January 06, 2020

A Third-Person Limited War: Sam Mendes’ '1917'

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
1917. Credit: Universal Pictures.
1917. Credit: Universal Pictures.

I would like to get through this life without ever having to injure or kill another human being. I suppose I’d have to consider myself a pacifist. My understanding of violence is far too simple, perhaps, for society to function if everyone held my beliefs. But that core disposition is perhaps what has always distanced me from war films.

The war films I do tend to like involve escape plans, like “The Great Escape” or “Stalag 17.” While these are narratives about the life of a soldier, most of the killing happens before or after the film. Or in a bloodbath of a third act.

Because of my aversion to the lion’s share of war films, my absolute love of director Sam Mendes’ “1917” was a welcome surprise. Without a doubt, “1917” is bleak and firmly has earned an R-rating from the MPAA. But Sam Mendes has developed an experiment into a full length movie: The film, with the exception of one intentional cut, is one giant tracking shot.

The camera follows Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield as they traverse the violent backdrop of the front lines of the First World War.

The camera is a companion through the piece, often grafted to the protagonists while juxtaposing the insanity of a world flattened by savagery. Using Mendes’ opening tracking shot in “Spectre” as a point of contrast, the camera in “1917” has a personality.

In “Spectre,” the camera follows James Bond through a Day of the Dead festival, following him through a building and then following him out a window onto rooftops. In “Spectre,” the camera is cool, mirroring its stone-faced super spy.

But the camera in “1917”, while impressive with its trickery and movement, isn’t there to be cool. The camera, instead, humanizes Blake and Schofield.

Soldiers in war films are often portrayed as duty-driven patriots, first into action as the flag billows behind them while they charge nobly into battle or else they are minimized to a dominant character trait. That personality may be broken or crass or angry.

But the intimate camera offers the soldier something that many films don’t: a spectrum.

There are war films that humanize the protagonist. I’m partial to 2017’s “Dunkirk” from director Christopher Nolan. But since the camera in “1917” never really leaves the main characters, we get to know these characters more intimately than most war films. There are moments where the film celebrates the courage of heroes, doing the right thing despite overwhelming odds. But there are moments of real vulnerability. A soldier is both a champion of freedom and a human being who values his life.

Coupled with the clever use of camera is Mendes’ love of mise-en-scene. There are moments where the set is absolutely breathtaking. Much of “1917” would be considered cinematically spectacular, even out of context of the film as a whole.

The use of light is haunting. While Mendes and his team use a bleak color palate, one that is often associated with the Great War, the way that color scheme plays with different lighting is fascinating. The mundane bleakness of No Man’s Land contrasted with the fields of France only feet away from devastation is a gorgeous contrast. Similarly, how pitch black night is illuminated by flares that move, making shadows dance and stalk the protagonist, creates a sense of both awe and tension in the film. Gunshots from blackness terrify, evoking almost a horror-film quality to the entire experience.

Between the continuing tracking shot and the inclusion of a living setting, “1917” becomes something bigger and more terrifying than the sum of its parts. The camera tethered to the characters allows the filmmakers to make every moment a surprise. As audience members, we only get to see what the characters see. Rather than playing up a sense of dramatic irony, the director only allows the audience to know what the characters know. Every element acts as a surprise. The result is that the other shoe is ready to drop. There is no calm. There is only fear.

“1917” presents characters that I admire as a Catholic. Both Blake and Schofield start off the film as virtuous people. They have their hangups and their character flaws, but both are admirable men. The task to cross No Man’s Land is an act of suicide. They bicker and squabble over the necessity of this task, but they also are men of duty. They know the consequences beyond their own lives that necessitate this mission.

From moment one, they value human life and will do anything to stop a slaughter from happening.

But as the story progresses, these characters go from being good characters to great characters. Instead of back-pedaling morally due to the horrors of war, these characters absorb the carnage around them and work to be instruments against evil. While Blake and Schofield kill enemies, they never revel in it. There is never a moment of excess or retribution for acts committed against them. The characters work even to preserve the lives of the people who just tried to kill them.

“1917” is a masterpiece. Balancing visual mastery with strong characters in a touching-yet-tense storyline is rarely seen on such a technically gratifying level. While it reflects the brutality of war, it also talks about what makes the individual so valuable and glorifies the endurance of the human person.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.