“Schofield checks his wounded hand. It pulses blood. He feels as if he is being watched. He looks around.Next to him is the body of a German soldier with rats feasting on it.Blake jumps into the sap just next to Schofield. He lands right next to a dead man, looking straight at them. Blake reflectively scrambles back in horror, knocking into Schofield. Schofield slips, his wounded hand lands on the man’s back and slides right through. Schofield’s cut hand goes into the putrid flesh.”
This is a scene from 1917, the eighth film by Sam Mendes, the director who has given us movies like American Beauty and Skyfall. For some reasons this movie sparks nostalgia about Saving Private Ryan which came out in 1998. Saving Private Ryan made us experience the horrors of war. The opening scene on the Omaha beach is still considered to be one of the most honest depictions of war. There is chaos; there is blood, the screams and the cries of soldiers which are occasionally silenced by the continuous sound of gunshots in the background. The movie left a mark in the memory on how a real war must have felt like.
In 1917 when Schofield’s hand slides through a dead man it is both horrific and a bit humorous. It brings back those memories given by Saving Private Ryan. This scene allows us to take a break from the two characters and think about the wider picture of the scenario they are in. They are in the middle of a war, in the enemy territory and all that is keeping them company is rotten dead bodies of soldiers and carcass. The Earth below has turned black from the aftermath of war with more bodies underneath. When Schofield and Blake find the dead bodies around them we get to know how the dead bodies have been reduced to nothing but dead pieces of mass. It makes us rethink on the price of human life in a war, something which Saving Private Ryan showed us through its opening sequence.
Sam Mendes’ eighth attempt is the story of World War I where two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield(George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake(Dean-Charles Chapman) receive orders to cross over the enemy territory to deliver a message that could save the lives of sixteen hundred comrades including Blake’s own brother. What follows is a tale of determination motivated by the dilemma of following orders which takes Schofield through a seemingly impossible journey.
The biggest takeaway of the film is the single shot. The film is shot to make it look as if the action unfolds in a single shot. Birdman did it in 2014 and won an Oscar for it. But Birdman takes place in a smaller world covering the backstage drama of Broadway. It was a different story all along with 1917 since one of the main motives of a war movie is covering a broader action. In these terms 1917 is hard to imagine if you haven’t seen the film. Director Sam Mendes and the cinematographer Roger Deakins have a history of working together but even Roger Deakins himself admitted to being shocked to learn that the film would be a single shot. It is a different challenge than Birdman since the feel of the camera requires you to show the emotions of the characters while also keeping the audience aware of the actions of the battlefield. It is tough to say whether the movie would have created a similar impression if it was shot like a usual movie with cuts. The question is whether the movie would have been able to take the viewers through the same anxiety and thrill if it involved cuts. In these terms the film heavily relies on its trick of being a single take. A single take naturally requires you to move with the story. 1917 falls somewhere between Birdman and Saving Private Ryan, as it keeps moving between showing the emotional experience of Schofield and showing the thrill of war. The movie becomes a must watch because it tries to do something different than the two of them.
For its technical part, 1917 holds the ground for being one of the most well-crafted movies in the history. One thing that 1917 lets you have is the thrill of anxiety which you feel in real time as the characters feel it and it doesn’t seem like the run time of the movie is getting too much. Having placed in the war genre it is inevitable that it would invite comparisons with other movies, the foremost being Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk. Something which is a perk of a movie done in a single take is that it gives less allowance for the viewers to consume a scene steadily till you have taken all the emotions from it. This is because the story moves a lot faster.
1917 falls short of giving us any memorable characters like Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan or Desmond Doss from Hacksaw Ridge. The best that could be etched in our memories is Schofield but still it can’t be compared to Captain Miller or Desmond Doss. This is expected when the movie focuses on a single character throughout most parts of the movie. In this case the character has enough opportunity to be memorable, but Schofield doesn’t really feels like it. The movie would have had a plus point if you could take the character of Schofield outside the theater with you.
The movie is choreographed well with the camera capturing the two soldiers in the middle of action while also showing sequences like planes battling in air and all of this without cuts. One of the memorable scenes of the movie is the climax, when the character of Schofield played by George Mackay finds that he has to make a run if he wants to deliver the message to Colonel Mackenzie in time and complete the motive of the journey. For this Schofield has to run through the other soldiers who are ordered to charge towards the enemies. This particular shot stands out for showing the background action and telling the viewers what is at stake. We see soldiers charging towards the enemies without being aware of the danger there is to come. It gives us a justification on why Schofield decides to make that run. The real beauty is how well it is captured on camera. It is hard to expect this type of a scene in this movie since prior to this scene there are very little action scenes but it feels necessary to show the seriousness of the situation. It shows a broader angle covering the huge number of soldiers whose lives are in the hands of Schofield. He realises this as he moves forward in his journey but with this shot the viewers now also get to realise it.
The ending is another beautiful moment in the movie. Attentive viewers would find that Schofield finally gets time to rest and sits in a posture similar to how he sat in the beginning; the only difference is that Blake isn’t by his side. 1917 has already won big in the Golden Globes 2020 and is now in the Oscars race in the upcoming Academy Awards under the Best Picture Category and is competing against Ford vs Ferrari, Joker, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite, The Irishman, Little Women, Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story.