1917: Why Technical Perfection is Overrated

by Daniel Nguyen

In late December 2019, Universal Pictures uploaded a short promotional piece to their Youtube channel, which became one of my favorite videos of the year: a distilled chronicle of the work behind Sam Mendes’ 1917, his latest “epic” WWI film. The promo really only elaborated on one particular aspect of the movie, which was the impressive effort to make it look like one unbroken shot. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins spoke about how a custom rig for the camera could be carried by two men, loaded on vehicles, or transferred from crane to crane, all while maintaining its visual clarity, stability and continuity in the middle of an explosive war setting. Many, including myself, regard 1917 as another highlight of film technology evolution, but there is little discussion as to why it needed made this way. 

USING APPROPRIATE VISUAL LANGUAGE: A PRIMER 

In 1959, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard quipped that “tracking shots are questions of morality,” referring to the ethical implications inherent in visual aesthetic; the liberal use of various “visual aesthetics” can mismatch the content of a particular film, which can ultimately be harmful to the film itself and manipulative to audiences. The lighter version regarding the matter comes (surprisingly) from comedian-filmmaker Mel Brooks, who remarked that he would not make a black-and-white film unless it was “truly indigenous to the locale, the theme [or] story”, otherwise it would be an “arty trick, just a kind of gimmick.” He went on to make Young Frankenstein in black-and-white, which works in the spirit and horror of past Frankenstein movies. 

The film 1917 takes place in a war-ridden French countryside during World War I, following two young British soldiers who must relay an order of withdrawal to another battalion. From the opening sequence leading up to their climb into no man’s land, I was already intrigued by this precise duet between camera and setting as advertised, following the pair through trenches and bunkers. The intrigue remained up until the credits rolled, but for the wrong reason: I found myself more concerned about how Mendes was going to maintain this “unbroken” shot, through the grime and gunfire, circling around our heroic duo without giving any discernible indication of production artifice. The war zone batters our protagonists with endless ruthlessness, even to the point that one of them dies along the journey, but who cares? What is Mendes going to do next to impress me, after that plane crashed into that shed? And in one shot? Entire sequences are presented like this, where the spectacle of production would slash through any emotional tension. A cat-and-mouse chase through the rubble of a town serves only to show off the precise choreography of flare and flight. By the end, the irony stung: in trying to make a film advertised as a realistic plunge into a war, the emphasis on the realism above everything else may have exposed its artificiality. 

Another important element of 1917 to discuss is its treatment of the passage of time, which can definitely not be ignored with regard to the fact that it is a one-shot film, and is therefore told in relatively real time. I would have given the benefit of the doubt to Mendes, the grandson of an actual WWI soldier, to use the opportunity to honor this sacrificial British heritage, but he has retained his 007 blockbuster spirit to sell the film. This considered, Mendes’s attempt to make a film involving the gravity of war in addition to its real-time structure was bound to have contrivances. Nearly every moment in 1917 has been economized frugally to keep this real-time, 2-hour “epic” engaging, and it did, as it was stuffed full of patriotic melodrama and fabricated suspense. 

LONG TAKES & BÉLA TARR: AN INTERLUDE 

When should long takes be made, let alone a one-take feature film? Once again, if “tracking shots are questions of morality,” with 1917 being a never-ending tracking shot, the whole film should be a powerful look at something inherently human and visceral. The context of wartime should only enhance these elements, not the other way around. A great example of this would be the work of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, who is notorious for using entrancingly long takes. His 1994 film Sátántangó is very representative of this creative tendency, as it centers around the collapse of a collective farm after the fall of the Soviet Union. The film consists of roughly 150 long-take shots, slowly drawing its viewers into hypnotic submission, and sending them through an emotional wringer. While the story is not told in real time, the life of each shot is; the camera blocking and composition is nothing too groundbreaking, but is always there to serve the human subject, exposing its paradoxes and clashing desires from different character perspectives. However, Sátántangó’s key claim to fame is its runtime: a little over seven hours. Some have deemed it to be unnecessarily lengthy, but I have yet to hear that criticism from someone who has actually seen the film. It is critically unanimous that Sátántangó needed to be seven hours, to provide sufficient time for the punch that it packs, because it wasn’t trying to prove any particular production method or show off a fancy camera stunt. Unfortunately, in contrast, it is clear that 1917 prioritized its digestibility over its potential power, and all we saw was precision gimmickry and manipulated emotions desperately trying to fit itself into two hours, because that is how long the average movie-goer can manage to be still for. 

The technical perfection that Mendes was aiming for did effectively sold 1917, grossing over 300 million dollars and earning several nominations and awards. However, Mendes has expressed his desire for viewers to not pick apart the film’s technical seamlessness, which is exactly what several have already done, uploading Youtube compilations of how separate shots have been stitched together. 1917 is already falling apart now, just in time for its home entertainment release. 

1917 is scheduled to stream by March 10, with Blu-Ray’s and DVD’s available by March 24. 

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, Sátántangó has been restored by Arbelos for a special Blu-Ray release later this year.

Daniel Nguyen studies Cinematic Arts at HBU. When he's not faithfully attending the Church of the Nazarene, he can be found at the cinema.

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