Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ And Hitchcock And Long Takes And Why A Technical Achievement Isn’t The Same As A Great Movie

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth

First you should know that 1917 is the most anxiety-producing film I’ve seen in a few years. At least twice, I gasped out loud. The tension was so thick that for the first hour, my hand was literally on my heart.  In some scenes, I shut my eyes in anticipation of the horror that would inevitably unfold. In short, I was a mess.  But being a mess because a film is so devastating and powerful is the best sort of mess there is.

In 1917, director and co-writer Sam Mendes, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and DOP Roger Deakins deliver a film that combines high impact with high artistry. The film has been designed as a single continuous shot. There are hidden cuts of course but like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Alejandro Iñárritu’s more recent Birdman, 1917 aims to deliver the experience of an uninterrupted take. The set-up is simple – on April 6, 1917, two young British soldiers must cross enemy lines to deliver a critical message to British troops who are on the other side. They are given their mission in the first few minutes of the film. We then take the journey with them. The single shot format puts us into their shoes – we have no idea what’s coming next and we are discovering the terrain as they are. We don’t get the respite of a cut. I will admit that mid-way, my nerves were so frayed that I was grateful for the interval that Indian theaters insist on. It allowed me to reclaim my emotions a little.

Director Sam Mendes immerses us into the hell of war. There is no escape from the misery and the mud, the cold and the chaos

Lance Corporal Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and Lance Corporal Schofield, played by George MacKay have a youthful bravery that is heart-breaking. They are basically children playing with death. Bodies loom large in this film – men, rats, dogs, cows. In one scene, Schofield plunges his hand into the open stomach of a corpse. And yet, despite the omnipresent death and destruction, 1917 feels throbbing and thrillingly alive.

The fluid cinematography, which moves from ground level to a bird’s eye view, hurls us into the center of the action. The camera glides around the men and sometimes pivots to catch faraway action. And we are right there with them, almost like another character. The production design by Dennis Gassner is also meticulously detailed. Mendes immerses us into the hell of war. There is no escape from the misery and the mud, the cold and the chaos. But the realistic textures are offset by surreal touches. The No Man’s Land that these men cross seems like a vast wasteland. In one sequence, the terrain is lit by yellow phosphorescent haze, like a nether world. It’s grand and tragically beautiful. Thomas Newman’s sparingly used music heightens the piercing sense of unfathomable loss.

At its heart, 1917 is a portrait of the pointlessness of war and therefore a plea for peace

The babyish, unlined faces of Chapman and MacKay underline the absurdity of this particular war and those yet to come. These boys are unstintingly brave but their courage seems futile. They are heroic but in this brutal and unforgiving battle, there are no heroes. At its heart, 1917 is a portrait of the pointlessness of war and therefore a plea for peace.

There will be times in the film when the craft might distract you. I found myself trying to catch the hidden cuts – in a sequence in which Schofield falls into a river, I was wondering how the cameras were rigged. But mostly 1917 is electrifying but also quietly emotional. If you’re watching one film this week, make it this one.

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