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.

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.