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1917: Gimmick or More?

  • Published at 01:40 pm February 7th, 2020
1917, directed by Sam Mendes, received ten nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards and is the front runner to win Best Picture IMDb

Much has already been said about the groundbreaking cinematography of 1917 by the great English cinematographer Roger Deakins. It has been deftly shot to appear as a one-shot film – a technical feat that has often been criticized as a mere gimmick

Alfred Mendes was a teenager when he went to war. His service mostly involved long, perilous journeys as a solitary messenger through enemy territories strewn with corpses, rats and traps. He was frequently taken aback not by the prevalence of violence, but by the sheer arbitrariness of it all. Stories he later told his grandson, Sam Mendes, served as the inspiration for last year’s epic war film 1917. 

Stories that otherwise would have slipped into obscurity, Sam Mendes helped immortalize, which is nothing less than a testament to the transformative power of the cinematic experience.

The plot revolves around two British soldiers, Lance Cpl Schofield and Lance Cpl Blake, who are assigned a nearly impossible task: they are to deliver an important message by crossing over war-ravaged battlefields where death lurks in every corner. 

Schofield is younger and prone to a certain naivety that occasionally calls for praise. His acts of compassion are essentially glimpses into human valour that has not been lost even at the height of the Great War. Blake, on the other hand, is a hard-headed, seasoned soldier. As the wreckage of the war weighs his spirit down like a hailstorm that would not let up, he finds himself made untamable, hence ill-prepared to return home, by an interminable war.

Lance Cpl Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, enters a war-torn French town | IMDBAs these corporals lunge toward an uncertain destination through a post-apocalyptic, hellish expanse, we witness the last traces of their boyish innocence finally yielding to war, until an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia rooted in trench warfare permeates everything else, and the mission is all that remains.

Much has already been said about the groundbreaking cinematography of 1917  by the great English cinematographer Roger Deakins. It has been deftly shot to appear as a one-shot film – a technical feat that has often been criticized as a mere gimmick. To be fair, 1917 is not aspiring to be the kind of film which builds on heartbreaking, insightful conversations about the savagery of war. Sam Mendes is far more eager to lock his audience in a horrific embrace with his protagonists in a no man’s land so as to give the viewers a vicarious taste of this rollercoaster ride unfolding in real time. 1917 has no patience for lofty sentiments nor sporadic outbursts, and is essentially a race against time.

Roger Deakins received his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography on his 14th nomination for Blade Runner 2049 and is again a favourite this year for 1917 | IMDB

This vividly spectacular film is partly a sincere endeavour by Sam Mendes to caution against the xenophobic and jingoistic rhetoric rampant in Europe today. As a British and a French character share a few rare, quiet moments of intimacy in the middle of the film, one cannot help but grieve over the ties severed between Britain and Europe today. Mendes reminds us once again that war is rarely about victories.

Yes, Mendes’ characters are tight-lipped and the immediateness of their mission overshadows all else. Yet there's a lot of heart in 1917 as it captures the triumphant human spirit  with great compassion in the face of inconceivable human barbarity. This film ends right at where it started- soldiers lying on a quiet green meadow, basking in a brief moment of respite. Their faces are blank, eyes inscrutable. In the spring of 1917, the war drags on despite the time and the innumerable lives so hastily lost.

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