I'm getting ahead of myself with this review, since the film is not yet listed in the 1001 (and maybe it won't be). I just felt I had to write something about it, as I was so struck by its beauty. Or, to be more honest, I was prompted to write by reading a review that seemed to me to wilfully misunderstand it!
'Beauty' is not the first word that usually springs to mind when thinking about the Great War of 1914-1918, especially if writer and director take a traditional anti-war stance in their story. As the 'envelope' gets pushed for what is both technically achievable and societally acceptable to show of the horrors of war, it becomes all too easy to dismiss something that eschews the reality as pulling its punches, or failing to honour the suffering, the dead and the survivors.
Sam Mendes and his writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, present something altogether different. War is presented as a fact. It is what it is. No-one over the age of 12 who has already absorbed either war movies or war writings is going to come to see this film needing to be told that war is hell. What we are given instead is something that looks at 'life' and what it is, even in the midst of carnage, by offering a mythic journey, more akin to The Odyssey than All Quiet On The Western Front. That some reviewers scold the movie for not being what they think it should be does perhaps indicate a failure on Mendes part, and certainly, this is not a flawless piece of cinema. First, perhaps the mythic elements (the symbolism of trees and handshakes and the Cross, Dante's Hell, and the Catholic 'Dark Night of the Soul') are not strong enough or seem too corny and simplistic. Did Mendes shy away from making something much more abstract and in doing so, lose his grip on what he 'wanted the film to be about'? Second, the trumpeting by the studios (and, to some extent, by Mendes himself) of the technical achievement in fashioning a story without any visible editing distracts the viewer into fretting about how at least eight hours of action can be filmed in 'a single take' when the movie is only two hours long? Scornful reviewers and audiences then forget to look at what the film actually presents, and instead concentrate on the superficial. Where are the joins, the cheats? And if this is a film 'about' The Great War, where are the usual facts and tropes, where the new information and analysis?
Richard Brody in The New Yorker, for example:
Blake has been chosen for this mission not because he’s necessarily the best soldier to undertake it but because he’s uniquely motivated to complete it—because he knows that, if he doesn’t reach the colonel in time, his brother will be among sixteen hundred soldiers who will be entrapped and massacred. The darker suggestion, utterly unexplored, is that morale and commitment were issues in the British Army at this latter stage of the Great War.
The script (written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) is imagination-free, which is to say that it endows the characters with no inner lives whatsoever.
"Utterly unexplored"? So what? Perhaps the film isn't about "the issues" facing the British Army at this stage in the war. If he doesn't choose to elaborate on the political aspects of the war, or the interior story of the two heroes, Blake and Schofield, or use technology to bring home 18-certificate brutality (a sort of politically endorsed torture porn - who wants that?), then let's consider what he does choose to show (at least in some selected scenes) and ask why.
The movie begins with the image of a weary soldier sat, back leaning against a tree. (It will end with the same image.) A fellow soldier, perhaps his friend, lies next to him, helmet covering his face. So, did Sam direct the two actors to just make themselves comfortable under the tree? Or was he more explicit in making them form this particular arrangement? If so, was it just for the purpose of aesthetic framing, or did he wish to convey something else other than just 'two soldiers resting under a tree'?
I should state the bleedin' obvious, which is that I don't have all the answers, nor, I suspect, would Mendes himself. There is nothing written in the manual of Creating Art that requires the Artist to be wholly conscious of the meaning of what he creates. Nor must he explain it to all comers before the Artefact is itself displayed. That would defeat the purpose of the Artefact, which must be good enough to convey its 'meanings' on its own - to an audience open to understanding it.
The soldiers' rest is interrupted by a sergeant who instructs Blake to pick a man and come to the dugout. Blake stands and offers his hand to Schofield. Schofield hesitates, but accepts the grasp and rises to his feet. Did he hesitate because he doesn't want to accompany Blake on an unknown errand? Or does he not want to accept the hand, perhaps signifiying an acknowledgement of friendship? In this case, I think it is the latter. More than once, Schofield will be offered hands to shake and he always accepts, though not always without hesitation. So, whatever else this film is 'about' it considers the 'issue' of friendship (a familiar trope in war movies!) and perhaps specifically, the dubious pleasure of friendship that comes with considerable, even ultimate risk. I think too, that in just this first scene, we have a sketch of the inner life of these two soldiers, and what I think is intended as a spiritual image, of man's relationship to Life (which will be developed later on).
We next get some obvious dialogue about Something's Up but the Foot Sloggers Don't Know What, and The Big Push (two more tropes). Corny, poor writing? Or do we just need a snatch of dialogue to confirm these two as just that, ordinary foot sloggers, while they make their way to the General's dugout? The meeting in the dugout reminded me of Marlow's meeting with the Company in the 'whited sepulchre' (Brussels) in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. They have an appointment at which they are to be given a hellish mission. Colin Firth's General, lit like a Rembrandt and flanked by murkier figures, quotes Kipling in justifying their going without any other help.
Down to Gehenna or up to the throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone
There is more to this quote than meets the eye: Kipling is the appropriate choice for an English general to quote; Gehenna is the valley where the some of the kings of Judah slaughtered their young; the poem is about friendship - specifically marriage. The poem is actually about the idea of travelling through life unmarried, which raises the suggestion that if these two soldiers are married, they may find such a situation an encumbrance to their mission, though Kipling was scornful of the idea: the poem is a rejection of it. Of course, none of this is immediately available to any viewers who know nothing of Kipling or Gehenna, but we have the dugout as a visual metaphor for the antechamber to Hell, and the General's revelation that Blake's brother is about to be slaughtered in a charge on the German positions unless he can get to their commanding officer (a later encounter with a helpful officer characterises him like Conrad's Colonel Kurtz) and prevent the action. It's ironic that Blake has already picked a friend, while the General tells them that it's best to go through life without one, regardless of one's destiny.
Whatever, Blake now leads the charge along the trenches to begin their Odyssey, with Schofield following close behind, though not charged with the same missionary urgency. Note that at the point where Schofield is revealed as experienced in war, and a winner of a ribbon, their positions are changed, and Schofield is in front. When Blake accidentally crashes into and knocks over a wounded soldier, provoking the the ire of his friend, we see Blake's baby face crumple as he walks on, doubting he can even get out of his own trench without mishap, while Schofield's grimly set mouth reveals all we need to know about his thoughts.
Despite the affecting portrayals of the two Tommies, and the brief but telling encounters with, most notably, Andrew Scott and Mark Strong as other officers helping them with practical help and advice, it is the landscape that dominates our senses. The grotesque decay of horses and humans in no-man's land; the ghostly tunnels and bunk rooms of the recently deserted German trenches; the farmhouse and barn where Schofield fatefully fetches water for a downed German airman and gathers milk (the milk of human kindness shown by Blake will go unrewarded); and, most significantly, the awesome light and shadow show of the flares over the French town whose blazing church signifies that this is, indeed, Gehenna. A moment of respite follows when a young woman with a small baby - not her own - tends Schofield's head wound. Is this a Virgin Mary sent to help him? He gives her the milk he had collected from the farm.
More than once, Schofield, in response to the doubts of others, insists he will succeed in his mission, despite the odds against him. He is lucky to escape more or less unscathed from brief firefights along the way; he is hindered by a British truck supposedly helping him to get nearer his objective that gets bogged down in the mud; the mordant chatter of the soldiers in the truck with him who are sceptical of his chances. It is in this scene that Schofield seems most alone as he silently mourns the loss of his fellow soldier, yet his resolve is strengthened and his determination to complete what was Blake's task is evident as he commands the men to lift the truck out of the ruts holding it back. At the end, it will be no surprise to discover his first name is Will.
Both Blake and Schofield carry personal mementoes of home, which they check for safety now and again, but it isn't until the final scene when Will is resting once more under a tree that we see the photos of his wife and daughters that he has kept secure in a small tin. He had been reluctant to speak about home, not even wanting to go on leave, but nor did he relish the battle, exchanging the medal and ribbon won at Thiepval for a bottle of wine.
The General's words prove hollow. Blake and Schofield succeeded precisely because they are motivated by their friendships and their love.