Film review: 1917
Sunday 12th January, 2020 - 5 min read
This review contains spoilers
1917 left me emotionally drained in the way that only one other film has, Free Solo. At the end credits I sat motionless, tired from the intense journey I had just witnessed.
1917 is a unique war movie. There are no aerial shots, reverse angles from sniper towers or cuts to different units on the battlefield. The entire film is shot handheld, following Lance Corporal’s Blake and Schofield as they navigate through no-mans land to deliver a message to prevent 1600 men in 1st unit engaging at dawn and walking into a trap. This connects you to the characters, not leaving their side through their continual push through enemy lines.
Using this camera tracking technique across the whole film provides some unique moments. When Blake had just hauled Schofield out from death in the trip-wired rigged German bunker, after going over the top and weaving through no-mans land, Blake fires the flare to inform Lieutenant Leslie of their safe passage. But unlike any other film which would then cut back to the trenches, with a snide quip from the Lieutenant like “the lucky bastards”, the camera sticks with the two Lance Corporal’s and we receive no acknowledgement or confirmation from the troops in the trenches; our journey continues.
“It’s like a piece of theatre every take. Once it starts you can’t stop”
We are led through the environment from the characters perspective. When we wander out across a valley towards a farmyard and house we feel exposed there is no wide angle to confirm that the fields are deserted, and the unease sits subtly in the background as the scene plays out. It is this filming approach that brings us closer to the soldiers experience, grounding us in their reality through the film.
But tracking shots don’t come easily. “It’s like a piece of theatre every take. Once it starts you can’t stop” says George MacKay who played Lance Corporal Schofield. They could be six minutes into a seven minute take when a rifle falls off his shoulder and the cast and crew must all retrace their steps, slipping back across no-mans land to begin a retake. The nature of these one-cut takes meant that when it came to special effects, they only had one attempt. The scene where Schofield jumps into no-mans land and sprints parallel to the troops before being blindsided by a soldier charging ahead was an example where things didn’t go to plan, but the explosions had been set off and they had to keep going.
Even set construction was affected by this filming approach. “The land cannot be longer than the scene and the scene cannot be longer than the land, and so you have to rehearse every line of dialogue on location” said Sam Mendes, so set production went hand in hand with rehearsals. Dean-Charles Chapman, playing Lance Corporal Blake said “We walked and talked every single scene to see how long it took us to get from A to B”, and the sets were built around these rehearsals that ran for six months.
Staying at Schofield’s side for two hours could easily become boring. But brilliant pacing from Sam Mendes mixed squaddie banter with tense moments and thrilling action to ensure the feeling of continual progression through the film. The film lays bare the issues that soldiers deal with on a daily basis. Schofield gets caught on barbed wire while navigating no-mans land and pierces his hand, leading to grimaces from the audience. But it’s not long before he falls into a trench and gets knocked by Blake into a rotting German corpse, burying his bare wound in rotting flesh, causing a guttural outcry from the audience. Yet despite all of this, as soon as they get up and breach the German front line, Schofield stoically patches up his hand as the scene transitions, and his wound doesn’t get a second mention.
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