Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Producer: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougal, and Brian Oliver
by Jon Cvack
Gravity (2013) was the first movie that felt as though cinema had progressed into new territory, allowing cutting edge technology to combine with a tentpole plot. It was a movie that felt like a ride. The kind of experience that only a movie theater could provide. When I heard people disparaging the film, the first thing I asked was how they watched it. One friend said she hated it before admitting she saw it on an air =plane.
Not to be confused with the transcendental feeling that great cinematic art can provide, films like Gravity and 1917 are those which fully maximize the movie-going experience. It is rocket fuel for a room that is filled with millions of dollars of audio-visual equipment. It’s how certain sequences from Interstellar (2014) or Ford vs. Ferrari (2019) or even Armageddon (1998) accomplished. People seem to forget how much better new movie theaters are even from just a few years ago with projection and sound alone. It’s why low attendance is such a shocking idea. We are at the apex of cinema going technology and even before covid, audiences were falling fast.
1917 is an odd film in that I haven’t even heard of the movie prior to its release, let alone that it’d be competitive in awards season or the technical mastery it contained. However, soon it leaked onto the internet that the movie was a series of long single takes. Not reading or wanting to know anything about the story, I had long figured the movie was your classic epic war film; taking place in the trenches of the First World War. Soon, I heard it consisted of essentially two seemingly long single takes; serving as both an exercise and another possible rare maximized cinematic experience.
The story is as simple a war story as it gets. It takes place on the Western Front where the Germans have allegedly retreated after a series of blistering attacks. Separated from the other battalion across No Man’s Land and with the telephone lines cut, the English 1st battalion suspects a German ambush and order two young soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), to take orders across No Man’s Land and cancel the attack.
The opening frame is as simple as it gets; showing Blake in close up, sitting against a tree. He then stands, joined by Schofield. The camera pulls out, revealing a dozen soldiers as Blake and Schofield walk by before then entering into the trench and we soon realize that we’re about to pass over a hundred soldiers in a single take. We follow from behind until a piece of subtle action - people cutting them off, stopping to chat, etc. - allow the camera to reposition itself so we’re never stuck following the backs of their heads.
For the most part, each long sequence is an attempt to change style and purpose. The first shot comes out strong, setting us for the sheer scope of the film. It made me excited for what’s to come; figuring if it was this good and fascinating from the opening minutes things only stood to evolve from there. The next sequence moves into the headquarters as General Erinmore (Colin Firth) gives them their orders and the camera moves around the tiny space, lingering on the other characters. It’s the weakest part of the film as it was both weird having such a powerhouse talent like Firth play someone that wouldn’t appear in the rest of the movie. There were also people talking all around me at the movie theater during this particular scene which kind of ruined the next ten minutes.
Blake and Schofield make their way across No Man’s Land, cutting through the barbed wire where Schofield catches his hand, down through some trenches where they find a corpse where Schofield accidentally drops his cut hand into the rotting chest. I did find this an odd moment that was never revisited, as I would have bet money that Schofield was going to experience some infectious discomfort as the story went on, but instead it never comes up.
They reach the German side of the line, finding the barracks completely abandoned and they head inside, finding rats crawling all over the space which soon trigger a trip wire, setting off a mine that causes the space to collapse and Schofield to be buried below a layer of rubble; his eyes blinded with dust. Blake leads him out, and they’re forced to jump over a mineshaft and I quickly realized that this film was not some grand war drama per the likes of Full Metal Jacket (1987) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), but rather an action-adventure movie-video game hybrid.
As I mentioned in my thoughts on Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol (2009), the issue is that video games now look as good as many tentpole movies, which combined with their interactivity, makes the film fail by comparison. 1917 poses the mirror of the same problem in providing a video game narrative with the greatest graphics possible which are actual images. We follow the characters around as though characters who never die in an MMO video game, wandering from adventure to adventure. That’s what I mean by experiment. It was as though Deakins and Mendes wanted to prove that cinema could still provide a better real-time experience.
Nevertheless, the issue with a video game structure is the inherent limitations that live-time photography provides. The story suffers as it’s forced to accommodate unrealistic action pieces over and over again. It was a common criticism of Gravity. It was fun to watch, but people got so carried away with the spectacle that they forgot how ridiculous the story was. When you drop the technical prowess, 1917 is an equally absurd story in which a simple MacGuffin propels the character forward into surviving a booby trapped explosion burying him in rubble; fighting a Nazi fighter pilot to the death; battling a Nazi sniper firing in a massive abandoned and bombed out town; and running across the battlefield as his fellow soldiers storm the German trenches. All in half a day. It is a character moving from one problem to another, each getting increasingly more difficult and emotionally intense. Just like a video game.
A live-time action-drama war film necessitates a thrilling story. It cannot be gritty or real the way the greatest war films are. That also doesn’t matter. If you accept that each moment is serving the craft more than the character or plot, it’s easy to accept the cinematic achievement. It begs the question as to what the story could have been instead of what it is. Long and elaborate takes wouldn’t accommodate a story with slower pace.
The one direction that might have worked better is what I expected going in - a battle between the Allies and the Germans in which we’re following the character in real time. They would line up along the trenches, the whistle blows, and we would follow a two hour battle with the character.
This isn’t to say there aren’t moments that in and of themselves were some of the finest bits and pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year. When the dog fight plays in the sky, I knew the inevitable fate and yet never could have imagined where it went or how they achieved it. Blake is stabbed and just when I thought Saving Private Ryan retained the most gruesome death scene in a war film, the live-time provides what most other films lack. Blake is stabbed, Schofield refuses to believe the situation, and then grasping the reality, we watch as Blake passes away, shifting from excruciating pain and into chills and calmness. It’s a moment forever burned into my mind.
The experience then shifts a bit from there, as you can’t help wondering how much wilder each scene will get, setting expectations so high that while there are great moments, with the exception of the iconic run through No Man’s Land, nothing comes close to matching the death of Blake.
Then again, after a week went by and I talked to more people, I found myself wanting to go back and experience it all again. The oddest part of the film is how quickly you forget you’re watching a single take; providing this weird zen-like interaction in which I lost all sense of watching a film and therefore had no idea what magnificence I missed. That alone goes to show how amazing the movie is. It’s not the greatest war film ever made, but it might be one of the most impressive technical achievements I’ve ever seen in theaters.
NOTE: I ended up returning to the cinema for a second screening and was unfortunately disappointed. No longer surprised by what was to come, something felt far more underwhelming; serving as an example where the video game format fails by locking us into a journey that initially felt unprecedented and lost its magic on the second round. It’s still a magnificent achievement, but I’m not sure when I’d return.
BELOW: Best scene of the movie
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.