[This contains detailed discussions of scenes in 1917, therefore there are obviously spoilers]
A common theme links many of the films that have been deemed awards-worthy or critically-acclaimed this year – and that is memory. Some films take a nostalgic, wistful approach, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Ford v Ferrari – which feature older men reflecting on their place in the world. Another theme connected with memory is personal narratives and portraits of the artist, such as Pain & Glory (Almodovar’s most personal work yet), The Souvenir (also about a director reflecting on her personal experiences) and Honey Boy (Shia LaBeouf reflects on his experiences as a child actor). Adam Driver plays a theatre director in Marriage Story and also played a film director within the same year (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), in both he is playing thinly-veiled versions of the directors themselves (Baumbach and Gilliam). Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is ostensibly about Mr Rogers but ends up being much more about the writer who is profiling him, Little Women deconstructs Louisa May Alcott’s role as the author and her use of Jo March as her avatar and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film all about the role of the artist, her gaze and having that gaze turned back on herself. Whatever your feelings on Jojo Rabbit, it is also very much a film about perspective (in that case, a child’s point-of-view of war).
The one film that you might expect to be about memory is the war film. Steven Spielberg used framing devices in both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan which indicate that those narratives were being contemplated from a distance. However, Sam Mendes took the decision to do something completely different with his war film which is nominated for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars.
1917 is a film about the here and now.
Much has been made of the immersive immediacy of the long takes in 1917, but some opinions have been that it is “gimmicky” “technically impressive, but not much beyond that” or too much like a video game. Others are kinder and see 1917 simply as the boring, safe and bland choice for a Best Picture winner. I am here to argue that it is challenging to make a film about a hundred-year-old war for a range of audiences, in terms of familiarity with said war and to make it this fresh and exciting. Exciting does not mean that the war is being diminished, demeaned or made light of in any way, in fact, I believe it has the opposite effect. By making World War One come alive, it makes it much easier for an audience to imagine themselves in that situation. It takes what could be boring or worse – dripping with sentimental nostalgia – and gives it a vibrancy and urgency. 1917 has a similar effect to Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old project, which brought World War One to life in an incredibly moving way, bringing the realisation that the young men involved could just as easily be your brother, son, boyfriend, husband or yourself.
The film opens with Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) in an open field and as they move through it, the domestic life of the soldiers in their ‘down-time’ is revealed. We get no backstory or exposition about these two central characters, reflecting the nature of bonds made in war – where attachments could form quickly, often be abruptly cut short and replaced with new friends in an endless cycle. They move through the spread-out soldiers, who are hanging washing, napping, eating and writing letters. The frame closes in and quickly becomes claustrophobic as they enter the trench, it is immediately apparent that the men are literally on top of one another, they must battle their way through – and this is in calm, peaceful conditions. In the trench, they come across a soldier with a pipe and a dog. 1917 shows the entire range of war experience, from battle-ready to the lulls of boredom and menial life. When they enter the dugout that contains General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the darkness is almost all-consuming. Erinmore lurks in the shadows and the camera focuses on Blake and Schofield’s reactions to his orders, emphasising the sense that in WWI, leadership felt remote – faceless and anonymous.
Blake and Schofield then must force their way out of the trench – the length of this sequence highlights how entrenched the army is. 1917 really hammers home the scale of the trenches, although intended to be temporary structures, the soldiers ended up living in them for months on end and would keep extending them. The labyrinthine nature of the trench (which has to have signposts, it is so extensive), the overcrowding and confusion are all revealed through this tracking shot – the exhaustion of just getting to the end of the trench and out of it, before they’ve even started their mission. Filming in this way means that you are watching the actors get tired and out-of-breath in real-time. Sam Mendes’ theatrical experience is evident in how he uses (and trusts) his actors and how he blocks them within the physical space and within Roger Deakins’ frame.
1917 uses water in several key sequences, often as a threshold. Blake and Schofield make their way across No Man’s Land – this is probably the part that most makes you feel as if you are on the mission with them (yes, as if playing computer game, although why this is being used in a derogatory way, I don’t know). They come to a large ditch filled with muddy water, barbed wire, floating bodies and who knows what else. The camera descends into this lake full of detritus and floats across the surface of the water as Blake and Schofield scramble across its muddy edge, trying not to fall in. The opening bars of The Night Window track from Thomas Newman’s incredible score play here. The tinkling xylophone sounds as if it is dancing across the surface, along with our point-of-view. Much of the tension in 1917 is created through fear of the unknown, what lurks beneath or in shadows, waiting to jump out. Blake and Schofield have been told that the Germans have retreated, but they are on high-alert, ready to be ambushed any second. When they find the abandoned farmhouse, water is used as a threshold once more. Doorways, bridges and other barriers are frequently used to echo the experience of constantly having to take the plunge, to go over the top, to launch into unknown threats and dangers.
The plane crash at the farmhouse is again filmed through a doorway, the damaged plane dips down below a prow of the hill (from our point-of-view), giving a false sense of security, before rising up and coming straight for us. After Blake dies, Schofield gets his moment of kneeling by the body, before the boots of Captain Smith (Mark Strong) enter the frame and we hear his distinctive voice before seeing him. The character introduction echoes that of the General, initially Smith is a faceless leader, but then as he treats Schofield with some sympathy and humanity, we see him in the full light of day. The camera is constantly moving from the small and intimate (in this case, Schofield’s private moment of grief) to the large-scale (when we notice that an entire batallion of men has descended on the farmhouse). This reflects the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of war.
The second significant use of water-as-threshold is when Schofield must cross a broken bridge into Ecoust. The camera follows Schofield’s boots in close up as he balances on the top of the bridge, like a tight-rope. We are reminded of how much of this war hangs on a knife’s edge, one trip-wire or mine or gas attack away from everything changing. Again, the camera descends into the water, as we cross over with Schofield. The blackout that takes place at 1 hour 6 minutes in is ingenious for a number of reasons – the shock value of it being the first noticeable cut, us experiencing a blackout as Schofield does, then the drip of water onto his face, which is slowly revealed upside-down in the frame creating disorientation, then the same xylophone chimes of The Night Window come in, reflecting the drip-drip falls onto Schofield’s face.
The world that Schofield awakens into is a complete contrast, in every way, from the one he’s just been in. Mendes is making it clear that day-time and night-time are very different beasts in the context of this war. The use of light and shadow in this Ecoust sequence make the frames look like monochromatic comic-strip panels, this section is much more abstract than what has come before. Schofield is now in a nightmare world – he emerges into a square with a central fountain that looks like a crucifix, silhouetted against a burning building – this is a vision of hell. The roles have been reversed between the town, which you would expect to be full of everyday, domestic life and the front line, which you assume would be a ‘theatre-of-war’ at all times. Once Schofield leaves from the encounter with the young woman looking after a baby, the camera follows him in a free-wielding style, as the flares create constantly-moving shadows. We discover things as Schofield does, such as a German soldier emerging from the dark. Threats are lurking in the shadows, a feeling of dread and menace pervades this scene.
We now come to the last significant use of water-as-threshold. Schofield runs from the soldiers who are shooting at him and plunges into the tumultuous river. He eventually finds a log to cling onto, but almost slips under from exhaustion. Cherry blossom petals falling on his face jerk him into the realisation of where he is and what he’s doing. The blossom reminds him of Blake and therefore, his mission. Schofield’s utter desperation is conveyed in three key moments; pushing the truck out of the mud, pushing his way through the corpses to climb out of the river (here) and his last run across the edge of No Man’s Land at the end. The fact that Schofield spends the last 30 minutes of the film completely water-logged from his plunge into the river really adds to the fact that he is dripping with sluggish exhaustion. It is very much like the common nightmare of trying to run away from a threat, but only running in slow-motion, or as if stuck in quick-sand. The cumulative effect of us feeling what Schofield is feeling – the relentlessness, the exhaustion, the desperation – only works because we have not left him for the entire film.
The “one-take” or “long-take” nature of 1917 serves not only the purpose of telling the story of this specific mission, but also reflects the wider experience of the war as a whole. The mission is unrelenting and we experience Schofield’s lack of rest and respite as well as his single-minded determination in fulfilling the mission for Blake. However, the film is not conveying that the experience of the larger war is endlessly thrilling and high-stakes in the way this specific mission is. The scenes in the trenches demonstrate the everyday domestic life of a soldier which certainly had mundanity, drudgery and boredom built into it. But the reality was that times of respite could be interrupted at any moment with unpredictable orders from high command or from attacks from the enemy (sometimes in the insidious form of gas). The unrelenting gaze of Deakins’ camera echoes the fact that they can’t escape. As Schofield says, even a visit home is overshadowed by the looming knowledge that you have to go back. And if they die, more soldiers will be sent to replace them; “they’ll grow again when the stones rot, you’ll end up with more trees than before.” The choice of Mendes to film 1917 in the way that he has absolutely has purpose and Roger Deakins fulfills this vision exquisitely. I could write two whole separate essays on Thomas Newman’s score and on George MacKay’s performance, as it is these three central elements – cinematography, score and performance, working in tandem – which makes 1917 an extraordinary work of cinema. To me, it would absolutely be a worthy Best Picture winner.