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Over the 125-year history of the cinematic medium, a pervasive idea is that of pure cinema. Pure cinema expresses its meaning through the unique elements of the moving image, not needing the components of literature, theater or photography from which it evolved. The commercial history of cinema has imbued the medium with narrative, films used to tell stories because audiences embrace and therefore pay for stories. Consequently, plot, character, dialogue and suchlike are tied into the expression of meaning, working in relation to cinematography, editing, production design and sound. But the conceit of pure cinema still informs narrative films, and can be found in Sam Mendes’ World War One masterpiece 1917.
1917’s distinct selling point is that it is captured in a single take. We open on two lance corporals in the British Army, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), resting under a tree in the French countryside. This peaceful image is interrupted non-jarringly by Sergeant Sanders (Daniel Mays), who orders the corporals to report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth). As Blake and Schofield follow Sanders, the camera pursues them past their comrades, into a trench and thus into a dugout. Within the dugout the continuous shot pans around them, zooms into important features, tracks alongside them out of the dugout and through further trenches, Over The Top and across No Man’s Land, around craters, through barbed wire barriers and onwards. Aside from a brief blackout, the shot is continuous and unbroken. In practical terms, it is not really one shot, and a sharp-eyed viewer can spot the joins and hidden cuts. But to do so is to miss the point and to deride the film for this cinematic sleight of hand churlish. Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins use the device of the long take to create an immersive experience, the continuous shot creating a restricted view even as the scope of the frame widens and contracts. As Blake and Schofield encounter the expanse of No Man’s Land, the shot expands to encompass the devastation ahead of them. As they fall into a shell hole, the frame narrows to present their restricted view. This restriction means that shocks hit the audience just as they do the characters, especially encounters with bodily horrors and dangerous traps. Jumping, ducking and exclaiming are all appropriate reactions to the film, but so is awe and wonder.
Much of the awe and wonder can be credited to the genius that is Roger Deakins. Deakins not only keeps faces in focus within the frame even when the surroundings are blurred, but also crafts beautiful images within fraught and threatening scenarios. The French countryside at times seems idyllic, the horrors of the battlefield far away even as our heroes’ progress highlights the close proximity of peaceful fields and destructive weaponry. In one extraordinary sequence, the camera moves through a town during a night bombardment. Deakins’ use of light captures nightmarish reds and deep, black shadows, presenting a mesmerizing journey that is both threatening and stunningly beautiful. At one point, action takes place both in the foreground and background, the deep focus of the shot doubling the tension as one threat is encountered while another approaches. Subsequent set pieces including fire, water, chases and shelling are just as startling, horrifying and exhausting, the film lending a new dimension to the oft-quoted description that war is hell. Yet there are additional moments of beauty, such as a battalion in the woods waiting for battle while one of their number sings, and also fantastical moments including a young French woman hiding in a ruin with a baby, as though we had stepped into a fairytale.
For all its stylistic grandeur, the film could be described as empty, offering purely surface thrills with little to say beyond that. In fairness, 1917 does lack in-depth characterisation, because while we follow Schofield and Blake throughout the film, there is little sense of development. We only learn their first names at the end of the film, and for the most part they are reactive, following orders, avoiding bombs, constantly moving with little opportunity for introspection. References to their families back in Blighty are clichéd, as the corporals look at photographs and reminisce. It is worth noting that all performances in the film are very fine, especially McKay whose luminous eyes convey fear, resolve, resentment, compassion and desperation, often simultaneously. Dialogue takes a backseat here to physical expression, both through eyes and expressions as well as body language, the exhaustion often as apparent an obstacle as the treacherous terrain ahead.
Deprived of long discussions and voiceover, 1917 will win no awards for profound ruminations on the meaning of existence like The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now. Nor does Mendes investigate simpler themes like loss of innocence or loyalty struggles as seen in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. It is a frequently breathtaking technical exercise, but what does 1917 offer beyond that? The answer is yourself. 1917 is an experience that works as character projection rather than expression. It is a film you can put yourself into, a first-person shooter video game that you can enjoy without having any knowledge or experience of first-person shooters. It is, therefore, a primal cinematic event, reminiscent of the earliest cinema audiences who allegedly panicked at the sight of a train coming towards them. Here, a bi-plane comes hurtling towards our heroes and, crucially, us. A search for water is interrupted by cries of distress so we turn back towards the sound, and throughout the action other figures appear by literally stepping into frame, our awareness intimately tied to Schofield and Blake, just as our awareness is itself limited to our immediate surroundings. And in perhaps the film’s most bravura sequence (no mean feat considering that the film is effectively one extended bravura sequence), we run alongside our onscreen surrogate while bombs rain down and men rush past. “1917” may utilize a single technique to place the viewer in the combat situation, but it adheres to this technique with extraordinary invention, aplomb and power, delivering an immersive, visceral and often terrifying piece of pure cinema.