1917: A Technical Triumph

By Isabel Milford


“Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

Rudyard Kipling

6th April 1917. War-torn France. We follow every breath two soldiers take, as they carry an urgent message across no-man’s land.

Awards season comes around, and a war film is on the list. Everyone jokingly assumes it will automatically win best picture, but here is why it’s so great.

Sam Mendes’ one-shot-wonder lands in the cinema with a thud. A cinematic experience where cuts are cleverly hidden amongst the darkness and close ups, 1917 makes it seem as if we’re following every single step of George McKay’s ‘Schofield’. These embedded cuts create a seamless journey of raw emotions. The horrifying shot of Schofield slicing his palm on a stretch of barbed wire, makes you shiver and cringe, crumbling back into your seat, moments before he slips and plunges his fist into a decaying body: horrifying, shocking, empathetic, but we must move on, pick ourselves up and get through the journey. Look sharp!

1917 is a triumph of the senses. Portraying the devastating environment of the battlefield, there is no doubt as to why it has won BAFTAs for Best Film, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound, and Special Visual Effects, AND Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing. In fact, 1917 has racked up a total of 108 wins across the season.

Sitting in the cinema, the entire room becomes atmospheric: heads popping up as people jump out of their seats, gasps and gawks and horrified tremors. The film is not just a spectacle for the eyes, but the body too. Congratulations are in order for the marvellous work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who not only managed the single-take look, but flourished in making the war-torn civilian town appear as a hell-fire ridden landscape. Vivid, orange flames topple over shadowed rooftops as we fall into a moment of innocence. Scuttling down into a basement, the desperate ‘Schofield’ comes face-to-face with a young girl cradling an unknown baby, death lingering in the air around them. 

We then emerge from the corpse-ridden river, Schofield having lost his belongings, terribly injured, and alone, into a wood. The scene at first appears desolate, and then… what’s that? Music? Through the trees a group of soldiers appear, one mournfully singing ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. It is an emotional turning point. We see the youth and innocence etched across these young boys’ faces as the camera pans smoothly over them, the gentle harmony lending a break from the terrors of war. You can’t help but let hot tears slip down your cheeks. 

We finally come to the scene used in every promo clip. ‘Schofield,’ desperate to complete his quest, staggers up to the frontline and sprints for his life. He is repeatedly knocked over as he attempts to traverse the initial group of British attackers, along the white chalk trenches, to get this life-or-death message to, one of many esteemed British actors in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch as ‘Colonel MacKenzie.’ The effects, sound, cinematography, and performance are all tied together to ultimately produce this final point of tension. You find yourself gripping the edges of your seat, willing Schofield to make those last few inches, wanting to shout at him, scream at him, desperate for him to get back up again, and, when he succeeds, you only get to breathe for a brief moment, just as he did.

Richard Madden, although only having a few moments of screen time, manages to give one of the most authentically emotional performances of the whole film. The search for him, among the drastically injured and half-dead bodies, makes your heart pound faster and faster. But seeing him alive doesn’t make you happy: it fills you to the brim with sympathy and dread. 

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” utters Cumberbatch’s Colonel MacKenzie, and it certainly is within this film. 1917 is one hell of an emotional ride. It shows just how good cinema can be, and how fiercely it can influence emotion.

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