Film review: ‘1917’ is a triumph of engineering4 min read . Updated: 23 Jan 2020, 11:49 AM IST
It’s easier to appreciate Sam Mendes’ '1917' as an obstacle course for its makers than as a singular artistic achievement
A couple of days ago, Rian Johnson tweeted that Sam Mendes told him how, when they were shooting 1917, if anyone made a mistake they’d go right back to the beginning. The second part of the tweet made it clear Johnson was having a little fun: “They paid Cumberbatch to show up every day and wait in that room… He was there 6 months." Still, there’s something about this that cuts to the heart of the discourse surrounding 1917 and our tendency to appreciate certain films not for how they turn out but for how they were made.
Sam Mendes’ World War I film is designed to seem like it’s a single continuous shot. There’s one obvious cut, when the screen goes black and a few hours pass in seconds; there are probably several more ‘invisible’ joins. But it shouldn’t matter if the film is one shot, or two, or a dozen. The question, rather, might be: What are the artistic dividends offered up by telling this particular story in a continuous-seeming shot? Johnson’s vision of the crew restarting if someone made a mistake may not have been true for 1917, but Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015) were actually shot this way. Both, to my mind, are superior to 1917, not because they are ‘purer’ but because both transfer more successfully the exhilaration of the long take into their breathless narratives.
The film begins with lance corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) slumbering in a field in France. They’re woken and told to report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who orders them to hand-deliver a letter to a battalion not far away, about to launch an attack on German forces who they think are on the run but have actually made a tactical retreat and are lying in wait for the British. The attack will result in the loss of 1600 men, one of whom is Tom’s brother. It’s practically a suicide mission, but Tom and Will have no choice but to set off, across fields strewn with bodies and the detritus of battle.
1917 is a remarkable technical achievement. A continuous shot is a challenge to map out and execute even when it’s a couple of characters in a closed space. To do so with the backdrop of war, with a hundred moving parts at any given moment, is an almost imaginable level of difficulty (Birdman, with fewer pieces to move around, took its stitched-up long takes to a Best Picture Oscar in 2015). Nevertheless, a viewer shouldn’t have to laud a film because it was an obstacle course for its makers. Beyond the difficulty of achieving the impression of a single shot, 1917’s accompishments seem slight.
Imagine 1917 as a traditionally cut film and its flaws become easier to spot. The writing, by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is strictly functional: a century of distance from WWI should be enough to come up something more lucid than “There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing." Placing interesting speech in the mouths of characters who aren’t well-spoken or are pressed for time isn’t too much to ask for – but the film’s betting everything on its near-constant movement.
It’s almost as if the novelty of technique pushed the makers to seek tradition in other places. The British are brave and stoic, the one French character is helpless and grateful, there’s even a virtuous Sikh soldier, but the German character repays kindness with desperate violence, as if it’s in their blood. There’s a war-film-by-numbers feel to some of the scenes, like when Will stumbles upon the French girl and the baby she’s taking care of. He sings a lullaby, gives them his food; she theatrically says “Don’t go" when he’s leaving. The sequence after that – a dazzling night-time run through the ruins of a bombed-out building – obliterates the memory of the scene; it was only later that I realized its awkwardness reminded me of the Peanuts strip where Snoopy, in his flying ace avatar, is offered shelter and soup by a French girl.
In an interview to Vox, Mendes said the film wasn’t designed to draw attention to itself. “I don’t really want people to think about the camera. If you’re aware of it for the first 10 minutes, then hopefully thereafter you forget about it, and you just watch the story." I can’t speak for anyone else but I often found my thoughts straying to Roger Deakins' camera and the planning that was making its spectacular runs possible. Cinema is never closer to a feat of engineering than when a long take is unfolding. But engineering is not art, and it is entirely possible to be awestruck by one while lamenting the absence of the other.