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1917 (2019) Review: Race Against Time!

Movie poster for 1917: A soldier stands tall amidst a group of soldiers in trenches.

1917” is a visually stunning and emotionally gripping war film that follows two young soldiers on a perilous mission to deliver a message that could save 1,600 men during World War I.

Compelling Opening Scene

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock created a series of close-up shots to begin his film “39 Steps.” The audience is first greeted with a large “Music Hall” sign, then a small ticket booth, and finally, a man extending money towards the ticket attendant. We see a shot of a carpet covering the floor, the man handing his ticket to the attendant, close-ups of certain seats, and a close-up of the man’s shoes as he walks to his seat. As he sits down, the camera slowly pans out to reveal that we are in a cinema. These eclectic scenes, reminiscent of artistic intros, were first introduced to us in Mark Cousins’ legendary documentary, and later in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (hands climbing a staircase) and “Marnie” (a yellow bag being carried under someone’s arm). Sam Mendes’ latest film, “1917” (2019), is a masterclass in how to craft a compelling opening scene.

Two British soldiers are looking at each other in a trench during World War I. They are both looking very serious, and there is a sense of urgency in their expressions.

In February, I had the chance to watch “1917” in a packed Paris theater. “1917” is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. And when I say this, I’m not just referring to the fact that the film appears to be shot in one continuous take.

The Making of “1917”

After a long time, we are not sure if this counts as a spoiler, but Sam Mendes’ latest work, “1917,” is not just a one-shot movie like Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” The length of the shooting time is not the same as the film’s duration. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins said in an interview that they shot the film in 65 days, and the longest single shot was 9 minutes. Before this 65-day, nerve-wracking shoot, everyone from the director to the makeup department, actors, camera crew, and extras had been rehearsing for six months. “It all started with Roger (Deakins) and me putting flags on an empty field,” Mendes says. In addition, there is an incredible workforce involved in the film’s every second, such as digging trenches that extend hundreds of meters.

Scene from 1917 movie: A soldier stands with his back turned to the camera, looking out at a war-torn landscape.

However, it is crucial to say that behind Sam Mendes’ decision to edit the film to appear as a single shot is not just a formal concern but rather a concern about content and artistic expression. Mendes took most of the inspiration for writing and directing “1917” from his grandfather and other elders’ war memories. And in this way, in the stories passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth, there is a Jungian anthropological relic, a fascinating historical flavor. Whether we look at ancient civilizations 7,000 years ago, the formation of mythology, or closer to the Middle Ages oral tradition, all stories have been passed down through word of mouth, so they have lost none of their magic.

Mendes wanted to convey the war stories he heard from his elders, mostly in one go, without any editing, pause, or adjustment, just as he had heard them, in a sense, “orally” to future generations, and to make them experience the same feelings. He thought that we needed to watch everything as if it were a single shot to experience the gravity of the story and to feel as if we were right there with the two main characters, or as if we were listening to what was happening from them directly. In my humble opinion, he was right because when you leave the theater, you feel as if you have witnessed a series of events firsthand, rather than just watching a movie.

Deleuze’s “Image-Mouvement” and “Image-Temps”

In this context, it would be appropriate to briefly discuss Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of “image-mouvement” and “image-temps” Deleuze proposed these two concepts parallel to the historical development of cinema, where the first concept, the action image, refers to the cinema understanding where every image serves the representation of a movement, showing or hiding, during the period when montage reigned supreme. The concept of the time image, which refers to the cinema understanding that emerged after 1935, heralds the visual reflection of the temporality already present in the world of images. The time image does not exclude the action image but embraces it, though it is a condition that can be more complicated artistically and is rarely seen visually. After all, directors try to bring an unseen, perhaps non-existent phenomenon onto the screen: time.

Soldier tries to escape from a fighter plane in a tense scene from the movie 1917.

The time image, which can be expressed as cinema’s still life, became a more frequently experienced visual representation for audiences, especially by the 1940s. The camera’s focus on the food left on a table in an empty house, ensuring that everyday activities take the same time in cinematic time, the use of fixed camera technique or plan sequences, etc. Therefore, if we are talking about single-shot films or never-ending plan sequences today, all of these are the result of the stages that cinema has gone through from its crawling years to the present day (which is a bit of a Benjamin Button-like situation). In 1917, Sam Mendes serves the action image concept continuously with magnificent performances, imperceptible use of active camera, and visual effects, while also nourishing the time image by showing the entire film as if it were a single shot, allowing us to feel what this two-day period (120 minutes for us) means to a soldier who experiences it.

The setup and presentation of the screenplay, based on true events, are not the strong points of 1917. However, the film compensates for this weakness with its visuals and filming techniques. Early on in the film, General Erinmore, portrayed by Colin Firth in a brief role, summarizes the skeleton of the screenplay for us: a battalion of 6,000 soldiers unknowingly advances towards a trap set up by the Germans, with a lieutenant named Joseph Blake among them. To prevent the death of all these people and to make them aware of the trap, the brother of said lieutenant and another soldier are assigned to the mission.

At this point, any viewer who is even slightly familiar with war films will be reminded of Saving Private Ryan (1998). Both films have a “missing brother” storyline and present the same type of screenplay to the audience. However, this similarity dissipates with Colin Firth’s masterful acting and a beautiful Rudyard Kipling quote. When Lance Corporal Schofield, played by George MacKay, asks why they were only sent with two people for this mission, General Erinmore responds with the following quote:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,

He travels fastest who travels alone.

The events that follow keep the audience in constant suspense and the well-balanced structure of the film, with action scenes used in moderation, keeps the excitement high. On the other hand, the moments of tranquility sprinkled throughout the film fuel the perception of time and allow the viewer to dive into their thoughts. The two main actors, George MacKay (Lance Corporal Schofield) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Blake), undoubtedly deliver magnificent performances, but the film also offers at least five surprise actors for even mildly interested cinema-goers. Let’s list them according to their appearance in the film:

  • Colin Firth (General Erinmore)
  • Andrew Scott (Lieutenant Leslie)
  • Mark Strong (Captain Smith)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie)
  • Richard Madden (Lieutenant Joseph Blake)

The Strengths of “1917”

Production companies responsible for promoting 1917 (DreamWorks, Reliance, New Republic) began spreading the myth that the entire film was shot in a single take months before its release. As a result, experienced film critics working for established media outlets inevitably began preparing themselves for this atmosphere. Another reason why I think this way is that the shooting technique used in the film has impressed me with nothing but admiration. Of course, as the aforementioned writers have said, it is a technique that draws attention, an illusion of uninterrupted shooting, but we as viewers or critics are not university students studying camera and shooting techniques. Even if we were, is it reasonable to try to understand the shooting techniques used in the film while watching it?

Soldier helps a wounded comrade in a poignant scene from the movie 1917.

What I mean is that the TRINITY camera direction system, the fact that 95% of the film was shot with non-tripod, non-fixed cameras, rarely used travelling, all these techniques disappear into the stardust of this cinematic poem that you experience with the help of Thomas Newman’s impressive music. You are enchanted by the film’s opening sequence, and you continue to admire the production with different techniques that don’t let you take your eyes off the screen or the two lead actors for a moment. However, the visual storytelling, the performances, and the subtle humor of the film don’t leave you enough time to think about these techniques, to be honest.

In conclusion, 1917 is a cinematic event that must be experienced on the big screen. The reason for this is that the film is not just a single-shot wonder, but rather a production that can bring a new breath to the cinema understanding of recent years. It is like an oasis.

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Last modified: September 24, 2023