1917 takes audiences to the front line
A black title card establishes the date: April 6, 1917. This date isthe day the United States Congress approved a declaration of war against Germany and its allies during The Great War.
The story that follows the title card is fictional, but writers Sam Mendes (also the director) and Krysty Wilson-Cairns draw inspiration from the stories Mendes’ grandfather shared about his service during the war. While there are fragments of this movie that are true, it is not a biographical film. Despite that fact, it is still a beautifully intimate tale about the struggle with humanity and sanity during war.
It is poetic that this movie follows two members of the Lost Generation and key themes of the story revolve around finding purpose and reason to go on in a doomed situation. The Lost Generation is the demography of people who served during The Great War and many found themselves wandering aimlessly after it.
Every aspect of this movie flows together to create the most immersive movie experience that was not intentionally designed for the third dimension. Overall, it is a rather quiet film that allows anger, grief, and joy to be displayed in a stark and uncomfortable way. There are very few words spoken by the actors and Thomas Newman’s equally subtle score feels organic to the action playing out on the movie screen and matches the way the camera interacts with the environment.
In the world of movie making, the term “long take” refers to the length of time between cuts in the film. 1917 is unique compared to the movies it is sharing the theater with because it appears to be one continuous take without any visible cuts between scenes.
This style of editing combined with clever cinematography was first accomplished by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope from 1948. The transitions used in that film are the same type used in 1917. In order to keep the illusion of a single take, the camera is moved into a position so that it could pause and then resume filming without a break, like behind a rock or into the blackness of trench bunkers.
This type of filmmaking is not exclusive to Hitchcock or the creators of 1917. It has been done by a handful of directors over the years in both feature films and television episodes, but the setting of war heightens the stress factor and scale of immersion for the audience.
These key factors allow the movie to naturally be a third person limited point of view, meaning that all the information known is the same between the main characters and the audience. A long take would feel out of place in a third person omniscient point of view, where the audience is given information that the protagonist and antagonist do not know.
All these aspects gave Oscar award winner cinematographer Roger Deakins a real challenge with framing the story in a way that wasn’t intrusive. He not only succeeded in accomplishing this but pushed the bar of masterful cinematography into a new realm.
1917 is going to be cemented into the history of Hollywood as one of the greatest war films ever made.