1917–a Film to See in 2020

1917--a Film to See in 2020

Ralph Matamoros, Writer

At the 2020 Golden Globes, director Sam Mendes’ film 1917 won “Best Motion Picture – Drama”, beating movies like Joker and The Irishman. Although the win took many people by surprise, 1917 wholeheartedly deserves the win for being one of the best films in recent times. 


Before I go in-depth about the movie, it’s important to note that 1917 isn’t an action movie. 1917 is similar to movies like Schindler’s List and Dunkirk in the sense that these movies don’t revolve around the wars taking place, but instead focus on how the characters change as a result of their experiences. If you go to see 1917 expecting to see a movie like Inglorious Basterds, then you will be disappointed. 


Without spoiling too much about the film, the plot of 1917 is that Lance Corporals Tom Blake and William Schofield have to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie to call off his attack on the Germans, as the Germans are retreating in order to set a trap for the British. If they aren’t able to deliver the message in two days, 1600 men will die, and among them is Blake’s brother. Towards the middle of the film, Blake is unable to continue, so it’s up to Schofield to deliver the message on his own. Because the plot is simple with no major twists and turns, the audience is able to follow the story as they appreciate the most important part of the film: the cinematography.


With a runtime just shy of two hours, 1917 is filmed in a consecutive shot, which means that there are no cuts anywhere in the film. If you want to get nitpicky, there is a part in the film where the screen cuts to black after Schofield gets knocked unconscious, but other than that, there isn’t a single cut in the movie. The major benefit of not using any cuts is that action is easy to follow, and the storytelling is fluid. Right now, we’re currently in an era where cuts and the dreaded “shaky-cam” are used without care, which can make movies hard to follow. Seeing a movie that decides not to follow the common trends of cinematography in order to better tell a story is extremely refreshing. To give an example of how consecutive shots help tell the story of 1917, at the start of the film, Blake and Schofield leave the field they were lying in to go see their general. While the camera focuses on the two men as they walk to the general’s office, the background slowly changes to a grassy field, to a dark trench system that was commonly used in WWI. WIthout having to say anything, the movie is able to tell the audience that the men are officially at war. 


The use of colors, setting, and set pieces are also used well in 1917. The movie uses various shades of brown and dark green for the settings throughout most of its runtime, and as the movie goes on, the men’s uniforms slowly become dirtier over time. This causes the uniforms to lose the contrast that they previously had with their surroundings, which signals that the men have lost their identity as a result of the war. Instead, the men have become the war, the images that we imagine when we think of WWI. Settings are also used to show the death and destruction that surrounds the soldiers. Dead bodies in varying stages of decomposition are in almost every scene, and rats and broken machinery are also seen throughout the entire movie. The juxtaposition between the fields and forests and the destruction of buildings further shows the devastating effects of war. Set pieces are used in the film, but they are used sparingly. A set piece is a movie term that refers to big events in a film, which often use stunts or other effects in order to execute it. For example, the scene in Inglorious Basterds where Suzanne LaPadite sets fire to the Nazis’ film showing is a set piece. In 1917, the set pieces don’t revolve around the characters fighting against the Germans, but instead focus on how they survive their environments. For example, the scene in the trailer for 1917 where Schofield is running across a field while explosions go off behind him is a good example of what most of the set pieces are like.


The performances in this movie are also great. Most of the actors in the film, with the exceptions of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, are lesser known actors, which helps to keep the film grounded in reality. The casting of 1917 is similar to Dunkirk, as both films use what’s known as “character actors”. Character actors blend into the films, and instead of playing a star role, play a variety of memorable characters. A character actor is someone who you’ve seen in multiple films, but you don’t know who they are. In using character actors, 1917 feels like a more authentic experience. Dunkirk also does the same thing, but the casting of Harry Styles distracts from the movie, and makes it feel like more of a Hollywood blockbuster. In 1917, the addition of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch brings in great talent, but they don’t take focus away from the story and other elements of the film. 


If you haven’t seen 1917, I highly recommend this movie. Every element of the film is handled with care, every actor gives a solid performance, and even minor details from the costumes down to the pictures that the soldiers’ carry with them all contribute to an incredible film that is sure to become a classic among war films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The movie is still available in theaters, so don’t miss it.