' ' Cinema Romantico: 1917

Wednesday, February 19, 2020


“1917” concludes with a postscript thanking Alfred Mendes, grandfather of director Sam Mendes, for “the stories”, presumably those from his time as a British Lance Corporal in WWI. That is not just a dedication, however, but a key to unlocking “1917” itself. Mendes’s film, co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is not so much about two British Corporals in The Great War tasked with getting a message from the rear to the front warning of a German trap and impending massacre as how it’s about it – that is, filmed in a single take. Well, it’s not really a single take in so much as it is made to look like a single take, obscured through various editing effects, which might well rule Mendes’s attempt out of order, a gimmick, as the phrasing goes, where almost subliminally he’s encouraging you to try and pick out the disappeared cuts rather than disappear into the adventure. And, true, there are moments when you can sort of see the movie reveling in its own sense of scale and showmanship, like a couple era-appropriate planes high in the sky and off in the background that fly past and, as the camera half-circles to the characters’ left side, are picked up by the camera again. And yes, the occasional conversations might benefit from the camera just calling it off for a second and going to a standard shot-reverse shot. Then again, “1917” might have done better to cut all the dialogue save for the most necessary exposition – take this, go here – since the movie itself plays like a manifestation of Alfred Mendes telling young Sam and whoever else about this one day during The Great War, dressing it up for effect and excising the gory details; the movie is a conversation, a one-person conversation,

The movie begins with Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) sleeping under a tree, woken by his fellow Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), deliberately shattering a stolen moment of peaceful splendor. If a few of the film’s later passages, taking place at night, especially a blazing French village, evoke the underworld, their descent into such fiery torment is foreshadowed right here at the start, slipping from the daylight into the darkened, candlelit interior of the tent belonging to their commanding officer, General Erinmore (Colin Firth), where they are given instructions and then dismissed to go try and save the day. Upon exiting, Will and Tom are different then when they entered, clearly rattled and trying to come to terms even as they get on with it, the single take, in this moment, underscoring the changing emotions of the moment and how, as actors, MacKay and Chapman are required to live all that out.

“1917” sort of suggests Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” in so much as it’s about the relentless shape-shifting nature of a military mission. Granted, the latter was merciless in its grisly realities of war whereas Mendes opts for a stately presentation. Still, he effectively captures the sensation of imminent danger and how quickly things can change, not just in the roving camera but in his patented painterly canvases, which reminded me of Gottfried Reinhardt’s “Betrayed” (1954), in which his frames of WWII drew inspiration from Dutch masters. The darkly beautiful skies of “1917”, with smoke billowing from the leftovers of some far off battle, are eerily beautiful yet belie how a plane might just drop out of it, while the sight of that burning French village is so arresting that it stops Will dead in his tracks, momentarily rendering him oblivious to the approaching enemy. I’m currently reading Rick Atkinson’s “The British Are Coming” and in culling numerous post-facto diary entries from both British and Colonial soldiers, he shows how these men were at once awed and alarmed, prone to lyrical descriptions of obvious horror – “Soon after candlelight, came on a most terrible bombardment & cannonade on both sides as if heaven & earth were engaged” – and frequently concluding their observations with exclamation points that seem more rapturous than scared stiff. And while it might well render Mendes’s film as just “another goddamned recruiting film”, in the famous words of Samuel Fuller, Mendes is nevertheless effective in conveying his story with rapturous exclamation marks.

In the space of a whole book, of course, Atkinson has the space to zoom out and consider the wider perspective, which is what Scott did in “Black Hawk Down”, establishing place and situation in the beginning to underline American futility even as they press forward. In committing himself to a single take, Mendes is literally and figuratively forgoing the zoom out; if anything, he’s zooming in, all the way in, underscored in how the fate of so many rests in the feats of just two. Of D-Day, the historian Douglas Brinkley reason the only way to understand it honor “fully as a battle is at its smallest: that is, one soldier and one reminiscence at a time.”

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