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Shooting the messenger
Sam Mendes found a germ of inspiration in his grandfather’s stories about WWI and after Spectre’s virtuoso opening shot, was galvanized to co-write and direct an entire film ‘in one take’. Camus braves the sniper’s bullets (and the guest stars) in 1917
 
  "Roger Deakins and I were just sitting there talking about where and how the camera would move for days and days. Even though we were scratching our head about a number of sequences, by the time we came to shoot them, I felt we found a solution… But there were several scenes which confounded us, for weeks really."
  Interview with Director Sam Mendes*

 

Note: Like my experience watching The Last Jedi in the cinema (it was loudly commentated shot by shot by a friend of a presumably deaf person), my exposure to 1917 was similarly marred. A gentleman in my row clearly had some sort of health issue that forced him to get up, make the entire row stand to get out of the way every ten to fifteen minutes. This sort of ruined the whole immersive vibe in spectacular fashion. How much of an effort would it have been to get him sitting in an aisle seat? That said, not sure I would have had too much of a different opinion on the film…

 

When Joe Wright’s Atonement was released in 2007 (incidentally also featuring a small part for an as then pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch) every one seemed to make a big fuss about a single shot. It was about five minutes long and demanded craft and endurance from the crew that was admirable and newsworthy in cinephile circles. Ever since Orson Welles’ masterful opening shot of Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s Rope, a rather dull experiment in one-location filmmaking faking the entire movie as one continuous take, filmmakers and to a smaller degree audiences, have been fascinated by the idea of a long, somewhat theatrical and absurdly technical shot, an attempt to present a more immersive reality on screen by forgoing and side lining the cinematic aspect that many believe is cinema… the art and craft of editing. But Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakin were in for a penny, in for ninety million dollars. There are edits, dramatic moments of violence that result in black frames and if you wanted to be a nerd, there are sleights of cinematic trickery that call attention to themselves (explosive flashes are a favourite) that may disguise a join but I imagine CG is the agent of invisible technique and it’s artfully blended. I am taking nothing away from the sheer skill, artistry and pure jaw-dropping breadth of preparation that this film took to bring it into existence. My problem (and it is my problem) is that the technique was all I could think of. I had the precise reaction learning that Spectre’s first shot was a long single take affair. It bored the bejesus out of me. It may be immersive and powerfully so to the majority of audiences. To me it was just “Look what we can do!” and that technique is suddenly placed above the eliciting of emotion which is the bread and butter of the film-going experience. Clearly the filmmakers thought one was the route to the other. Alas, not for me. The most moving moment of 1917 is a handshake, a recognition of trust and friendship between two men who’ve only just met. It doesn’t take ninety minutes of Steadicam, cranes and tortuous camera contraptions to get there (ah, clearly it did).

1917

The film is not hard to summarise. Two soldiers in the trenches in WWI are given a mission. They must deliver a message to a commander several miles away to halt his two-battalion charge over the top. He doesn’t know it but the Germans have laid a careful trap and sixteen hundred men will be lining themselves up for slaughter if the offensive goes ahead. The movie is essentially two soldiers given their mission, starting out over a deserted no-man’s land and then coming across a series of violent encounters that punctuate the running time in true movie structure fashion. In that respect, the new ground is still unbroken. Yes, the manner in which the story is told is startling and worth celebrating but for me, not at the expense of the emotional beats of the story. A German airman behaves ridiculously in the middle of the film (you’re on fire, enemy soldiers save your life and one goes for water for you… what should you not do in these circumstances?) but save this one incident of rank silliness, the film ploughs its own aesthetic furrow with some dogged consistency.

The two soldiers are played by Charles MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Schofield and Blake respectively. They acquit themselves very well and are never less than convincing in their roles. We don’t get to know them too well before we’re off to the races but character is not exactly underlined and italicised here. They wear uniforms and carry heavy packs and sport a rifle. That’s all we need to know. Each lull in the action introduces a commanding officer that points our heroes in the right direction. This is 1917’s version of the television guest star…. Starting the race against time are orders from Colin Firth. In the trenches we find Andrew Scott (and his pesky malfunctioning cigarette lighter which ruined a long take or two). Then it’s Mark Strong that gets one messenger as far as a broken bridge and then along the way Cumberbatch and Richard Madden pop up. Because of the nature of these guest parts, it almost felt too pat. Schofield asks “Are you in charge here?” and we know the man he asked isn’t. Why? Because we don’t recognise the actor. That may be cynicism. I think it’s just tiredness of a pattern that was avoidable. Do those starrier actors represent a draw to an average audience? Not in this kind of film, perhaps.

So what are the drawbacks of telling a story in real time? We have to watch all the dull parts of the journey. It’s not all suspense and even if the filmmakers think they are being suspenseful, it doesn’t always communicate strongly enough. Given that anything could happen (usually accompanied by a very loud noise), there weren’t that many moments I was tense from nerves. We are even treated to a scene where a troop carrier gets bogged down in some mud and our soldier hero is in such a rush, he strains to liberate the vehicle alone until fellow soldiers understand the urgency of his need to get moving. With editing, you can cut to the dramatic parts and leave the dull parts to passage of time montages. Here, we have it all. You never get a strong authorial presence from the mise en scene. It feels more like “Well, they had to do it that way to make it work in one shot!” which is perhaps really unfair given the evident effort put into the project. Apologies, Sam. I’ll take that back. Deakins’ cinematography is first rate and the imagination on offer, world class. Thomas Newman’s score is very accomplished and as the tension is cranked up via the sparingly laid music cues it’s a delight to know that some facets of filmmaking remain the same regardless how a film is shot.

Please don’t misunderstand my misgivings. This film has been wonderfully reviewed and has been nominated for ten Oscars (not sure how Best Original Screenplay got in there but I was almost certain Lee Smith was not going to get anything like a nod for editing!) It’s a hit and continues to be such. Perhaps my own interest and passion for film and film technique have simply got in the way. Audiences are thrilled by 1917 as I hope you might be. I was just too caught up with and reminded too often of the technique to bring it to the screen.

 


* https://www.gamesradar.com/uk/1917-sam-mendes-interview/

1917 poster
1917

UK | USA 2019
119 mins
directed by
Sam Mendes
produced by
Pippa Harris
Callum McDougall
Sam Mendes
Brian Oliver
Jayne-Ann Tenggren
written by
Sam Mendes
Krysty Wilson-Cairns
cinematography
Roger Deakins
editing
Lee Smith
music
Thomas Newman
production design
Dennis Gassner
starring
Dean-Charles Chapman
George MacKay
Daniel Mays
Colin Firth
Pip Carter
Andy Apollo
Paul Tinto
Josef Davies
Billy Postlethwaite

UK distributor
Entertainment One UK
UK release date
10 January 2019
review posted
14 January 2019

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Skyfall
Spectre

See all of Camus' reviews