Movie review: 1917 (Mendes)

My first film at the new Madison Theatre

The movie 1917 was the first film my wife and I saw at the newly refurbished Madison Theatre. It’s only three blocks from our house. We walked there on a rainy Saturday afternoon in January.

When we entered the room, there were some animated short films already running. One was the 2015 offering Ear Fear. They were followed by previews of three movies, including The Turning, which was playing on another of the Madison’s four screens.

In April 1917, two British soldiers – Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake and George MacKay as Schofield – are “sent to deliver an urgent message to an isolated regiment. If the message is not received in time, the regiment will walk into a trap and be massacred.” Blake has a brother at that imperiled regiment.

As one spoiler-laced review notes, “When done well, [the long take] immerses the audience in the scene. If the action is literally unfolding all around the camera, it’s easy to convince viewers that they, too, are in the thick of it. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins make it work for 1917.”

I agree with that assessment. It may have the best chance of the nine films nominated for Best Picture to take home the Oscar. Yet about 10% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a thumbs down.


What’s the general complaint? Often that the film is style over substance. Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker is informative.

“The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead, the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque—to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove…”

I suppose there is something to this criticism. Interestingly, Mendes gives credit to his grandfather for telling these stories. Yet it is the sentimentality that makes the penultimate scene feel so touching.

“‘1917’ is a film of patriotic bombast and heroic duty, The script is filled with melodramatic coincidences that grossly trivialize the life-and-death action by reducing it to sentiment.” There are coincidences, to be sure. They did not take away from our appreciation of the film. But 1917, in the end, was less gruesome than those horror film trailers.

The Madison Theatre has table service. I was wary that this would be distracting, but it was not, in large part because the seats and tables alternate.

Even the waitstaff aiding people to our right was not that distracting. It’s hardly as bad as the chuckleheads talking in front of us when we saw Richard Jewell at the Spectrum about a month earlier.


They die in the trenches and they die in the air
In Belguim and France the dead are everywhere
They die so so fast there’s no time to prepare
A decent grave to surround them


Some weeks ago, I was listening to the great 1999 album by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris called Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. The fifth track on the album was described by the respected website in this way:

“The album’s best track, ‘1917,’ was written by folk singer David Olney. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing this haunting tale of soldiers and women in World War I. Fragile and breathtaking, Harris’ voice is buoyed by the angelic harmonies of Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle.”

I always find it extraordinary haunting.

Here’s the fourth verse:

They die in the trenches and they die in the air
In Belgium and France the dead are everywhere
They die so so fast there’s no time to prepare
A decent grave to surround them
Old world glory old world fame
The old worlds gone gone up in flames
Nothing will ever be the same
And nothing lasts forever
Oh I’d pray for him but I’ve forgotten how
And there’s nothing nothing that can save him now
There’s always another with the same funny bow
And who am I to deny them

Here’s a live version of the song 1917, also from 1999.

On Veterans Day, let us not glorify war, but always remember its horror.


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