1917 - 2019
Updated: Nov 14
We set a precedent for using hyphens in our titles months ago, but now that I'm writing about 1917, brackets seem much more appropriate.
After viewing 1917 I have a lot to say. This film is spectacular. There is no doubt about it. It follows Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) on their mission to deliver a message that will prevent 1,600 soldiers from marching headfirst into a trap. Of course, the nature of the mission dictates that it need be completed in a perilously short period of time. The odds seem insurmountable, but with a brother in the 1,600 doomed for death should they fail, Blake pushes forward with Schofield at his side. And I'm not going to say anything more about the plot, because I will inevitably give something critical away. Prepare yourself, for vagueness like you have never read before!
This film uses the one-shot technique in order to communicate its story. This essentially means that through carefully constructed cinematography, a director is able to give the impression that a film was created in one long take, by one single camera. 1917 obviously wasn't filmed in one take and if you are looking for the cuts, you'll certainly find some. However, these moments don't take anything away from Sam Mendes' masterpiece; filming 1917 using the one-shot technique, creates an unforgettable experience for audience members, that would have been impossible with multiple cameras taking shots from multiple angles. For starters, the one-shot style, in this instance, provides a faultless 21st century response to naturalism. For those who don't know, naturalism is a theatrical style of the late-19th/early-20th century, and is essentially realism on steroids. It is realistic characters, doing realistic things, on stage in real time. As you can imagine, naturalism has largely been abandoned, because such displays of realism on steroids, are often boring for audience members to watch. 1917 is anything but boring. The use of "one shot", heightens tension for audiences, as the film plays out in real-time and the characters are on a real time limit. Furthermore, it allows us on occasion, to forget that this is a film. A fly on the wall effect is created which again, heightens tension. Did I mention this film is tense? Thankfully I will never have to take medication for my low blood pressure again, as it was definitely permanently corrected after watching this movie.
The one-shot technique is certainly not new. It has been used multiple times over multiple decades. However, can I be so bold as to say that, comparative to other one-shot films, 1917 would have been extremely challenging to create. Mendes has obviously worked with his cast, crew and cinematographer to choreograph this film like an extremely complex dance. The sheer volume of people to co-ordinate is enough to turn me off a task like this, let alone the sets that they are moving through (e.g. trenches). The camera and actors also often rotate, so that the focus consistently changes as the scene unfolds. One particular moment in the trenches stands out. The camera is behind our protagonists, then it moves in front of them and one actor is foregrounded, then the other actor pushes forward, then all of a sudden the camera moves behind the actors again. If you aren't paying attention, this movement may go unnoticed, but "choreography" is not an exaggeration. This took planning and (I'm assuming) extensive rehearsals to perfect.
Now that I've given you a break from my rant regarding tension, I'm going to go back to the topic and write a paragraph on tension! This may seem odd, however I've done this on purpose to demonstrate why Mendes is a genius. The rhythm in this film is perfect. Mendes understands how to take a story, that is incredibly high-stakes, have his characters in numerous life-threatening situations, and seamlessly fluctuate his tension to great effect. Any thrilling film needs its tension to fluctuate. If a film has no tension, the audience gets bored, and if a film is TENSE THE WHOLE TIME, the audience will become exhausted, then disconnect, then get bored. At many points throughout this film, I was tense with fear and literally sitting on the edge of my seat. Additionally, I was embarrassingly invested in the characters' welfare, to the point that, at one moment, when I was concerned that Schofield was about to suffer a knock to the head, I grabbed my own head to protect him (apologies to the person sitting behind me in the cinema). In contrast to these scenes, Mendes gives us moments where we feel like we can take a breather (albeit brief) with his characters. This allows us to recover our blood pressure and heart rate before the tension inevitably skyrockets once again. It isn't easy to perfect this balance. It's super easy to tip the scales in one direction or the other, but as I said earlier, Mendes doesn't. Essentially, he (along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) knows how to write an effective script for maximum impact. And I hope you can see that I attempted to demonstrate Mendes' technique, by writing about tension, taking a break, then writing about tension again...but I also understand that my writing about tension, probably isn't as tense, as Mendes' characters overcoming death repeatedly. I gave it my best shot though.
Amongst all of these moments, Mendes still has time to give us dialogue that communicates a perspective on war. I won't spend too much time deconstructing it for you, but there are two moments, in particular, that stand out for me. Firstly, very early on in the film, a soldier is heard saying, "Nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow". Medals are discussed further in the film, and different characters offer different perspectives. However, the overwhelming message seems to be that human life should be valued over "a piece of tin". Another moment, is when one of our protagonists recites a section of The Jumblies by Edward Lear. Now, despite the fact that The Jumblies was published in a book with other "nonsense poems", the words, "They went to sea in Sieve, they did," seem to hold no-nonsense meaning in the context of World War I. By having one of his characters recite this poem, Mendes offers a metaphor that highlights the likely fate of many soldiers throughout WW1: doomed to die from the moment they left home. It's powerful. Or it was for me.
I know I'm not supposed to review other reviews, but sometimes other reviewers make me so mad, that I feel it's my duty to review their thoughts. I've read reviews stating that no connection is made between the characters and audience in 1917. In other words, we have no apparent reason to hope for Schofield or Blake's survival. I'm guessing that what these reviewers wanted was a lengthy speech exploring all the reasons for why these two men should survive to the end (e.g. I have 12 children who are starving, I'm my parents' only child, I run an orphanage etc). At the very end of this film, Schofield pulls out pictures of his family. He hasn't spoken about them to this point. It's essentially revealed that he put his life on the line, on multiple occasions for his country, despite the fact that he had photographs in his pocket the whole time, with the words "come home to us" written on the back. I am so, so, so glad that this is revealed at the end of the film. Sure, we don't get a story about his wife and kids to cling to for two hours, but if we had, Mendes would have been rolling out another cliche. Instead, we get a story about the unselfish behaviour of many soldiers, the focus is on their sacrifices and it is a fantastic way for this film to end.
Go see this film. Yes, it's a war film. However, it offers a completely different experience to any other war film I've ever seen. The tension will have you on the edge of your seat and the camera work will have your jaw on the floor. If I were to offer one piece of advice though? Don't watch the trailer first, it kind of contains spoilers. It partially spoiled aspects of the film for me. Go in blind, and enjoy everything that Mendes has to offer.