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 didnโ€™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.

Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

During WWII, Allied secret agents were tested to their limits. The best way to foster empathy for the hardships they faced is to undergo them yourself – just ask the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.

By Serena Ypelaar

The only people who know what World War II was really like are the ones who lived through it. Army, navy, air force, nurses, medical corps, civilians … and spies. Everyone living between 1939 and 1945 had a diverse experience of one of the largest global conflicts in history, and for someone like myself, that experience is nearly unfathomable.

Nearly.

We have historical records and witness testimony to illustrate the war to those of us who hadn’t yet been born or were too young to remember anything. The mass genocide of Jewish people and the horrors suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis have left lasting scars. But the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, restoring peace.

A few of the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits. From left: instructor Nicky Moffat, Samy Ali, Debbey Clitheroe, Alastair Stanley, and Magda Thomas. Photo: Polygon

At the heart of the war effort was Britain, who dispatched secret agents from Allied countries throughout occupied Europe to bring down enemy forces and top-ranking Nazi officials. In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization. SOE agents faced countless tests and challenges both in training and in the field, challenges we can scarce imagine – until last year, when the Netflix/BBC miniseries Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits premiered.

A unique reality show, Churchill’s Secret Agents focuses not on interpersonal drama, backstabbing, or creative skill, but rather, on suitability to become an SOE operative as per the 1940s standards. Supervised by Nicky Moffat, the British army’s highest ranking woman before her resignation in 2012, Lt. Col. Adrian Weale, commanding officer, and Mike Rennie, military psychologist, the show is essentially a training simulation for the 14 recruits hoping to be selected as SOE agents. As an exercise in empathy, it’s incredibly effective – it offers not only the recruits, but the audience, with fascinating (and sometimes shocking) insights into the life of an SOE spy. I’ve watched the five-episode series three times already; I loved seeing how each recruit navigates each test, and who excels at what.

SOE Historian Rod Bailey consults on the show.
Photo: Popsugar

The show is diversely cast, which in this case is historically authentic. The SOE recruited both men and women from various walks of life to blend in behind enemy lines. Their main concerns were talent and aptitude. On the show, the new recruits include Rohini Bajaj, a doctor; 21-year-old maths graduate Alastair Stanley; Polish-born translator Madga Thomas; ex-military Rob Copsey, who lost his leg serving in Rwanda, grandmother and drama teacher Debbey Clitheroe; paralegal Will Beresford-Davies, and research scientist Lizzie Jeffreys, among others of varying professions, cultural backgrounds, and ages.

Recruits Rohini Bajaj, Rob Copsey, Lizzie Jeffreys, and Will Beresford-Davies. Photo: The Guardian

The series seems to offer the best of both worlds, too – each training exercise is contextualized with documentary-style footage including narration about the SOE’s impact on the war effort, specific missions that succeeded and failed, and prominent agents who were later recognized for their service.

Reality shows can be an invaluable method of historical interpretation; what better way to understand history than to see it recreated, and even more importantly, to interact with it? As a spectator, I fortunately don’t have to scale a mountainside in the pouring rain, but I can still appreciate the emotional and physical strength needed as I watch the recruits attempt it. For the contestants themselves, their understanding is even more immersive, as they literally have to participate in the testing process and challenges.

Recruits receive training (and are later tested) on hand to hand combat, firearms and explosives, stealth, disguise, interrogation, lockpicking, physical tasks such as scaling walls/cliffs and crawling under barbed wire, and Morse code/transmission.

The first of five episodes is shown here. You can stream the show on Netflix or watch the entire series on YouTube.

It’s hard to pin down the best part of the show, as I’ve already outlined its benefits for historical appreciation. However, I think Churchill’s Secret Agents‘ biggest strength lies in its emotional impact. If you’ve read The Mindful Rambler enough, you’ll know that I’m a big crier, but suffice it to say that this overview of the Resistance and the efforts of those who fought against injustice had me welling up. Not only that, but the fact that these modern-day people of varying backgrounds could complete the rigorous training pretty much floored me. It made me realize that we can exceed our limits if we resolve to, and we can do what’s necessary to fight for good, even if it’s difficult.

I don’t know if I could really navigate such difficult training on such a short timeline – but I like to think that if it was needed, I would try my hardest.