1917 is a unique portrayal of a soldier in the First World War, made to look like it was all shot in two continuous takes. Having recently won seven BAFTA awards, including the award for best film, there is no denying the sensational hit that this film has become.
With cameras constantly following the actors at ground level, the viewer is thrown into the middle of the action, having to experience the horrors of war along with them. The film follows the perspectives of two English soldiers, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are given the task of delivering a message to the front lines to stop an attack that will fail.
“The viewer is thrown into the middle of the action”
The true power of this movie stems from its cinematography, as the story is simply left to speak for itself. The camera follows the journey that our protagonist must face. Although seemingly simple, this technique builds incredible and constant tension, as we only see what is within the frame. Unlike most contemporary movies, we are not offered extra information, or breaks from the tension from cuts between scenes. All of this has a strong immersive effect on the audience, holding our attention the whole time.
“This technique builds incredible and constant tension”
The incredible planning needed for such a project is explained by Sam Mendes (director, producer and co-writer) and Roger Deacens (cinematographer), who describe the extent of such preparation. With each shot taking up to eight-minutes, sets were made for each location to line up exactly with the timing of the scene. The majority of the filming was done with one camera on a stabiliser, which was carried by hand, crane and drone. Regardless of mistakes, the camera still rolled until the director called ‘cut’, which is how MacKay’s accidental crash with an extra in the mad dash across the battlefield came about. The importance of timing could not be more stressed.
“The small touches […] really add to the whole experience”
The cyclical effect of the ending with Schofield resting by a tree mimics the start, giving a peaceful, yet haunting effect, reminding the viewer that this was only one day for one soldier in a war that lasted for years. Also, the small touches, such as black-and-white photos and authentic uniforms, really add to the whole experience, sending us back in time, and reminding the viewer of the effect that World War One had on humanity.
“Not only does this moment highlight the exceptional casting […] but it throws one last emotional punch at the audience”
Some might consider the most powerful part of the movie to be Schofield’s final sprint to deliver his message to the colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch). However, for me, the most powerful scene comes just before the end, where Schofield finds Lieutenant Joseph Blake, (Richard Madden), and we see the latter’s initial excitement gradually fade to realisation. Not only does this moment highlight the exceptional casting, truly living up to Blake’s words, ‘He looks like me but older’, but it throws one last emotional punch at the audience, reminding them that at the end of the day, these soldiers are just people.
“I cannot recommend it enough”
Winning multiple awards, this star-studded film is powerful and unique, and a very important presentation of the realities of war. It will stick with you for weeks after you watch it. I cannot recommend it enough.
Featured Image courtesy of DreamWorks, Reliance Entertainment, New Republic Pictures, Neal Street Productions, Mogambo, British Film Commission, Amblin Partners, CPTC and Screen Scotland via IMDb. Image use license found here.
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