The earliest release that introduced me to the “one-shot” cinematic experience is auteur Alfred Hitchock’s classic Rope(1948). With a clustered setting of an apartment, the sequences feel smoothly captured and conjoined, eventually making the movie appear to be shot entirely in a single take. As old as this idea may sound, Sam Mendes in his latest ‘1917’, shows how its impact is still intact. Using this technique on an ambitious scale with audacious Roger Deakins as the cinematographer, the job done is remarkable – as the audience sits breathlessly hooked while the camera follows soulful soldiers through the horrifying grandeur of no man’s land for around 2 hours.
With radio lines down in the times of World War I, General Erinmore(Colin Firth) on April 6, 1917, has assigned two young British soldiers Blake(Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield(George MacKay) the task of crossing the enemy lines to reach a British battalion stationed in France, and stop them from walking into the enemy trap of retreating Germans. This task has at stake the lives of 1600 soldiers there, including Blake’s own brother Joseph(Richard Madden). So our heroes set off to do the same, traversing across corpses of countless soldiers amidst war-struck villages, trenches, fields, and farmhouses.
This simplistic story is all in the name of a detailed plot, rest is the wonderful portrayal of the same through cinema. The horror sinks in immediately as no alive man is to be seen around. The quiet atmosphere loudly emanates loneliness, abandonment, and bloodshed. The little of alive people encountered midway reflect no humanity to qualify as humans. The turmoil of war has apparently washed both the brains and bodies of helpless soldiers. Any soul alive within stays concealed and deeply buried, so a helpful French woman is found hiding with an infant, below the ground level.
Roger Deakins steers the shots close to the soldiers for the most part, complemented by a minimal yet powerful background score by Thomas Newman. This combination makes the cinematic experience completely immersive and intimate. To the immediate effect – we feel the hunger, thirst, anxiety, thrill, helplessness, hopelessness, and the ultimate fear of death experienced by the soldiers’ duo. The gore is minimal, yet the sight of blood isn’t. The constant cool color palette used highlights the coldness of people and events portrayed. Devoid of all hope after a certain point, the sequence of hearing a song from a distance initially brings a tinge of joy and hope. But the underlying essence of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ song is pure melancholy that war brings along in the lives of soldiers, how they long for going home just once. What eventually sinks in is sheer hopelessness, to my dismay.
The actors being lesser-known and their naive charm only escalates one’s empathy towards them, as whatever one gets to know about them is only through the careful storytelling by Sam Mendes, and he well knows how much to give away at a given time. Both the actors seamlessly immerse into their individual parts, sharing a plausible camaraderie, as their mutual care seems real and makes for the little soul factor in the otherwise soulless setting. Despite the humans eating the most of the screen space, the imagery from 1917 that has eventually stayed with me is of the bird-eye shots of narrow and never-ending war-torn trenches. The familiar faces of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth appear in a brief yet effective appearance.
Credited as a producer, writer, director, Sam Mendes in his vision ensures that 1917 doesn’t lose the personal touch amidst the technical finesse, for it is the story narrated to him by his grandfather. Coming a long way since his first ‘American Beauty'(1999), the humane touch in Sam Mendes’s storytelling has always been evident and consistent in his decades of career. 1917 does speak volumes about the turmoil and futility of the war. Meticulous detailing has been taken care of by the production designer Dennis Gassner, and Lee Smith as the editor fortifies the smooth pace – but my hero of the big picture is Roger Deakins – for he keeps one on the edge of his seat with mixed emotions – as one is simultaneously hunting for the ‘cut’ in one-shot cinematography, witnessing the unforgettable imagery painted on screen feat. forgotten soldiers lying dead amidst the trenches, hoping for a better future while grieving along with soldiers, and gasping for breath even after the fast-paced tension ends.
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