R — 110 minutes — Drama, War, Historical Fiction
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2020
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
“1917” is an explosive, innovative, ground-breaking film that still courses through my mind, long after leaving the theatre and, I believe, will be in my Top Five Movies of 2020 list by the end of the year. Set during WWI, it follows Schofield who tags along with fellow soldier and friend, Blake, as they try to deliver a crucial message to halt a dangerous attack that can put thousands of soldiers– including Blake’s brother– at risk.
People may read the synopsis and assume it’s another tired war movie that will glorify The Cause and send a message that war is necessary to achieve peace, but “1917” is everything but that. Instead, what we get is a cinematic masterpiece that is edited and shot to look like one continuous shot, free of any cuts, transitions, or any other jarring editing techniques that wartime movies love to use.
The Cinematography in “1917” is Unlike Anything You’ll Ever See
Never in my life have I witnessed a movie that utilizes long takes and endless tracking/dolly shots the way that “1917” did. Using this technique, actors move about a wartorn set, have conversations with characters, and transition from scene to scene without a single cut being made. This is done so in a way that feels as though the camera is our eyes and we are following these men on this near-impossible mission across enemy lines.
TIDBIT: I saw in an interview that George MacKay– Schofield– said that they rehearsed their movements and conversations for six months before filming. “1917” isn’t simply a movie but a carefully calculated dance that cannot be messed up because any error would warrant starting an entire scene over again from the beginning.
The major strength of capturing a movie in, what seems to be, a seamless take is that it allows each actor to react in real-time without having a handful of cuts as they react to bad news and break down in tears. Allowing a scene to breathe, while keeping a steady shot on the actor, gives the audience rawer movie experience. It’s rare that we get to see characters react openly and honestly without any cuts splitting up the scene. Being able to witness their emotions stirring within them so openly, before the camera, is heartbreaking and remarkably done.
Another aspect of the movie that I appreciate was the transitions between lighting. At some points, characters step into darkened rooms and emerge into blaring daylight or go from a set drenched in blue tones and run into a blazing orange building set on fire. The transition between lighting in various settings was so smooth that I just have to shout out whoever was in charge of lighting this movie because it was flawless.
Because we follow Schofield and Blake throughout the entire movie, without any cuts, one would assume that the camera would stay near them the entire time, but I really enjoyed how Mendes let the camera fall behind their walking forms, skirted around soldiers to show the protagonists faces, stepped back several feet to give us wide shots, and easily made it back to the actors in a way that feels effortless.
We follow these characters as if we were right beside them, witnessing these atrocities with our own eyes. I could write an essay about how flawless and innovative this long-take technique is. It’s something one must see to truly appreciate.
Other Aspects of “1917” that I Adored
The Tension: There’s something about dramas and action films that grip me and won’t let go until the credits roll, and the moment “1917” began, it is straight jaw-clenching, knuckle-gripping for two hours as music swells, bombs fall, and each audience member holds their breath, waiting to see what will happen next.
Sound Editing: Another aspect, that seems simple but really impacted me, was the way sound was utilized in this movie. If the camera was ahead of Schofield, as he’s speaking, his voice is faint until he reaches the camera/our point of view, and then the sound is crisp and clear.
Again, it seems like something simple, but when the camera travels over a group of men as one is singing, the steady voice fades in and out, depending on the camera’s proximity to the singer, in that particular moment. This simple technique immersed me in the story and made it feel all that more vivid and realistic in terms of putting us in the setting.
“1917” Final Thoughts
“1917” isn’t simply another wartime movie. It’s a groundbreaking cinematic work that showcases the atrocities of war. It brings light to the fact that no one wanted to take part in this war fought largely by young boys whose lives were thrown away for a cause they were forced to support. “1917” may be a wartime movie but does nothing to glorify war.
The set is gruesome and desolate to show how little left there is to claim, and it follows a boy who will go to the ends of the earth to halt a battle before it begins only to realize that these types of messenger soldiers are sent out nearly every week and their work and effort to save lives is fruitless, in the grander scheme of things.
There’s a moment where Schofield is leaning against a tree, listening to a soldier sing to young boys savoring a quick five minutes of rest before battle. We, the camera, follow Schofield, parting through crowds to reach him on the outskirts of the crowd. As we slowly approach his face, we see the exhaustion, the frustration, and the absolute death in his eyes. He has been through so much, lost friends, and risked his life for this message. He’s stared at death face, and death has stared back.
I still think about that scene.
If you see one movie in 2020, I implore you to have it be “1917.”