1917: One Viewer's Short Analysis
After seeing this remarkable film about a specific event in World War I, I had to recount my thoughts in the form of writing.
Note to readers: although 1917 was released in the United States on Christmas Day, 2019, it only just became available in theaters here in Europe (from where I’m writing) on January 10th, 2020.
1917, which recently won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama, reminds us of the horrors of World War I, a war that (arguably) occupies less of a place in today’s collective subconscious than, say, World War 2. In the beginning, two English soldiers are awoken from a midday slumber and given orders for what initially sounds like a daunting mission. They will venture into the waste of no-man’s land, infiltrate a former German position, and deliver a message to a regiment of 1,600 Allied troops that are positioned deep within German territory. Our two heroes are, in essence, still boys, even if their uniforms reflect the demands for waging modern warfare: holsters, munitions, rations, and layers of clothing seem to form a buffer zone between them and the outside world.
As the movie progresses, the shedding of these layers is a noticeable, important theme. By the end of the film our hero has been (literally) stripped down to his simplest layer of over clothes, unencumbered by weapons, canteens, rations, or protective gear. War has affected him tremendously but it has also made him reborn and baptized. The story demonstrates these two events in very literal ways, but more subtle symbolism abounds as well.
My prediction is that most people who have read up on the movie beforehand will look forward to the much anticipated, talked-up use of the single take. Of course, director Sam Mendes and his crew have utilized camera trickery and special editing cuts to make it appear seamless (the film is actually stitched together with a number of individual sequences that were carefully and extensively rehearsed. Additionally, Mendes and his editor, Lee Smith, used an editing technique called the ‘hidden cut’). Nevertheless, 1917 serves as another remarkable entry in a growing cannon of contemporary movies that appear to have been shot in a single shot -- examples of highly technical, expertly staged filmmaking.
On the topic of the continuous shot, not only is it one of trickery, but also of narrative vacuum. We are in the soldier’s world, directly in their sensory experience. This gives us access to their emotional states and inner psychology without the need for expository dialogue. Through the use of this single shot, Mendes and his cinematographer, the renowned Roger Deakins, give us an extraordinary level of access to the perceptions of the main characters. In an IMDb Original video about the film, director Sam Mendes said, “Story is nothing unless you are emotionally engaged… given very little exposition, you don’t really know who they are, the one shot technique allows you to live with them and breathe every breath. That feeling of always being trapped in their immediate environment [was] a very important part of why we decided to shoot this way.”
Beyond the (perhaps) obvious talking points of the camerawork, story, and acting -all of which deserve the level of attention that they have received- I would like to comment on the film’s design. The color palette in 1917 is washed out, faded: beige, tan, and light green are a few examples of the main colors that comprise the world of the film. In the scenes where distinct colors do appear, they almost punch through the frame: bright fires from falling bombs, a blue sky, blood from a mortally wounded soldier, and the pearl white color of fresh cow’s milk.
This article is just a brief recounting of my observations. There is enough material and depth of filmmaking in 1917 that the film will, almost surely, invite plenty of analysis and review. I look forward to reading up on what others have to say about this film, especially as The Oscars quickly approach the end of awards season.
"Why '1917' Had to Be One Shot." IMDb on the Scene, IMDb, 13 Dec. 2019. , www.imdb.com/title/tt11433548/?ref_=vi_close.
2019, Universal Studios, Los Angeles. The True Story Behind the 1917 Movie. Smithsonian Mag2019. , www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-history-behind-1917-movie-180973800/.