1917: A one-take war film

By Seif Selim
Contributing Writer

In his second war movie, the British director Sam Mendes made a brilliant WW1 film that perfectly captures trench-warfare ambiance. Mendes manages not only to elevate the story using fascinating cinematography but also to capture the horrific and chaotic nature of war. The director of American Beauty and Skyfall employs an excellent choice of shooting the film to look like a two-hour-long take. Although this long take is split half way through the movie into two long segments, it still manages to immerse the audience in one of the most exquisite cinematic experiences in the genre of war films.  

The movie begins with two British soldiers fighting in France. Lance Corporal Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are ordered to deliver a message that would save the lives of 1,600 fellow soldiers including Blake’s older brother. The story is inspired by memories of Mendes’ grandfather who fought during the war. 

It is important when looking at an eye-grabbing shooting technique to think if it helped the plot moving forward and served the narrative or was just another “I-am-the-director” shot. Did the one-take style help the story that Mendes wanted to tell?  

The two-time Oscar winner cinematographer Roger Deakins kept the audience engaged and emotionally invested from the first till the last scene. The one-take style gave the viewers a real-time authentic experience. This helped to transform the viewer from a mere spectator to a soldier in the field who sees, hears, and gets shocked by the gruesome look of No Man’s Land between the trenches.

Moreover, the film was aware of the geographic limits and features of different times during the day and night alike. The great use of dusk time during a chase scene can be an example which was important to show how the film aesthetically communicated the change of time throughout the whole day. 

Although the film starts in a quiet way of contemplating the countryside of France, the tone of tension is established early on after the soldiers get to know their mission. This overwhelming feeling of tension is achieved using multiple elements including the score by Thomas Newman. Newman’s score did a fantastic job elevating some scenes to high levels despite lacking a distinctive character of its own. 

The way that the main characters were selected for the mission emphasizes how random and chaotic war can be. Mastery of cinematic elements may have outshined how true and realistic the performance of the two leading actors was. This is especially true with MacKay, who delivered a great performance that kept the audience emotionally attached to his character. Dean-Charles Chapman, who also played Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, did a great job establishing the contrast between the two leads and how they both view war and glory despite his limited screen time. 

The enemy in 1917 is not the most dominant factor that determines the course of events, unlike many war movies. The enemy is not Germany, but time and war itself, a perspective that is similar to the one adopted by Christopher Nolan in Dunkirk. There is no glory between dead bodies, just as there is no honor residing between the trenches. There is just fear, and human beings faced with a brutal war and powerlessness under their superiors’ orders.

The film shows us how a misinformed commander can lead his men to carnage in hopes to end the war. Even after being informed, a stubborn commander can insist on going into battle just because “there is only one way this war ends.” A brief yet amazing performance from Benedict Cumberbatch helped portray that side of the conversation about how commanders don’t get to experience war like soldiers do.

Speaking of brief guest appearances, and 1917 has many. More screen time might have been needed to establish the two lead characters better. The amazing technical element came at the expense of developing the characters a bit more. Also some questionable decisions were made regarding some plot points that felt like they were just there to force the audience to pay more attention to the cinematography. 

Despite being nominated for 10 academy awards, including Best Picture, 1917 only won 3 deserved Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing. 

1917 is a technical accomplishment and a great human drama that uses all of its cinematic tools to tell its simple yet engaging story. I am looking forward to seeing it soon featured here on the Mountain! 

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