There is so much wonderful filmmaking craft on display in 1917 (Mendes, 2019), from the emotionally moving lead performances by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, to the seamless editing by Lee Smith, to the subtle and powerful set decorating (set decorating!) by Lee Sandales who packs each scene with innumerable subtle horrors of war (often dead bodies) that we only gradually notice amid the rubble as each scene progresses. But I went to see 1917 because of the gimmick: director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the entire film so that it appear to be one long unbroken take.
The movie is actually made of many different shots cleverly edited together to appear like one shot. This technique has been tried before in such notable efforts as Rope (Hitchcock, 1943) and Birdman (Iñárritu, 2014). In 1917 the technique was interesting but intense, and I’m not sure how to describe the feeling it gave me. With other attempts like Rope or Birdman the one-shot technique felt like watching a dramatic one-man or one-woman show where a single actor holds the stage for 2 hours without a break. Hitchock’s Rope feels much like the play it is based on, and Birdman takes place in and around a play. But using the same technique for a war movie made 1917 feel a bit like a first-person shooter video game. Or, more accurately, it was so immersive that it felt almost like a virtual reality film. It is tempting to think that VR must be the future of storytelling — think of the scene from Ready Player One where the characters inhabit The Shining — but seeing 1917 made me think that VR can’t really be the future of cinema. A movie — especially a war movie — without any cuts feels like having a really intense conversation with someone who stares directly at you the whole time without blinking. For me the cuts in a film are like blinks that give my eyes a chance to rest. 1917 felt like watching an entire movie without blinking. It was exhausting as much as exhilarating. I went home and put a pillow over my eyes.
But as in-your-face as 1917 felt, the film eventually won me over. It reminded me of my response to Mendes’s first film American Beauty (Mendes, 1999). Every time I watch American Beauty I have the same experience. The first half of seems well made but rather familiar and uninvolving. But then there it that plastic bag scene and I am completely won over. The movie transcends its cliches and transfigures the rest of the movie into something numinous.
I had the same experience with 1917. The movie was certainly functioning at the highest level of craft, but most of it seemed like a rehash of war movie cliches. Until late in the film when we happen upon a group of soldiers listening in rapt silence as one young man sings an acapella rendition of the folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”. The moment is so heartbreakingly beautiful that the scene feels like a Church service (a funeral, perhaps) and takes on an almost mystical dimension, somehow retroactively transforming everything that came before into a mythic journey. The lyrics of the song (“I am a poor wayfaring stranger / Traveling through this world of woe”) recall Homer’s Odyssey, but that myth is about searching for one’s lost home. 1917 feels more like Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) in which a physical journey symbolizes a loss of innocence.
I feel like I want to watch it again to see if there is any mythic resonance to the structure of the film. There are two mythic images that I already see. First the barbed wire wound early on that the main character carries, clearly symbolizes the emotional wound he has. And the french girl he meets caring for a lost child seems like a mythic echo of the lure of family he feels, the tension between those who want him to stay behind vs his duty to save as many lives as he can in the war. That’s an image that resonates with me, not as a literal soldier, but as a man trying to balance family and work. What about you? Were let me know in the comments if you noticed any mythic images in the film.