1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Claire Duburcq, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
Nominations: Picture, Director – Sam Mendes, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Makeup & Hairstyling
Wins: Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

Despite a twenty-year head start, World War I has not seen as much action on the silver screen as World War II.  A quick, non-scientific search (i.e., checking on IMDb and Wikipedia) shows there have been a couple hundred World War I films over the past 105 years; in the almost 81 years since the beginning of World War II, there have been a few thousand films dramatizing that conflict.  There are a number of reasons for this, of course, from World War II having large-scale air, land, and sea battles across the entirety of the globe while World War I was fought mainly in muddy trenches in western Europe to a higher accessibility to smaller, handheld cameras to record all aspects of World War II with footage of World War I consisting almost solely of photographs (which emphasizes the stationary warfare of many of the battles).  The trouble, then, is trying to bring to life and filmic qualities to a war of attrition in which the soldiers on the ground didn’t move much and of which there isn’t much motion picture documentation.

The approach that Sam Mendes brings to 1917 overcomes those limitations by leaps and bounds.  Instead of a traditional “on the battlefield” story, we follow Blake and Schofield on a delivery mission.  This gets them and the film out of the trenches and has them traversing the French countryside.  And instead of going with quick editing to replicate the frenetic pace of  gunfights, we’re put in a near-first-person perspective with the single shot aesthetic that amplifies the intensity (and provides an ironic twist on the concept of photographs being single shots).  This technique helps ground the film in the moment, giving it a “we are there” feeling that’s frequently seen in war footage from World War II and after.  It’s as if we’re embedded with the duo, documenting their task, and helps make an event (fictional, sure, but nevertheless…) more than 100 years old more personal and impactful, because when someone shoots at Blake and Schofield they’re also shooting at us.

For the most part, how a movie begins and how it ends has the longest staying power for viewers.  Opening shots draw us in and closing shots, well, provide closure (even if, as Monday’s film will show, it isn’t necessarily the closure some viewers desire).  Analyzing those particular shots for a film that consists only of two shots becomes more interesting.  Instead of, as one would do for a film with typical editing, taking the first and last shot as they are, a film like 1917 has to be deconstructed on a beat level. 

A “beat” has different meanings given the context: if a director asks an actor to take a beat, it means wait a moment before speaking the next line or performing the next action.  As a screenwriter, a beat is a moment that helps construct a scene.  In this sense, it’s more like a beat in music.  When writing a scene, it’s important to maintain a rhythm with the action and dialogue, almost like a cadence: dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum.  The stronger the beats and rhythm, the easier it is for a reader/viewer to connect with the material.  (See Shakespeare and iambic pentameter for evidence of that.)

The opening beats of the film has the sergeant waking up Blake, telling him to pick a man, and Blake and Schofield following the sergeant into the trenches.  The final beats follow Schofield to a tree (after talking with Blake’s brother), sitting against it, looking at his photographs, and closing his eyes.  The beats for these respective events come together to create what could be seen as a single “shot” in the traditional sense.

When breaking down the film’s beginning and ending like this, it’s easier to see the poetry and symmetry between the two “shots.”  The first thing we see in the film is a lone tree in the distance, it’s leaves full and robust; one of the last things we see is a nearby lone tree, its trunk bare, leaves sparse.  Blake is naively optimistic about what he and Schofield have been conscripted to do; Schofield is dulled by what’s he been through over the past day.  Looking at the framing and movement, the opening has Blake and Schofield walking toward the camera with us not able to see where they’re headed.  From our perspective, they’re walking into the unknown, both literally and narratively.  The closing does the reverse, with the camera following Schofield: the worst is behind him and the blue sky is indicative of the brightness of his future.

The final “shot” is reversed to highlight the visual symmetry.

He’s one of the lucky ones in this war, one who’ll (hopefully) get back to his family and share the stories of his wartime friend who saved his life, ensuring that Blake lives on through the generations.