1917: Walking in a Soldier’s Boots

Cinematography and sound in the film 1917 take us through the trials of World War I soldiers on a visceral level. There’s no better way to empathize with those who fought in the trenches than seemingly embarking on their journey ourselves – thanks to sensory storytelling techniques.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another Remembrance Day has passed, albeit very differently this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic surging in parts of Canada and worldwide, we weren’t able to gather at town squares and city halls with veterans in the same way. We weren’t out as much; we didn’t see as many poppies on each other’s lapels. But all this aside, we can still pay tribute to those who made sacrifices for our freedom. Especially now, the theme of sacrifice is crucial as we try to protect each other by staying apart.

I’ve written about this before: no matter the politics of war, its toll on our fellow humans is something we can all recognize. We feel it through devastation, through loss, through grief, glory, and gratitude.

It’s often said that the best way to understand someone’s struggle is to walk a mile in their shoes. One film that does an excellent job of putting us in a soldier’s boots is Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film, 1917. The film is critically acclaimed for its immersive powers, having won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, on top of seven other nominations, including for Best Picture. Having seen it at the start of this year, I was captivated by the cinematic techniques that told the story.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) lead us on a tense journey through no man’s land, illustrating both the horrors and the human aspect of war. Photo: Roger Ebert

1917 follows two young lance corporals in the British army during World War I. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a do-or-die mission in northern France. The duo must trek across the treacherous no man’s land to prevent a different British battalion from launching a planned attack, which would play right into a German ambush if it were to go ahead. Schofield and Blake must get there within 24 hours, before the attack is scheduled to take place. They’re sent off with a terse warning: “If you fail, it will be a massacre”.

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917 (2019). Photo: Vulture

The ensuing story is harrowing enough on its own, bluntly depicting the theatre of war and the horrors that come with it. Death, violence, poverty, destruction – we know what to expect from a war film, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when it’s before our eyes, or ringing in our ears. Now imagine actually being there in person. We don’t need to work hard to do so, because the film’s cinematography (in the capable hands of Roger Deakins) situates us right alongside Schofield and Blake as if we were walking, running, climbing, and crawling with them. We’re made to feel like we’re right there thanks to incredibly long takes – the whole film looks as if it were filmed in one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been; it seems impossible to distinguish where takes end because they span minutes, each take cleverly shifting into the next.

Photo: Ourculture

As a result, 1917 comes across as a progression of events in real-time – much as you might walk through a field yourself, for instance. Even if you blink, your view doesn’t cut to various images in succession – you’re likely to take in your surroundings more gradually, organically. You might also get swept up in the sounds of your environment. Likewise, the film replicates empirical observation intuitively, thanks to the long takes and sound mixing. Perhaps my analogy makes assumptions about accessibility, but my point is that we’re made to follow Schofield and Blake through no man’s land directly: the film is linear, never using the same location twice. There are no omissions from the action unfolding in front of us, thereby absorbing us into a rawness that feels like the present. The result is an immersive experience (my favourite phrase). We desperately hope the soldiers will get there in time, and it’s that suspense that helps to pull us in.

Using clever transitions from one long take to another, 1917 creates the illusion of one continuous shot – and in so doing, makes us feel as though we are right in the middle of the battlefields.

“That was my battle every day; to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story … to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”

Sam Mendes, Director
Photo: Ourculture

1917 isn’t based on a particular battle, and all its characters are fictional. This could be any World War I battlefield, any soldiers – what matters is that they’re human, like us. The casting of relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman in the lead roles gives the film an air of anonymity and grim humility; the narrative doesn’t chase glory or pride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), 1917 is sober in tone, illustrating war on an intimate, human level: the story of a few individuals. Notably, 1917 balances low-profile leads with the high-profile casting of the military officers: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden. Yet they have about five minutes’ screen time each, because it’s not the generals that carry this film; it’s the average soldier.

Likewise, when remembering war, we’re not just remembering conflicts between faraway countries, a long time ago (there are people living through war right now). We have to remember the enduring humanity, the selflessness and courage of veterans and civilians over a sustained period of time – even through the inhumanity of war. It’s something that 1917 illustrates very well through its cinematography, casting, and pacing. The heightened uncertainty of global situations (be it war or pandemic) underscores just how much each person’s contribution can mean in the greater scheme of things.

So by watching films like this, by simply paying attention for a while, we can honour their sacrifices.

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