again.
While there are two main characters, I would argue that there are actually three. The war itself becomes a looming villain throughout the duration of the mission these men are on. Of course, there is mention of the Germans, but there are very few scenes where we see German soldiers as the enemy. More so, the characters are feeling the overwhelming presence of the conflict in general. While the narrative itself is about war, this truly is an anti-war film. It speaks to the human cost of war. Mendes chooses not to depict as many people being killed on screen as you would expect for a war story. Instead, there are far more shots of dead bodies as the men make their way across the landscape. He has a way of lingering on these bodies for just a second longer than necessary in order for the audience to feel the true loss these men are experiencing. The absolute gut wrenching imagery of dead soldiers stacked on top of each other creates an even larger sense of urgency for these men to be successful in their mission.
Aside from the characters, there is so much more to appreciate about the experience of this film. Mendes shot it so it appears it was done in one take. I don’t always like this approach. Sometimes I find it to be distracting and disorienting. However, he was able to do it in such a seamless way that it was hard to look away from the screen at any point. This approach, paired with the score that Thomas Newman created, provides the viewer with a sense of anticipation and anxiety throughout. I have been listening to this score for weeks and loved it before even walking into the theater. Nothing compares to hearing it in conjunction with the images on screen though. The other surprising technical aspect was the screenplay crafted by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Despite the overall narrative, there were some truly funny one liners, especially at the beginning when we are falling in love with these characters. It really allowed the audience to create a bond with the characters beyond their status as soldiers on a mission.
I wish this film had come out just a bit sooner because it definitely would have made my year end top ten list. We don’t get to see that many good films about World War I. This story really captures the human experience of this particular conflict. Even if you aren’t a fan of war films, I highly recommend seeing this one as it is just an amazing piece of art.