Even if you don’t like war movies, 1917 is a cinematographic masterpiece. You’ll appreciate the humanistic approach that the film spends much of its 2 hour run-time, sharing with the audience. The vivid cherry trees, beige uniforms, and the clink of the bullets fleeing the chamber of the Lee Enfield create a film that is unique and immersive. The natural, flowing dialogue and the throat-drying pauses in between crucial deliveries of doleful news add an entirely different, yet realistic take on the war genre.
1917 was made for the movie theatre– I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX where the already pronounced sound and visual effects are amplified tenfold. 1917 is already making itself known in the world of film by sweeping 7 major-category awards at the BAFTAs– best film, best British film, best visual effects, best cinematography, best sound, best direction, best production design, and best film music. Recently, they won 3 Oscars for best cinematography, best sound mixing, and best visual effects. I promise you, you’ll be utterly shook when the final scene of Lance Corporal Scofield, wholly fatigued and anguished, rests against a tree and hard cut pulls you from World War I back into 2020. The end credits begin to fade in and you’ll be left to decipher the multiple layers of emotions that the film presented. The film will have completed you as well as befuddled you. 1917 is the epitome of catharsis.
What will amaze anyone who enjoys quality cinema is the cinematography. The movie was shot to resemble one continuous take, and with the help of some sneaky transitions and strategic camera panning, the cuts are seamless and unnoticeable. It is no surprise that 1917 won the BAFTA for best cinematography and Oscar for best visual effects. In the beginning of the film, Blake and Scofield enter a German bunker together and it goes dark, then light when they turn on their flashlights– those are two different scenes. The camera never goes backwards, only forwards. The camera work mimics how the characters never turn back– Blake and Scofield push forward no matter what happens. They never go back, so why should the camera? Since they only moved forward, every set was different. You never saw the same house or field. You were experiencing the setting as the characters were. The genius cinematographer, Roger Deakins, also made a point to only use one type of camera: ARRI Alexa Mini LF. They used 35mm, 40 mm, and 47mm, being cautious to never go any bigger because they wanted to capture the story in a way that mimicked the line-site of the human eye.
Additionally, the cameras rotated 360 degrees. This gave you a full view of the characters as well as the setting. During filming they could never use artificial lighting because one of the lights might show up in the scene due to cameras moving 360 degrees. Therefore, they had to rely solely on the weather being cloudy. If one day was slightly sunnier than normal, they had to shut down production for the day. They wanted continuity, and they were willing to do whatever they could to keep the film flowing in real time. To add continuity as well as realism, during the infamous night scene, the setting’s only light source was a burning church and flares being set up by Germans. There is more background information in the featurette, but as you can tell, the production team went through hellfire to create this movie. They treated this film with respect and attentiveness while also doing the same for the audience.
The sound for the movie was real. The gun shots, the explosions, and even the squishing of the mud under Blake and Scofield’s boots as they walked across No-Man’s Land were intensely lifelike. The sound added suspense as well as comfort. My favorite part of the film involving sound was when a British soldier sang “Wayfaring Stranger” to a battalion of soldiers before they initiated the second wave of the attack against the Germans. It created an air of uncertainty, but also calm. The high tenor vocals contrasted with the somber tone of the song and left me with goosebumps. The sound in this film made my ears hark. The low-key soundtrack didn’t pull the viewer from the movie, it pulled you in even farther. It added an air of tension and unease. The soundtrack consisted of mostly quiet instrumental or some sort of white noise that indicated that Blake and Scofield were just as apprehensive as we were. When there were any loud sounds or a crescendoing blare, you knew something bad was going to happen or is happening.
The acting and chemistry between the two main actors is exemplary. On screen, and off, they behave around each other as if they have been friends for years. In the movie, there is no context for how long they have known each other, but it is presumed they have been friends since they were stationed. Their personalities contrast and clash. Their conversations tend to pull the viewer into the conversation and it seems like, sometimes, that you could join the conversation and they would think nothing of it. The way they bounce off of each other, read each other’s emotions, and work in syncrasy, few words have to be said for them to understand each other. Off screen, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman went on research trips to Belgium and France to learn more about the Great War, as well as each other. On top of that, their countless months of rehearsal and blocking led to their strong and current friendship.
The film is raw. There were bodies everywhere: alive, dead, human, non-human, bloated, rotted, infested with rats, torched, dismembered, buried in dirt, anyway you could imagine (in the context of WW1). The film doesn’t attempt to glorify or make anyone into ‘heroes’. All of the characters are trying to survive this war and return home to their families. Humans are humans. Humans are animals, and when you put animals into a miserable, strained situation, equip them with weapons, and tell them that if you don’t kill the ‘enemies’, they will kill you and your companions– anything can happen. Yes, we can agree that the Germans were the enemy during the war, but your fellow soldiers could be enemies. Humans are also complex creatures with an indescribable range of emotions. Looking at the final battle scene, one of the Sergeant’s froze and began to sob. We could say, “Oh why doesn’t he just focus on the battle? Why is he crying? I would be out in the field killing as many Huns as I could”, but that’s easy to say when you aren’t in the situation.
One of the main characters, Blake, ended up dying because he helped an enemy pilot out of a burning plane. He heard the cries of another human and his instinct was to help him, regardless if he was the enemy. The German soldier, who was conditioned just as Blake and Scofield were, believed that Blake was the enemy and he would kill him if given the chance. Blake and Scofield were just as afraid as the German pilot as he was of them, so the pilot followed his instincts and stabbed Blake with his knife. Scofield, despite his hardened attitude, only killed two people during the whole film, and it was to either save Blake or himself. The other times he had the opportunity to kill, he didn’t, and ran instead. It might be because, back to when I mentioned how humans are complex, he was in several situations that required immediate action and Scofield had zero time to think anything over. He thought on his feet and sporadically acted as the threats came at him in the form of bullets. The film depicted the true reality of the first World War and never shied away from it.
The movie resolves its conflict and ends. The film doesn’t spend 15 minutes attempting to sugar-coat and gift wrap the ending, it ends. It tells the viewer that the story that the movie wanted to convey has ended. The attack on the Germans has been called off, the mission is complete, and Scofield rests against a tree. It doesn’t open up room for sequels or speculation. It opened at a point in time and ended the next day. 1917 is one simple story with blankets of varied components that set it as one of the best World War One films, and one of my favorite war movies of all time.
1917 is one of the few war films that adds rather than taking away. They add layers of detail onto a story that, at its heart, is humanistic and raw. The components of this film, all together, create a war film that defies the genre and sets a higher standard for production companies to breathe life into their stories, rather than sucking the life out of a story that was lifeless to begin with. This film may upset the faint-hearted, but it is a film that I recommend to everyone. 1917 isn’t just about WW1 or just about drama. It is a sublime, seamless portrayal about the human condition during WW1 that demands audiences of any country, any (mature) age, or any language, to experience history in a way that we could not only learn from, but use to propose changes to prevent future conflicts over material greed, alliances, and pride.