Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a horse-race. From the moment the gate drops, and the first action scene begins, the horses are off- two youthful soldiers hastily making their way across the treacherous no-man’s land. This film is riddled with tension, prospering off the entertainment it provides. But there is no riddle to the motive of these two characters. Their mission is simple, straight-forward, and as comfortless as the voice of the commander who delivers it to them within five minutes of the movie’s firing. Once again, a horse-race. But for these two British soldiers, Lance Cpl. William Schofield and Lance Cpl. Tom Blake, it is a race against time:
“You have a brother in the second battalion. They’re walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message, calling off tomorrow morning’s attack. If you don’t get there in time, it will be a massacre.”
The General, played by Colin Firth
It’s a touch-and-go plot. If they fail, Blake’s older brother dies. The stakes are raised. But how does one convey the impossible height of the stakes? How does one capture and convey tension so unparalleled? Mendes’ grandfather served as a messenger in the trenches of WW2, and using this to inspire the plot, Mendes’ has devised a cinematically inventive way of telling his grandfather’s story.
A notable fact of 1917 is that it tells the entire story, that is, the entire duration of the film, in one continuous shot, with just a couple of takes to break it up. It’s an impressive filming feat that will astonish viewers as they come to realise how the film was shot. It’s commendable because it is genius, and the film is deserving of some noteworthy awards.
It is common for most contemporary films to use multiple cameras and shots to flick between the characters facial expressions, incorporating different angles. This conventional approach is applicable to every type of movie scene: the car-chase, the shoot-out, the punch-up between James Bond and Jaws. Film techniques have developed over time with the realisation that more cuts, which allow for more angles of the situation, enable the viewer to perceive and understand what is happening. 1917 gracefully disregards this contemporary film technique and instead effectuates its own method of filming that is contextually suitable for the movie’s plot. It uses one camera that physically moves to record the two characters and their surroundings. The majority of scenes are filmed by simply following them from behind as they make their way through various terrains, all done in one take.
“From the very beginning, I felt this movie should be told in real-time. Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men, felt integral, and there is no better way to telling this story, than with one continuous shot… for me, engagement is very important, and that is behind the way in which we decided to shoot this film.”
Sam Mendes (Director)
As you follow behind the protagonist, you feel the same ground beneath your feet. You step over the same misfortunate bodies, approach every corner with the same apprehension that the Grim Reaper might finally show its face here. You can’t predict when it will happen. Death has a quiet voice that doesn’t sing until it’s true. But the possibility of death has a boomingly loud voice that sounds almost indefinitely during the film. So while the ash builds in your eyes, the smell of gunpowder pervades your nostrils and the heat of the fires breathe on your tired face, you feel as though you’re really there, gripping your telephone that can call death with the pull of its trigger in your blistered hands. This film puts you in the shoes of the protagonist and tightens the laces. It forces you to endure what he endured and truly, truly, understand the grim nature of the first World War. This is the effect of the continuous shots.
“I think if you had told it in a conventional way, I don’t think you would’ve felt the [same] energy. You are always moving forward; you never go back…”
Callum McDougall (Producer)
Not only does it immerse you into the experience of World War 1, but it designs authentic and engaging characters. Even the scenes that are not filmed from behind the protagonist bring forth a sense of being there with the character, watching his every move. Overall, through this identification with the character, empathy is evoked. You know the characters’ motive, and you know it will hurt him if he fails. You want him to succeed because you have seen everything and felt everything he has been through, and this is the essence of an engaging character. Knowing them. Being there with them.
“It’s meant to make you feel that you are in the trenches, with those two young men.”
Pippa Harris (Producer)
Another impact of the continuous shots is the suspense it produces. By having the camera follow the characters through the trenches, what’s around the corner is unknown to the viewer until the character turns to it. This sense of the unknown is the type that makes our toes tense up, our faces grimace and the grip of our popcorn a little tighter. You guessed it; that’s tension. It’s human nature to sub-consciously crave it. Likewise, we crave horror movies because they make us feel scared. It’s entertaining and gripping, and crucial to a good movie experience.
The use of creative cinematography has played a pivotal role in the eminence of 1917. It has assisted in creating tension, engaging and authentic characters, and an immersive experience in which the viewer can gain insight to the First World War and the experiences that accompany it.
WW1 was known historically to be a stalemate, and while gloomy trench warfare has created some beautiful poetry and war-stories, some argue that it is not suited for blockbusters. “When it comes to 20th-century military conflicts, there’s no question which one Hollywood prefers. Cinematically, World War II has everything: dramatic battles, dastardly villains, a pivotal role played by the United States, and ultimately, a resounding victory for the good guys.” (Jones, 2020). 1917 is a rebuttal to any such statements. It differs from other WW1 movies not just with its film techniques, but because it tells a different story, one that instils a personal journey and the goodness that comes from heroism and bravery.
“Other films have made that movie, the blood and guts. This wasn’t that. This is a story about integrity, the willingness to do anything even in the harshest of conditions.”
Dennis Gassner (Production Designer)
Mendes has spoken about the influence that his Grandfather had on the conceptual idea behind 1917. He inspired Mendes to produce a movie that displayed WW1 in an alternative way, a fictional battle based on true events, but events that had never been shown before. A story of individual heroism, flourishing from a family connection, that is invigorated by the ingenuity of Mendes and Roger Deakins, Director of Photography, with their one continuous shot. It’s a thrilling horse-race of a movie, and it is beautifully different.
Christian Reitano is a creative writing student at QUT. They love writing poetry, especially slam poetry, and song lyrics. Aside from writing, photography is their favourite creative hobby, and they adore the medium of sepia. Check out their music TheAnt777 on Spotify, and their photography Instagram account sepiavibe.