1917

 

            I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger

            Traveling through this world below.

 

            April, 1917.  Trench warfare, World War One.  British against the Germans.  Two British privates, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) are tasked with a monumental assignment.  The British command has learned through aerial reconnaissance that the Germans, thought to be on the run, are actually conducting a planned retreat to a fortified defense, in order to lure the British soldiers out of their trenches to their inevitable slaughter.  It's a trap.  And the British don't want to use “clear channel” radio to communicate, because the Germans would intercept.  So they do this the old-fashioned way:  they send two soldiers, on foot, with written instructions.  The same way General Grant did it during the American Civil War.  And Napoleon.  And Julius Caesar.  And Alexander the Great.  And as in all those wars, as well, things never go quite according to plan.

 

            There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger

            In that bright land to which I go.

 

            Schofield and Blake are told that the first part of their journey would be easy, because the Germans have already retreated over that part of No Man's Land.  But their journey through the devastated landscape ravaged by war is anything but uneventful.  There's the random wounded German, impeding their progress.  The dugout tunnel the Germans left behind is trip-mined.  Blake is especially motivated because his brother is part of the 1,600-man force scheduled to attack at dawn, which gives him extra incentive to traverse the dangerous countryside even in broad daylight.

 

            I'm going there to see my Father

            And all my loved ones who've gone on.

 

            Stumbling on a truck convoy of friendly troops helps a little, until they must pursue their orders in a different direction.  A village reduced to smoldering rubble surprisingly houses a young French woman and a crying baby who she claims is not hers.  The brief respite is welcome, but immediately thereafter an unseen sniper lurks, causing an unscheduled plunge into a raging river.

 

            I'm just going over Jordan

            I'm just going over home.

 

            Ironically, the only sound Schofield hears upon stumbling out of the river is one clear tenor singing “Wayfaring Stranger,” as a serenade to the troops about to embark on their doomed attack.  He desperately seeks to find the commander, in order to prevent even more useless carnage.

 

            Director Sam Mendes uses a filming technique that makes it seem like one long continuous take.  He also utilizes tension-filled silence, a moving musical score, and the war-torn landscape to create an immersive and emotive viewing experience.  It's harrowing.  But it's worth it.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association