Review – War Is Hell, Take One (“1917”)

Ya gotta admire director & co-writer Sam Mendes. He said he wanted to film his epic war movie as one long continuous single shot, start to finish. That takes guts. Two other movies dared to try this: Hitchcock’s Rope and Alejandro G. Iñárritu‘s Birdman, and they both achieved it by filming 10-20 minute sections, cleverly edited together.

In a dazzling achievement of cinematic prowess, this movie dares to do the impossible… and nearly succeeds. Using CGI “cheats” as edits (moving the camera behind trees, people, walls, into occasional darkness, etc), the camera NEVER leaves or cuts away from our two main characters, like some benevolent guardian angel.

It’s the height of WWI and we’re in northern France where two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a dangerous mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to hand-deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the 2nd Battalion, calling off their planned attack on the German forces.

IF the message isn’t delivered on time, that battalion will not only lose 1600 good men, but Blake’s older brother, so no pressure! Leaving immediately, Blake & Schofield take off deep into enemy territory on foot, negotiating through abandoned German trenches that aren’t what they seem, traversing over farm land, witnessing a harrowing mid-air dog fight that ends in tragedy, and Schofield getting picked up by a passing regiment that drops him off near the bombed-out French village of Ecoust-Saint-Mein, where he is nearly killed.

Schofield, miles away from the battalion and facing insurmountable odds to get there, feels the hours ticking by as the Germans are closing in on him. How will he get to his rendezvous on time? Will he get his message to the right person? And how in the world did they ever film this movie? I mean, you have to think about it! One false move, one single blunder in all of those background extras or props and it’s bye-bye 10-20 minutes or more of that last tracking shot! Talk about nerve-racking on behalf of the director!! The cinematographer alone (Roger Deakins) should get an award for his technical achievement in steadi-cam use; it was flawless.

Written by director Mendes (Spectre, Skyfall) and newbie Krysty Wilson-Cairns (cable series Penny Dreadful), the movie isn’t like anything you’ve seen before, due to the fact that you never leave the two main actors, which for leads MacKay & Chapman, must’ve been intense and grueling to “on” every single minute. Their dialogue is simple, direct, poignant, and real. What impressed me the most is Chapman, who is mostly theater trained, and comes off as the most “real” person in the movie.

Everything about this film is engaging, sublime, startling, and full of eye-popping wonder, from the breath-taking opening tracking shot that you swear HAS to end at some point, to several “how did they DO that??!!” moments in the movie. I’m going to give this my Oscar prediction right now and say this movie should take home Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of technical awards as well.

Gallipoli (1981)

War is hell and whether you’re in Vietnam, Iraq or – in this case – somewhere off the coast of Turkey, many are going to be killed as a result of misinformation. Although the battle of Gallipoli in 1915 actually happened, this particular story of two friends is fictionalized, but the horror of war remains very real.

Starting off like Chariots of Fire, we are introduced to 18-year-old Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) of Australia, a wide-eyed young man who, although he lives on a remote horse ranch with his super-strict Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), he’s also one helluva runner. During a local fair and foot race, he meets Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a cocky opponent who’s also an accomplished sprinter. The two strike up a friendship and decide, like so many others, to join the Army and fight the Turks. Problem is, Archy is disqualified because of his age. No problem, points out wheeler-dealer Frank, they’ll just run off to Perth and join up there… under fake names.

Fooling the British is easy at Perth and Archy is enlisted into the Light-horseman brigade, while Frank is shipped off with the rest of the troops to Cairo for training. Oh sure, it all seems like fun & games for the troops at first, and they’re having a pretty good time of it; clowning around, harassing the locals in town, and Frank meeting Archy during a training exercise. But everything changes when they are given orders to go to war-ravaged Gallipoli and the stronghold of the Turks. Stuck in the trenches there, hundreds of men are waiting for some break in the firing for a chance to attack the Turks, who are only a few yards away.

Finally it happens, orders come down from HQ (who are right down the beach) to attack, but it’s a hopeless suicide mission as the Turks hold the high-ground (AND machine guns, too!). Wave after wave of British & Australian men are needlessly wiped out as the brigade’s idiotic commander, Colonel Robinson (John Morris) insists they continue to attack! With the phone lines down, racked with guilt, and going over the head of his commander, Lieutenant Gray (Peter Ford) has his ‘runner’ Frank, sprint with a message to General Gardner (Stanley Lee) to stop the attacks on the Turks.

Frank, running to the point of exhaustion, almost kills himself to get the message to Gen. Gardner, who says to cease fire at once. But as Frank races back to deliver the message, the phone lines are repaired and Col. Robinson orders another attack… and this one includes Archy! The ending is not a happy one, as war never is. Frank arrives, but is too late to stop the slaughter. This movie was made after director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) was profoundly moved, having visited the actual Gallipoli memorial site in Turkey.

Mostly a successful playwright, David Williamson turned out an outstanding script with a richly layered and textured story of friendship, coming of age, and a loss of innocence, all set in the beautiful and stark Australian outback. Although Mark Lee (a theater star) was supposed to be the central focus of the movie, he was eclipsed by the outgoing swagger and easy-going charm of his co-star, Mel Gibson, who has just come off starring in his two Mad Max films, making him a bona-fide movie star. Then you had Peter Weir’s sweeping direction, reminiscence of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, with his grandiose camerawork and rich attention to detail.

In fact, the actual battle at Gallipoli doesn’t even show up on screen until nearly the end of the movie, giving it more impact. Instead, Weir focuses on Frank & Archy, two brothers-in-arms who spend their last days on Earth together, looking after each other and staying friends under the most horrific of circumstances. If you get a chance, rent the DVD and check out the special features where Weir and Williamson discuss writing the movie, showing you the real Gallipoli, and the meticulous care that went into making this movie. It’s well worth the watch.

Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock. The man, legend, the master filmmaker. In 1948 he experimented, like the great Orson Welles, in doing something absolutely nutty. Film an entire movie about a group of people hold up in one room… and do it in ONE TAKE!

Okay, so he couldn’t really shoot his 80 minute movie in one take, that’s crazy-talk, so he did the next best thing: shoot the movie in ten minutes increments and then cleverly splice together the film through editing “cheats” (the camera pans past people, furniture, walls, etc.). Brilliant. Hitchcock’s gamble payed off and it looks like it was shot in one very long take.

The plot, based on the real-life infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder story, is about two fiendishly clever and criminally insane college kids who decide, as an experiment on committing “the perfect murder”, to kill a fellow student and get away with it. They stuff the body in a trunk and then host a party in their apartment with the trunk in the middle of the room!

The killers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), delight as they host a dinner party with the victim’s friends, fiancée, and  housemaster, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) all in attendance. In this cramped little room, all the characters wonder aloud what is taking David (the dead kid in the trunk) so long to show up? Brandon, the egotistical showman, even drops hints about dead David, while Phillip starts to panic and unravel as ‘detective’ Rupert slowly starts to piece things together through dropped clues and suspects foul play.

The end of the film has Rupert finding out about David, but is his life in danger as well? As the credits roll, you have to decide (just like in the stage play) what happens next. Based on Patrick Hamilton’s stage play, this adaption by Arthur Laurents (who wrote mainly musicals like West Side Story and Gypsy) was perfect; Hitchcock only building on the script with his signature style and hiring an impeccable cast.

If you notice homosexual overtones throughout the film, you wouldn’t be off-base. For 1940 audience’s that subject was rather verboten, but gay writer Laurents teased it in the movie that Shaw and Morgan were more than just best friends, if you know what I mean. In real life, Farley Granger’s bisexuality was a well-kept Hollywood secret.

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