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The Thin Grey Line

Speculative thoughts on a film: 1917 (2019)

Granted, I haven't seen 1917 (2019), the Sam Mendes directed WWI epic currently generating much discussion following the film's innumerable Academy Award nominations, so this post is pure conjecture; a kind of hypothetical dialog that functions on a level similar to that of thinking out loud.

At the time of writing, critics have praised Mendes's film for its technical proficiency and "event movie" status, as well as its worthy and historically significant depiction of the First World War. However, there's one specific aspect of the film's construction that has really dominated the discourse surrounding the work and its supposed claim to greatness. In short, 1917 is made up of several increasingly long takes, which, when creatively edited to disguise the moment of 'the cut', give the impression of the entire film taking place in "real-time", over the duration of a single, continuous shot.

As an experiment, this is reminiscent of two earlier films released almost twenty years ago: Timecode (2000), conceived and directed by Mike Figgis - which upped the ante by filming not one but four continuous sequences in single shots that played out simultaneously on-screen - and Russian Ark (2002), co-written and directed by Alexander Sokurov.

Timecode [Mike Figgis, 2000]:

Russian Ark [Alexander Sokurov, 2002]:

Timecode and Russian Ark were two films that took full advantage of the digital revolution that occurred at the beginning of the current century. The move towards high-profile directors like Lars von Trier, Hal Hartley, Bernard Rose, Spike Lee, Danny Boyle and others shooting acclaimed films on consumer-quality digital video was an act of liberation; not only freeing up the filmmaking process from the more cumbersome necessities of shooting on 35mm film, but resulting in pacing and imagery that would've been impossible to achieve with more conventional filmmaking methods.

This period was one of the most bold and experimental periods since the beginning of cinema itself, with directors, cinematographers and camera operators taking up the challenge to rediscover the language of film using these new tools. Tools that were considered primitive - in the sense of being accessible (and as such apparently lesserin quality) - but also ultra-modern. The disparity between the two forms completely apparent in that first wave of digital cinema, from Festen (1998) to Dancer in the Dark (2000), from Bamboozled (2000) to Hotel (2001), from 28 Days Later (2002) to Topspot (2004), where the divides between professional and unprofessional, mainstream and experimental, old and new, blurred into insignificance.

It would be tempting to say that 1917 has taken up the baton passed from Timecode to Russian Ark, to films such as Victoria (2015) and Lost in London (2017), but this would be untrue. While critics have zeroed in on the apparently single-take, fully immersive aesthetic that Mendes has adopted, it would be more accurate to say that his film has instead taken up the baton passed from Rope (1948) to Birdman (2014). In other words, it's a film that gives the impression of having been filmed in a single continuous shot, but was in fact pieced together from several different ones. The distinction is important.

1917 review [Peter Bradshaw/The Guardian, 2019]:

"And it's filmed in one extraordinary single take by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a continuous fluid travelling shot (with digital edits sneaked in...)" Arguably Britain's worst high-profile film critic Peter Bradshaw contradicting himself as he pushes the false narrative of the film having been done in a single-shot. Also, wouldn't it have been more appropriate to turn a single-shot masterpiece into a western front horror, and not the other way around? Bradshaw's take elevates formalism above historical atrocity.

Rope [Alfred Hitchcock, 1948]:

The construction of Rope, like the titular cord of death, is a continues strand, tight and unbroken. The beginning and end – isolated elements there to be "tied up" in the sense of narrative exposition – eventually becomes entwined at the precise moment of James Stewart's third act reveal, creating a twist, or should that be a noose?

Behind the scenes on Rope [photo credit:]

Rope was one of the earliest films to attempt to create the impression of a single continuous take. On one level it could be read as an experiment in recorded theatre, but that's not the case. Hitchcock was a filmmaker who revelled in the artificiality of the film medium and in the introduction of intentional creative restrictions. For Hitchcock, creating the impression of a single take was more important than shooting a film in an actual single take, and being able to achieve such a feat with the cumbersome camera equipment available in 1948 was part of the challenge.

So, what do we make of Mendes's decision to adopt this approach and to marry it to a film about survival and The First World War? It would be impossible to say without seeing the film for myself, but being an inherent cynic, I have my reservations, specifically in regards to the way the "form" is being pushed as a unique selling point to the extent of trivialising (or further trivialising) the notion of the war film, as a genre. Characters and even plot are not part of the cultural discussion here; the film has instead been reduced to its subject and method of delivery.

For those that have already seen 1917, I'd be tempted to ask: does making the film look as if it were shot in a single take add anything to the commentary on war, or is it simply a formalist gimmick? I can see the appeal of trying to make the experience more immersive; however, making combat immersive is kind of counterproductive if you want to express war as the horror it truly is.

1917 [Sam Mendes, 2019]:

Watching footage put out by the studio to further promote the massive technical achievement of Mendes and his crew set alarm bells ringing for me. The side-by-side comparison between how the film was made and the resulting image of a shell-shocked soldier fleeing across a battlefield as militias storm the trenches and bombs erupt like anxious tremors of the unconscious, signalling fears of destruction and death. The footage is visceral, epic in scope and succeeds in propelling the audience along on the soldier's journey, where the bombs and the bloodshed are designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience equivalent to that of a big-budget Hollywood action movie.

This is problematic for me for several reasons. In presenting war as a series of action set-pieces, the film, intentionally or accidentally, succeeds in making war, for lack of a better word, "thrilling." No matter how persuasively the film works to push an anti-war commentary, there will always be large factions of the audience who find the combat - and the filmmaking as illustrated in the above shots - exciting; the explosions and the gun fire, and the intensity of the performances, turning the battle scenes into something exhilarating. Without wishing to invoke Martin Scorsese and his infamous 2019 commentary on the modern superhero movie, the approach turns the spectacle of war into something closer to a theme-park ride, or even a video game.

This seems dishonest to me as it shows only the valour of war and combat and not the reality of what war is. A film like Come and See (1985) for example is immersive, but it immerses the audience in the muck and bloodshed of war and the prolonged state of horror that comes with it. Not soldiers storming trenches or trying to outrun bullets, but families rounded up and burned alive in barns, or corpses piled high alongside villages.

Come and See [Elem Klimov, 1985]:

The horror of Come and See, and why it works as an anti-war statement, comes from the film's evocation of the occupation and the unending nightmare of what it must have been like for normal people just trying to live from day to day. Not soldiers or lieutenants, but farmers, labourers, teenagers, all caught up in an unwanted intrusion that robs people of their dignity, their morality, and even their lives.

From the trailers and promotional materials, 1917 seems to fall into the same trap as Steven Spielberg's similarly acclaimed war movie Saving Private Ryan (1998). There, Spielberg worked to throw the audience headlong into the chaos and the horror of the Normandy invasion by using the cinematic form to immerse us in the experience.

Spielberg uses handheld cameras that seem to shake uncontrollably as they react to every explosion or bullet hit, disjointed cutting that turns the melee into a free-for-all, shots that are intentionally out of focus or obscured by seawater or bursts of arterial spray. He also experimented with the sound in much the same way that Klimov and his sound-designers did in Come and See, letting the explosions boom in deafening crescendos of noise and then whistling through the perforated eardrums of his characters rendered subjectively for the audience as the sound becomes muted and disorienting. Violence occurs as something surreal, something that we can barely believe, capturing the senselessness of it all.

Saving Private Ryan [Steven Spielberg, 1998]:

The sequence is astounding. If you need clarification that Spielberg is one of the great technical filmmakers, then look no further. However, despite the aesthetic brilliance of its presentation, the sequence sits uneasily within the context of the film itself. Presenting a highly manipulative and melodramatic narrative that refuses to engage with the realities of war in favour of a generic men on a mission adventure story, Saving Private Ryan is ultimately one-sided, jingoistic and effectively works to show the nobility of war-time sacrifice, and the invented valour of men killing and dying for "the greater good."

By aiming for the subjective and immersive, and by refusing to contextualise the scenes of action and violence with a stronger political and intellectual commentary on war and the impact that war has on societies, culture and humanity, Saving Private Ryan turns its combat into cinematic spectacle. So persuasive and immersive were these sequences in their stylisation they worked against the supposed anti-war commentary of the filmmakers and instead led to the further fetishizing of war and military manoeuvres in popular culture through things like the TV series Band of Brothers (2001) and video games, like the "Call of Duty" and "Medal of Honour" franchises.

Medal of Honour: Allied Assault [2015, inc., 2002]:

Know your enemy. Medal of Honour: Allied Assault carries a writing credit for Steven Spielberg. The general gameplay and historical detail are heavily modelled on Saving Private Ryan, but it's the unbroken, fully immersive, single-shot aesthetic that predicts the subsequent approach of 1917. In forcing the player to identify with these soldiers in a first-person format, the games compel the player to not only adopt a pro-war mindset, but to trivialise war atrocity by carrying out unthinking murder in the name of valour and heroism.

It's this aspect that has me concerned about Mendes's film; the presentation of war, not as a period of occupation that destroys communities, cultures and perspectives, but as something thrilling or "epic" in nature. At a time when the world and its politics is already divided and hostile to outsiders, we need war films that are defiantly "anti-war"; something that isn't reducing a historical atrocity to a formalist gimmick; something that refuses to show scenes of combat or heroism; something like Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique (2004), which picks the scab of the atrocities of Bosnia and Herzegovina as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging, and shows the struggle of people to continue on when the scars of war remain from generation to generation.

Again, I haven't seen Mendes's film, so this is all just an obscure line of thought on my part and I'm happy to be proven wrong. I just wonder what this particular visual aesthetic is meant to communicate about war, as both a reality and an ideology. Doesn't this approach turn war into an aesthetic fetish that dehumanises and depoliticises the true historical significance of the event and the profound impact it had on people? Time will tell.


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