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‘1917’: A Film that Understands Atmosphere and Subtle Emotion

‘1917’ follows two young British soldiers trekking across France in World War I (WWI). They have been tasked with stopping a battle that is about to go horribly wrong. It is filmed to look as though it is one continuous shot. It is an incredible achievement, not only in terms of it’s cinematography and cleverly connected shots, but also for its ability to keep the audience attentive and focused during a story that is filmed in such a unique way.

Editing can be used as a way to mark the passage of time. There’s usually no need to see the main character of a movie get from point A to point B, so they typically just cut to the next scene. If lengthy travel is involved, there is a good chance that scene is used to build character relationships or for exposition (think about how many in-depth conversations happen in a car).

The thing is, ‘1917’s’ entire plot focuses on the timing and actions that take place between point A and point B. It turns out that setting this kind of movie in WWI is perfect to keep its pacing on point. This film has an amazing ebb and flow to it. Each intense moment is followed by a moment of respite. You have a small chance to breathe before you are pushed into the next sequence of action, tension, and fear.

The movie itself starts in a beautiful field. The sun is bright, the world is calm, soldiers are sleeping. These soldiers get up and move to the trenches. The field vanishes behind them as grass is replaced by dirt. The sound of birds chirping is replaced by the shouts and groans of disgruntled soldiers. This short journey eventually brings them to the infamous “no man’s land.” 

At this point, there is a seamless transition within the same scene. This scene that originally started as a beautiful image of the French countryside, moves to imagery of barren landscapes, dead bodies, and a murky, war-torn Europe. Transitioning from relaxed trust to fear and tension in the same scene sets the precedent of this movie’s ability to move effortlessly between contradicting landscapes and emotion. The rest of the movie follows a similar format of tension to calm, focusing on the lighting and set design at every moment.

You have point A and point B, but within that there is getting from the British side of no man’s land to the German side. It’s getting from the east side of a French town to the west side. ‘1917’ keeps its pacing and excitement up by providing for these smaller missions within its greater journey.

Although this movie really shines through its cinematography, the portrayal of WWI soldiers is subtle and poignant. The two soldiers ‘1917’ centers on are Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Blake and Schofield look no older than 20. As they traverse this battlezone, the soldiers they come in contact with look about the same age. There are a select few characters they run into that are much older than them. These characters are more experienced, higher ranking military men that send young men like Blake and Schofield to their death every day. 

The cameos of the higher ranking officers last less than five minutes each and include stars such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The way these characters view Blake and Schofield differs greatly. One sees them as pawns on a chess board, another will pity them and provide advice, the other just wants them to get out of their face. Although their opinions on Schofield and Blake may differ, there is a throughline in these characters; they are tired of fighting. None of these appearances include a grand display of anger and weeping due to the situation they find themselves in. Instead, these men give nothing away with their stony expressions and serious dispositions. They have shut themselves off from those emotions or have gotten so used to loss in their everyday lives. They have done this to survive, but even more so, they have done this so that they are able to send young soldiers out into no man’s land day after day. This is not the case for Blake and Schofield. These young men we follow are scared, courageous, and hopeful. You see them trying to stifle emotions they can’t control. You see them slowly turning into their superiors.

I’ve never been a huge fan of war movies, but with a movie like ‘1917,’ I can’t help but be impressed by what co-writer/director Sam Mendes, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and cinematographer Roger Deakins have accomplished. I worry that the only thing that will be said about this movie is its ability to film in what looks like one shot. ‘1917’ succeeds in so much as it moves from point A to point B. It focuses on gorgeous imagery and the contrast between a young soldier and a seasoned general, understanding how each deals with the world they find themselves in.


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