1917 (2019) There’s something about war movies that feels so distant; the longer ago the war, the less real it seems. It’s hard to fill the shoes of someone who lived over a century ago in a world that looked vastly different from ours today. Yet through the narrow lens of 1917, director Sam Mendes has managed to not only bring viewers into the world of World War I, he’s brought them onto the battlefield. The major difference that allows 1917 to stand out from the countless films that cover wars spanning centuries—and millennia—lies in the cinematography of the film, a feat of accomplishment by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins. As the film appears to be one continuous shot that follows the two young lance corporals, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, the style in which the film is shot and edited fully envelops audiences into the environment of the war-torn men. In doing so, viewers get a first-hand account of the story as it unfolds in front of their eyes.
Learning only as the characters do rarely occurs in film, but in 1917’s case, it fantastically enhances the experience of story; without the almost-POV nature of the film, one loses the feeling of being alongside the protagonists, which, in turn, sacrifices the emotional connection between audience and character that forms within the first few minutes. There are no moments in which to feel that there’s missed information, because the audience is there with the young corporal every step of the way. This intimate setting created by the method in which the film was shot lends itself to the aforementioned connection between audience and character. Such a bond can be understood in the smallest moments; the surprised gasps that fill the theater as a bucket of hot coals kicked over reveals the possible presence of Germans or the soft murmurs that pass along the row of seats as the shot follows the corporals to an abandoned gunning station left in a heart-wrenchingly state of chaos that signifies the sheer level of destruction that it is sure to have caused. Never leaving Corporal Schofield’s side throughout the entire film and watching every harrowing experience he undergoes at such a close distance draws an empathetic burst of emotion out of the audience that leaves little to be desired.
What’s more, visual depth is not lost amidst the stunt of such cinematography, as stunning landscapes and engagingly framed shots are not only included, but manage to become incorporated throughout the film. While sometimes the shot is a continuous scene that follows the men turn after turn in the trench, as the journey travels away from the British forces and into no-man’s land and beyond, the imagery becomes almost scenic. It’s melancholy and dismal, as corpses litter their path, staunchly juxtaposing the mesmerizing river, or as the ruins of once-majestic stone buildings are eerily lit, the white light of the flares being launched in the sky clashing with an orange glow as the remains of houses burn nearby. Deakins and Mendes find a sickening beauty in the horror of war that simultaneously pleases the eye and tightens the chest.
While given few lines of dialogue to work with, George MacKay manages to convey not only the emotional trauma of Schofield’s experience, but the physical experience as well. The part is equally illustrated through face and body as it is through words, a choice that adds to the film rather than takes away. Not much needs to be said, thus, not much is spoken aloud. The lack of conversational dialogue allows for those moments in which there are conversations to stand out that much more; every line of dialogue serves a purpose and delivers something new. Much is revealed about the corporal as Schofield encounters a French woman with an infant despite their conversation staggering along as each only understands a few words of the other’s language and they resort to broken sentences and single words to communicate. When it comes to dialogue in a war films, less is more, and Mendes clearly understands this concision.
As dialogue occurs less often, the space where it would normally exist is filled with the driving score by Thomas Newman. While the onscreen state dwells mostly in an underlying gloom, the score strives to create a secondary landscape, one of tension and emotion. Yet he refrains from attempting to outdo the emotions expressed visually, instead keeping the score soft enough to lie underneath the film until reaching the breaking point during the fast-paced night chase through ghostly ruins, when both character and audience emotion breaks loose and the score finally breathes just as fast as Schofield does. These large, expressive moments in the score only occur a few times throughout the film, when really necessary. Most other scenes are undercut with a tense dissonant hum or soft, low pulsing that is barely just audible enough to make one’s heart beat a little louder. The suspense created via the score truly highlights the unsettling tension that the characters feel as the delve into enemy trenches and take each step fearing what is around the corner. Just as dialogue remains concise, the score only takes attention when it deserves it, choosing to be impactful through means other than expressive, loud pieces during the interim.
No film is without flaw, though 1917’s are few and far between. While the single shot storyline is a unique and creative way to tell the story, at moments it feels almost unrealistic, as if the events occur too close together to be plausible. Yet this issue is understandable; the audience can’t watch hours of Schofield walking through a trench or across field after field. Mendes creatively works around the amount of hours that he must cover, and such an accomplishment overshadows the almost too-fast pacing during some scenes. One other shortcoming of the continuous shot method is the potential of distraction; some may find themselves watching to see how the film was shot and pieced together or wondering just how parts were choreographed and filmed rather than focusing on the story itself. This issue was brought up by Deakins himself, who was hesitant to reveal the methods he used to create the effect in fear of audiences watching the film with that in mind rather than the content. However, such flaws are dwarfed by the rawness of the film, which was surely benefitted by the method used to film it. 1917 is not the perfect war film, but it manages to tell a single story at the heart of an enormous war. It focuses not on the big picture, but on one journey to accomplish one goal, which allows for the audience to connect more deeply to something so distant from their lives in the modern world. Sam Mendes doesn’t try to make this film a true story, or something that’s meant to tell us all our place in the world among the heroes of war. Rather, he entertains through creative and meticulous production and the power of the stories themselves. He allows the story to define itself and invites the audience to draw further conclusions on their own. World War I might have been over a century ago, but 1917 bridges the gap between, well, 1917 and today.