It’s one of the most talked about films of the year already – and here’s a spoiler-filled conversation about 1917, and how its promotion has affected the film slightly.
Huge spoilers lie ahead for 1917.
One of the front runners in this year’s Oscar race is Sam Mendes’ new film, 1917. With good reason, too. I’ve seen the film twice now, and walked away impressed in different ways on both occasions.
But I’ve also noticed that the movie seems to be one of the recipients of the annual Oscar backlash.
You probably know the drill with this. That a film wins a lot of nominations, and finds itself in the crosshairs because other people chose to give it awards attention. I remember, for instance, Darkest Hour coming in for a torrent of criticism back in 2017. Not just debate as to the merits of the film, but anger that it was even in the Best Film conversation in the first place.
Top target for that this time around is clearly Joker, which is proving as divisive now – off the back of 11 Oscar nominations – as it was when it was first released last year. But also, I’ve noticed increasing pushback against 1917, and I wonder if it’s a little of the production’s making.
1917 was one of the last of this year’s awards movies to actually be finished, and up until the first look featurette for the movie was unveiled at the end of September last year, few of us knew what we were getting. To that point, what we knew was that Mendes was directing, and it was a World War I-set movie.
The film didn’t even start shooting until last April, and all the news reports at the time told us was that Mendes had co-written his first script, along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. That he was working with Roger Deakins again. That an awards-qualifying release was targeted. And that it’d follow two soldiers in a single day at the height of World War I. For months, that’s all the vast majority of us knew.
What that featurette did, though, was play the film’s biggest movie star card.
With due respect to the excellent ensemble, led by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, neither lead name instantly get bums on seats at the local multiplex. Furthermore, the film has no Roman numeral or colon in the title, so the commercial odds were stacked against it from the start. Thus, the end of September was the moment where we learned that the ambition was to present the film in real time, with – in Mendes’ words – “one continuous shot”.
It’s been three words that have stuck with conversation around the movie ever since, not always to its benefit.
Here’s the featurette, if you missed it.
Note that we hadn’t had a trailer by this stage. That the decision was made to put this out first: to promote the approach to the film, rather than the film.
Commercially, it’s proven an incredibly effective tactic. Since the autumn, since that featurette landed, 1917 has shot its way to the top of many people’s to-watch lists, and the resultant film has left few disappointed. But also, the conversation around it has been interesting.
From this point onwards, spoilers.
I think on many levels, 1917 is a monumental achievement, but I’ve found myself getting slightly different things out of it on the two occasions I’ve seen it.
I try to avoid trailers for films as a rule, but it was hard to avoid the chatter about how this one had been made. As such, I sat down and found myself in awe of the technique for the first 75 minutes or so. But also, I was very much conscious of it.
I’ve always found myself taken with something I read in a making of book for Back To The Future Part II in my formative years, when director Robert Zemeckis was quoted as saying something along the lines that he doesn’t want people to think about how they made the film and achieved the effects they did until they were on the way out of the cinema.
In the case of 1917, I think the promotional campaign – and again, I come back to the fact that it’s been hugely effective – is daring us to do the opposite. As I sat there watching, I found myself looking for where the edits were hidden. In fact, I couldn’t help but recall Brian De Palma’s continuous opening 12 and a half minute shot in 1998’s Snake Eyes, where because of shooting on film, he had to hide cuts somewhere. In fact, here’s a great video where the hidden cuts there are demonstrated.
The logistics I found staggering. Just watching the first chunk of 1917, it struck me that they’d have had to build lengths of trench for exactly the amount of conversation they needed the characters to have. That the movie was almost pre-edited akin to animation, that everything was plotted to the nth degree in advance. I was genuinely wowed, and then a very sudden fade to black 75 minutes or so in really took me out of the film.
It took me out, though, not because of the film I realised. It took me out because of what the promotion had been telling me to expect. Because here, in a film with apparently one continuous shot, is an enormous and obvious break in the film. It wasn’t one continuous shot at all. Sure, two is still massively impressive, but the moment felt akin to Hitchcock when he overtly zoomed onto black objects when he was making Rope, as he tried to disguise his cuts.
After that fade to black, the film changes tempo quite a lot, and on second viewing, it felt like returning to a (very, very cinematic) play after a brief interval, but I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the problem I found with the first viewing was, well, this felt like a cheat. I say that knowing it wasn’t, but it felt it.
In the discourse pushing back at 1917, it’s a criticism I’m now seeing a lot. That if you’ve set your stall out as a single shot movie (appreciating the filmmakers themselves have limited control over how a film is promoted), it’s something of a turn to, well, not be that. It was never going to be entirely single shot of course, but the other cuts in the film require a surgical YouTube video to uncover. The massive fade to black felt as clear as if they’d put a massive pair of scissors on the screen. And yet the single take narrative continues to pervade.
Which all moves the conversation away from two things: firstly, that the film is a technically impressive feat even with just a handful of cuts. And secondly, about whether the film is actually any good. It’s a by-product, I’d suggest, of firing a film out to market with the opening gambit being ‘look how we made it’.
Ironically, as Sam Mendes has noted, subsequent trailers have been full of the kind of edits that the film itself studiously avoided.
Going in to watch the film a second time around, I found myself far more impressed by the film itself, and the achievements that I feel aren’t being as widely discussed. Primarily, I sat there afterwards reflecting how difficult it must have been to come up with a story of two continuous stretches of people’s lives that retains so much attention. And I feel that what Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Sam Mendes have achieved with their screenplay is quite something.
The more I think about it too, I feel that the technical achievements discussion is very unfairly dwarfing the conversation about the narrative achievement of the film. The only other films that spring to my mind that have narratively pulled off such an approach in recent times are Richard Linklater’s Before… movies. In 1917, as two men start their journey to deliver a crucial message, I never lost interest in what they were talking about, or where they were going.
I did wonder on reflection about George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield seemingly losing his urgency after the blackout sequence, but just as I sat there thinking why he wasn’t getting a move on, he approaches the trees near the end and you see the sheer exhaustion painted on MacKay’s face. I’ve been a huge fan of his work for some time, but I do feel he’s quite extraordinary in 1917. He runs like Tom Cruise in a Mission: Impossible movie, he gets across the quiet tender moments, and at no point do I ever not believe his character. Quality writing, quality performing, and I found myself understanding why he must have slowed down when he did.
What I also allowed myself to do on second viewing was stop for one or two moments and look around the audience. My local cinema is quite mobile phone-y and rustly for big movies, but here was an audience absolutely rapt. And, aside from my brief glance around, so was I. I found the film enthralling particularly second time around.
It’s no secret that two screenplays for the film were produced: one a technical script, one a more traditional document. I found myself appreciating the former more on first viewing, the latter on second. On both occasions, I pretty much leapt out of my seat twice at the big, earned jump moments too.
Whether 1917 ultimately prevails in the Oscar race or not – and I think it’s got a very good chance – I do think the mini-backlash is selling it short. To not only get a film like this made, but to then make it as strong as it is, and then for it to find an audience – the film snared nearly $40m on its opening weekend in the US (cue jokes about the previous 1916 films not doing so well) – is really some achievement.
But then so is the film. And I hope that conversation bubbles up – whether it wins its awards or not – extends beyond the narrative set by those initial promotions. Congratulations to all concerned.
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