1917 Offers Unique Perspective

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World War I, or the war to end all wars, was something the world had never seen before. The chemical warfare, weaponized planes, and disease-laden trenches created unprecedented amounts of destruction. The brutality was beyond comprehension for those who were away from the front lines, and only survivors truly understand just how awful the combat was. Consequently, accurately portraying World War I, or any war for that matter, in a film is incredibly difficult to do because the film can never capture the reality of the horrors that occurred. Sam Mendes’ 1917, however, does an excellent job tackling this challenging feat.
Prior to its release on Christmas day of 2019, 1917 was already receiving incredible publicity in the mainstream media because of how it is filmed. Mendes chooses to shoot the film in one continuous shot in an attempt to create a more intimate, realistic viewing experience. In large part, Mendes’ vision proved to be quite successful.
The film follows two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, who are to deliver a message to an isolated regiment that is about to walk into a German trap. The camera is up close and personal throughout the entire journey, capturing everything from the look of despair on the faces of those who lifelessly sit in the trenches to the flies swarming around a dead horse in No Man’s Land. Specifically when the camera is behind Blake and Schofield, the viewer feels as if he is a third soldier, undertaking the expedition along with the other two. Additionally, the filming style makes the movie much more realistic because it seems as if the two soldiers are embarking on a journey rather than just moving through a series of scenes that are pasted together. Furthermore, the camerawork makes many scenes, particularly those involving death, much more intimate. It is far easier for the viewer to become attached to the characters as a result of the filming style, making it more difficult to say goodbye when they do die. Moreover, the camerawork adds a certain dramatic effect that other war films lack. For example, when Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire, it is unexpected, and it sent tiny pulses of pain throughout my body as if I too were experiencing the cut. Similarly, when Schofield has to cross the downed bridge, all of the focus is on his not falling in the water. Suddenly, however, shots are fired, drawing the viewer’s attention away from the bridge and toward whether a character to whom he has become attached will make it out alive.
Nevertheless, despite all of the positive elements that the filming style adds to the movie, there are unquestionably drawbacks as well. To begin, when the camera pans around from character to character, the landscape often becomes blurry, causing the film to lose the detail and intimacy that it intends to create. Admittedly, this is a minuscule factor that only affects a few of the early scenes when Blake and Schofield are crossing through No Man’s Land, but the camerawork does have a much larger drawback, namely slowing down the flow of the film.
Many other films cut from scene to scene and camera angle to camera angle quite quickly, which progresses the plot of the movie. However, since 1917 is filmed using one continuous shot, the plot is much more drawn out. The first piece of action does not occur until an underground German trench explodes, which happens about thirty minutes into the movie. Additionally, there are not many scenes of action in the film as a whole. Other than the aforementioned explosion scene, there is a plane crash, a shootout scene, and a few series of action-packed scenes at the end of the film. Otherwise, the movie is primarily just a journey, filled with walking and meeting new people. It is similar to The Hobbit in this sense. Bilbo and his group of companions have a final destination in mind, but the majority of the novel is them walking through the countryside, meeting new people along the way. Likewise, Schofield eventually wants to get to the isolated battalion to deliver the message, but as a result of filming the movie in one shot, everything in between, particularly all of the traveling, is also included.
Ultimately, 1917 is unique. By using one continuous shot, which is primarily a close up, the film captures feelings, emotions, and details that other war films are unable to do. The viewer has a much more intimate connection to the characters and feels as if he is a third soldier along for the journey. However, there are some drawbacks to the filming style that Mendes chooses to use, primarily the fact that the film is largely devoid of action. In essence, Mendes’ filming choice, which is the primary reason for much of the film’s hype, works in two contradictory ways. It engages the viewer by creating a powerful tale of brotherhood that includes minute detail and strong emotion. Simultaneously, however, it causes the viewer to feel somewhat disconnected because it draws out the plot, stripping the movie of action that a conventional filming style would likely provide.