By Amy Layton
Sam Mendes’ war epic 1917 was a prominent feature at this year’s awards season, racking up Oscar nominations in many categories; even winning a multitude of Golden Globes and BAFTAs that included Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. Highly, and rightly, acclaimed for its ambitious production, 1917 had more humble origins, its inception stemming from Sam Mendes’ own grandfather’s tale of his wartime experience. During World War One, Alfred H. Mendes received a mission that would see him search for survivors beyond the treacherous trenches, inspiring his grandson to write a film dedicated to his service and memory.
In 117 minutes, the camera quite literally follows the war-weary, cautious Schofield (George MacKay) and young yet ever-spirited Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) over body-laden battlefields, through decimated French towns and forests in their seemingly impossible goal: to stop 1600 men, including Blake’s own brother, from falling into a German trap at dawn. 1917 tells of the horrors of the First World War in a way that is raw and symbolic, its depth shown through Roger Deakins’ cinematography, perfectly orchestrating a world in which the base desire of man is illustrated: survival amongst all odds.
Impressively, 1917 boasts a one shot finish, appearing to be filmed in one take. However, this is cleverly edited through actually being shot in long takes that are cunningly cut in places such as doorways. Consequently, meticulous planning was needed by all that were onboard in 1917’s vision. Producers, actors, set designers and camera crews worked alongside Mendes to calculate how big the set needed to be in order to accommodate for such long takes. If it took eight minutes for a planned shot, then the distance travelled by the actors during rehearsals would be measured, prompting the set designers to plan the set to this measurement. This also left complications in factors such as weather, as shots would need to match up during post-production. All of these considerations make the film more ambitious in hindsight and can reveal why 1917 made itself at home during awards season. Yet, it is not just the technical execution of the set that makes such a feat of filming impressive, it is also the effect in which it places upon audiences. By following the every move of Schofield and Blake, the audience can feel that they too are in the field of combat, stimulating a sense of danger and caution on watching. The camera was also able to get close and personal with the characters, never leaving their sides, meaning that a close bond is formed with them and a willingness for their survival is spurred. Even though dialogue was scarce in the performances of 1917, when it was used it counted. The lack of speech created an atmosphere of tension and realism, whilst its short bursts formed a window in which the personal stories and relationships of the characters could be peered into. The relationship between this and the film’s one take worked harmoniously to provoke an intimate space of empathy and support.
Deakins’ cinematography played a vital role in the creation of Mendes’ vision, adding another layer of meaning to Schofield and Blake’s story. Fondly reflecting on Deakins’ best moments in the film, many of which were centred around the German-occupied ruins of a French town, one of my favourite moments featured a flaming building which shielded the identity of another soldier in a tense moment which left both character and audience questioning the identity of the shadowed figure. Another of Deakins’ triumphs saw flares momentarily lighting the hollows of bombed-out buildings as Schofield ran from gunfire, creating unease in the unknown of darkness, a theme of light and dark which manifests physically in these two instances.
This is not the only time that Deakins and Mendes’ collaboration has worked in harmony, such as in their 2012 film Skyfall. The writing and cinematography work symbiotically in 1917, especially in one element running throughout the film that reveals much about the story symbolically. Trees are used as an aesthetic and narrative device throughout the film, both the beginning and ending shots containing them, cyclical in nature.
The trees symbolise Schofield’s state of mind and how the trauma of what he has seen and done during his service will always be a strong and prevalent structure in his life. At the end of the film, Schofield rests by a mangled and beaten tree looking at photos of his family. This is juxtaposed by the flowering meadow and blue skies surrounding him and his tree, symbolising that he may always have shellshock to bear, but new life and hope still manifests and will continue to grow around him. Blossoming cherry trees also have great symbolism throughout the film, Blake telling Schofield that falling blossoms from dead cherry trees mean not that life is dead, but that it will propagate and carry on spreading its life, growing into new trees. This is not only foreshadowing of this smaller story within the wider narrative of World War One, but a tribute to those who died in the war, showing that their lives helped to birth a new society.
The stellar cast includes big names such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, however this did not retract from the real and emotive performances of MacKay and Chapman. This can be seen during a moment where an extra clashes into Mackay as he is running across the trenches in an epic final scene. This was not planned, but MacKay convincingly continued, creating a raw and spontaneous incident that made it into the final cut. It is moments such as these that create a sense of reality in films, which is especially needed in 1917 in order to represent the conflict with the respect and integrity it does.
1917 portrays World War One in an intimate yet empathetic fashion, each element working together to produce an experience that will leave you squealing on the edge of your seat one moment and feeling sorrowful the next. What I consider as masterpiece of a film, 1917 has become added to my list of favourites and writing this has made me want to watch it all over again. This is an experience that must be seen on the big screen to appreciate the power of Mendes’ story that all began with his grandfathers’ own bravery, paying not only respect to his memory, but to all of the soldiers that carried out such acts of bravery during the Great War.