It’s definitely not a coincidence that Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes released his unshakeable tale of World War I (WWI) right before the 2020 award season. The fact that “1917” brought home Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globe 2020 has added more appeal to this film.
The internet has highlighted the film’s astonishing cinematography, but behind the scene footages of the methods and tactics the crew used to shoot the film itself emphasises the brilliant story-telling method that could take the audience to experience the horrors behind one of the most brutal wars in human history.
It all started with two young British soldiers, Corporal Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) making their way through the trenches, being shoved by other soldiers and so on. Within minutes we can see and feel the continuous shot, feeling exceptionally awed by the detail that’s happening in the scene. Both corporals are summoned to a meeting. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) gives them a task which sends them to deliver a message to the second battalion of the Devonshire Regiment in hopes of stopping their mission to attack the Germans because the General learned the German retrieval was merely a trap. The reason behind their superior sending Blake to this deadly mission is purely because Blake’s older brother is among the 1,600 troops in the second battalion. Immediately, we also reminisce on the Saving Private Ryan storyline. Knowing how much of a suicide mission it is, Schofield became cynical that they could make it, however due to Blake’s extra desire to save his older brother, Blake is determined to go – even if Schofield doesn’t want to.
As soon as they left the trenches, Mendes gave us an atmospheric terror of what might happen to the two main characters. We are travelling with them; witnessing the same surrealistic experience of running through a walking nightmare. We also get the glimpse of their minimal backstory. Thanks to the chemistry of MacKay and Chapman making the characters charming and likeable, the audience can still feel attached to them, while the continuous long take keeps the emotional roller-coaster going.
The legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins went all out with the camera work, although taking a long shot has a risk of static outcomes. He did it in a non-boring way; it ducks, lurks, and dives gracefully in a balletic grace. I’m convinced that long-take movements like Roger’s can only be achieved by a well-practiced choreography. From the behind-the-scenes footages, the entire film of course wasn’t actually shot in one take, but a series of continuous, uncut shots were edited to give the illusion of one long take.
This method has been done before, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s film entitled “Rope,” and the most recent example is the film “Birdman” by Iñáritu. Not to mention Joe Wright’s movie “Atonement” also uses long takes as well as the Dunkirk scene where five minutes of a tracking shot was done to enhance the emotional quality of the scene. This film pushes the creativity by its consistent action and changing terrain. They never use the same location twice. Thus, it required a meticulous production design, especially from the art department to make sure they created a set that could accommodate the camera movements. The key was the necessary long preparation, including building models to help the crew to see how the overall scene should look. According to Sam Mendes’ interview with Vox, he said that they wouldn’t build a set until they knew exactly how long the shot should be. This involves a lot of practice.
It is obvious that “1917” is Sam Mendes’ ambitious work. The story itself is quite personal, inspired by Alfred Mendes’ (Sam Mendes’ grandfather) story when he served in WWI. Mendes collaborated with Krysty Wilson Cairns to re-tell the story of what war really was about. However, “1917” is not based on his grandfather but the two characters were created for a dramatic approach. As he said at Comic Con, he wants to bring the story’s spirit showcasing all of the tragedies and survival journeys those men went through, the sacrifices they made, their selflessness, as well as the sense of believing something bigger than them was happening – these are all aspects that stayed with Mendes.
The film is based on real events from Operation Alberich, which took place from February 9 to March 20, 1917. The operation was a strategic withdrawal of German troops to a new position on the shorter and more easily defended Hindenburgh line. Railways and roads were dug up, trees were chopped down, landmines and booby traps were planted, and then towns and villages in the French countryside were destroyed. Around 125,000 French civilians in the region were transported to work elsewhere in occupied France, while children, mothers, and the elderly were left behind with minimal rations.
As to the highly gushed cinematography buzz “1917” has received, some critics praise the creativity but others argue that the camerawork still feels less natural, although there is only one blatantly obvious cut. Another risk of taking long shots can make the audience feel like they’re in a first person game. It’s thrilling, obviously, since we feel that our lives are also at stake, but it can maybe feel forced to a certain level. Nevertheless, the complexity of the technical aspect of “1917” is worth the hype. Frankly, I’ve never seen any war films like this before, even if it’s not very groundbreaking, but Sam Mendes explores the style of how war films can be done, and he did it. All in all, I’d rate “1917” a 4.5/5.