ENTER-1917-MOVIE-REVIEW-MCT

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in a scene from “1917.” They play two soldiers plucked from the line to deliver a crucial message that could save the lives of 1,600 of their fellow soldiers who are walking into a trap.

A character in Sam Mendes’ gripping World War I film “1917” utters this line: “The only way this war will end will be with the last man standing.”

He’s talking about the Great War, “The War to End All Wars.” But really, he might as well be talking about war itself.

Mendes wrote, directed and produced the epic — shot to look like one continuous take — based on conversations with his grandfather, a writer himself who actually served in that war. It’s not a true story; it’s a fictional piece about two soldiers plucked from the line to deliver a crucial message that could save the lives of 1,600 of their fellow soldiers who are walking into a trap.

Mendes, who won an Oscar as best director for his very first feature film, “American Beauty,” and a best director Golden Globe for this one, is among the most gifted storytellers on a modern movie lot. That showed in his two James Bond movies, “Skyfall” and “Spectre.”

But those were almost gimmicky things. I mean, how can you go wrong with all the gadgetry in a Bond film, and with Daniel Craig as the star, along with the history of that franchise?

This film, though, with its gritty reality, is so much more — a social commentary, even. Dean-Charles Chapman plays Lance Corporal Blake with a youthful earnestness, as he’s intent on trying to save the endangered regiment. Which, in a twist that adds urgency to the mission, includes his older brother, a lieutenant.

His reluctant companion is George MacKay, as Lance Corporal Schofield. You get the sense that Schofield is the more grizzled veteran, the soldier who has learned never to volunteer. But when his pal picks him, thinking perhaps they’re on a food run, he picks up his vintage kit, shouldered his Lee Enfield rifle and tags along.

But it’s MacKay, who deserves a best-actor nomination for his wrenching performance, who realizes when they get their orders that they’re on what’s most likely a suicide mission, having to cross miles of the storied “No Man’s Land” and German-occupied territory to reach the otherwise doomed regiment. That’s when his survival instincts kick in, and he urges his young friend to wait for a safer time to make the perilous journey. He knows the old saying: There are old soldiers and there are bold soldiers, but there are no old, bold soldiers, not in wartime.

The trip takes them through the horrors of trench warfare, and Mendes pulls no punches in showing those horrors, from the mangled remains of horses whose faces look to have been captured in mid-scream to the grotesquely disfigured and distended bodies of soldiers of both sides half-submerged in muddy, bloody bomb craters.

Any who have been in war know that there are times when humanity makes a surprise appearance, and Mendes again captures that in two separate scenes. But that humanity is sometimes fleeting and always fickle, a fact Mendes shows as well.

I can remember being in southern Iraq, on an unlit and unmarked road between Basra and Nasiriyah, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, and looking up at the night sky. Because our early generation GPS had somehow erased some waypoints, our two-vehicle “convoy” made the mistake of being out past dark, a dangerous situation. The civilian security team was nervous, worried about raids or an unseen IED. But me? All I could think of was looking at what seemed to be millions of stars visible in the total darkness and think, “How could a place so beautiful be so deadly?”

Mendes has several such moments in “1917,” with decidedly different outcomes, and that is the unpredictability of war. Truly, there is only one absolute in war: People die.

And that may truly be Mendes’ point, raised through that lone, gripping “last man standing” comment.

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