George MacKay in ‘1917’
Universal and Dreamworks
“I am exhausted. I feel like I’ve run around with him!” This is what the lady sitting next to me in the theater exclaimed once Sam Mendes’ 1917 was finished. The illusion of the continuous shot clearly has an immersive effect on spectators. This new epic film set during the First World War is a cinematic feast best enjoyed on the big screen. The film was released this Friday January 10, and has already won awards at the Golden Globes.
Sam Mendes’1917 opens on a peaceful green meadow. The stillness of this opening shot is broken once the camera moves to reveal two British soldiers resting. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), fast asleep under his tin helmet, is woken with orders to pick another soldier and go see the General. He volunteers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) to go with him. General Erinmore (played by Colin Firth) sends them on a mission across enemy lines to warn another regiment that they are headed into a trap.
The General tells Blake that he was especially chosen for this near-impossible mission because his brother is one of the 1,600 soldiers in that regiment, and quotes Rudyard Kipling, “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone,” as an explanation for sending only two soldiers for this mission. Sending these two soldiers with a letter is the only way for them to communicate with the regiment at risk. Blake goes ahead fueled by his eagerness to save his brother, while Schofield, who did not volunteer for this mission, is more cautious.
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Carnes, the film is dedicated to Mendes’ grandfather who was sent on missions carrying messages between regiments. Mendes told NPR: “He was a small man, and they used to send him with messages because he ran 5 ½ feet, and the mist used to hang at about 6 feet in no man’s land, so he wasn’t visible above the mist.” All the characters in Mendes’ film are fictional, but much of the film is based on the stories his grandfather told him.
No context is given about the two protagonists. The film gives the slightest of clues about the lives of these soldiers outside the war. But there is frankly no need to know, there is no need for flashbacks to show the audience what or who the soldiers are thinking about. The direction, camera work (by director of photography Roger Deakins), and the actors’ performances are all perfectly choreographed for the spectators to connect emotionally with Schofield and Blake. The technique of creating the illusion of a continuous shot also renders an immediacy to the images, emphasizing the urgency of the mission. Unless you are too busy wondering how this technical feat was created in the first place, and while it may be interesting to marvel at the technical prowess (and you should once the film is over), you may miss the emotional connection that this very technique—which you are too busy noticing—is allowing.
The images are beautiful, making full use of the cinematic language, within the illusion of one continuous shot (there is, for example, an incredible use of the effect of depth of field). The camera acts like a third invisible character, at times following, at others ahead of the two protagonists. The camera moves, swerving around the characters it frames, and never seems to stop moving. This movement contrasts with the stasis that is associated with this entrenched warfare. This stasis, this endless waiting around that soldiers endured during this war is nonetheless perfectly captured in the film. As Blake and Schofield move across trenches, it is the tired, wary, or scared to their wits, soldiers that are shown, sitting or asleep, holding their rifles tight, waiting to be told to go over, that the camera reveals. This is one aspect of the film which I found extraordinary. The production design has been meticulously thought through. Every detail is mind-boggling, from the fly-infested corpses of horses on the battlefield, to the enormous rats that roamed the trenches, eating the innards of dead soldiers.
1917 is an immersive experience. It is a film that takes its audience by the hand across this recreated war-torn landscape, and lets the spectator feel Schofield’s journey to survive. The end sequence is especially touching without falling into over-sentimentality. The very last image reveals Schofield’s inner struggle, so evident that no flashbacks or comment was needed to tell us what it was. We knew all along.
Made with reportedly a budget of $100 million, this Amblin/Dreamworks and New Republic produced film is set to do well in the box office, especially since it won numerous awards, including Best Film, at the Golden Globes last weekend. The film has nine nominations for the BAFTAs, although it is surprising that George MacKay received none for his tremendous performance.