There’s a belief among some creative types that history becomes irrelevant if you don’t constantly retell it using the latest tools at hand. This explains such oddities as the battle of Thermopylae restaged as a CGI pro wrestling match (“300,” 2006) or all those bodice-ripping monarchical miniseries on TV (“The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” “Catherine the Great”). In time for its centenary, the trend has extended to World War I. Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018) re-animated existing footage of the Great War by colorizing it and adding ambient sound, in the (correct) belief that audiences will perceive it as more “real.”
In his new film “1917,” director/co-writer Sam Mendes tries mightily to re-create World War I — his grandfather Alfred Mendes’s war — as an immersive Sensurround cataclysm by following one soldier in real time across a devastated landscape using what appears to be a single two-hour-long camera shot. “You Are There,” as the pioneering CBS TV show once had it, only with heavy digital effects and heavier artillery.
The results are mixed, to say the least, and responses have varied wildly, from some moviegoers who have been profoundly moved to others creeped out by what they’ve already dubbed “Ready Player World War One.” With a recent Golden Globe win for best dramatic film of 2019, “1917” opens wide in theaters in a burst of attention, and it is in theaters that I would advise you to see it if you’re at all curious. There are some good things in it and some very bad things. Another way to put it: There are some bad things in it and some very good things.
One of the very good things is the young, long-jawed lead actor, George MacKay, as Lance Corporal Schofield, who is not a strapping matinee idol but a trench-warfare survivor, decent and exhausted and frightened for his life. He is memorable precisely because he is unmemorable — just another one of those faces going over the top in grainy old footage.
Schofield has reluctantly agreed to volunteer for a dangerous mission with his friend and platoon mate, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of “Game of Thrones”). They are to carry a message to a distant general who is readying an attack, warning him that a German retreat is a feint and that 1,600 British soldiers are advancing into a trap. Blake volunteers because his older brother is with the other unit. Schofield is just desperate to get away from the charnel pit. They have to travel seven miles or so, but it could be 700.
Mendes and his production team, headed by production designer Dennis Gassner and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, bring us into their war with little fanfare, just a rolling tour of the trenches and the shell-shocked civilization that has taken root there over months and years. As Schofield and Chapman are picked out of the crowd, you slowly realize we’re with them for the duration, tagging along like invisible ghosts from the future. The first section of “1917” has them cross the pocked craters of no man’s land, under barbed wire, past dead horses and the rotting corpses of men. It’s terrain we’ve visited many times in the movies, and how to make it real except through granular detail and jolts of gore?
There’s a scarifying near-death experience in a booby-trapped bunker — a definition that could stand in for the whole movie — and eventually the two men emerge from the desolation into something like actual countryside. “1917” feels more freshly imagined from this point on, even as the single-take camerawork fades in and out of self-conscious gimmickry.
You forget it most when the acting is strongest. There’s a death scene early on where the camera settles down and watches a man watch his own life slip away, and the scene is haunting in its simplicity — as good as anything in “Saving Private Ryan.” Elsewhere, well-known British actors pop up as officers and other soldiers whose paths the heroes cross, and while some of these cameos can be distracting — especially a big how-do-ye-do toward the end — Mark Strong makes a quietly supportive impression as a convoy captain. Andrew Scott — the hot priest from “Fleabag” — is especially striking as a lieutenant who you realize over the course of one short, sharp scene is drifting from humanity into madness.
Yet there are also moments when “1917” is so beholden to its visual conceit that it feels fraudulent, even disrespectful to the dead. When Schofield leaps over a waterfall, Germans in pursuit, and the camera swivels around in front of him, it could be an outtake from a video game, an impression that is underscored by the peril-after-peril-after-peril linearity of the script by Mendes and Krysty Wilson Cairns. For all the efforts at verisimilitude, this movie can feel like a closed bubble in which MacKay’s Schofield runs in place, the scenery passing beneath him as though he were the Super Mario of the Somme.
What sticks: that death scene, the harried insistence on staying alive with which MacKay plays his role, the aching score by Thomas Newman with its echoes of Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” A final shot that is perfectly quiet, perfectly moving. The immensity of human disaster “1917” glances at (but only glances at) as it hurries its hero on his way. You are forgiven if you are swept up and carried along with the film’s breathless forward motion.
If not, it’s the lack of depth that ultimately may keep you from committing to “1917” or even respecting it — the movie’s sense that war is simply something that happens to people rather than being caused by them. Don’t forget that World War I was once called The War to End All Wars. It wasn’t and according to the headlines it still isn’t, but this movie never stops running to bother ask why.
Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson Cairns. Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 119 minutes. R (violence, some disturbing images, language)