When I was about 13, my father rented (from an establishment called Blockbuster) an odd little film called Rope. He is an Alfred Hitchcock aficionado and had discovered that this was one of Hitch’s lesser known films, which he had yet to see. In the days before IMDb and easy internet access, information like this was hard to come by. Directors’ canons could only be accessed through books, word of mouth, and actually checking the backs of VHS tapes in stores.
We plopped the tape into the VCR and, about ten minutes later, realized that Hitch was doing something very odd. The story was about Murder, one of Hitch’s favorite subjects, but ironically, there were no cuts (pun intended). The cinematography was portrayed as one continuous camera shot. Once I realized this, it was quite easy to see where the actual cuts were. The camera might zoom into someone’s back while they entered the kitchen, or a wall might obscure the actors for a few seconds.
Regardless, the Illusion was that we were voyeurs being taken on a cinematic journey sans seams. Sure the whole thing works out just like a play, because it was adapted from one, and the plot is constrained to one small apartment, but this was a pretty gutsy call by Hitch. In 1948, it was considered experimental. It was also mostly considered to be a commercial and critical flop.
Unlike that small but illustrious group of films that bombed at the box office only to later be recognized as perennial classics (The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Thing, The Princess Bride, The Shawshank Redemption), Rope’s reputation has continually shrunk. In the context of cinema history, its existence barely registers at all.
But Hitch was really onto something. Rope is not a great film, but it was constructed around a great idea, an idea that is finally starting to come into its own: the single shot film. Or at least, the illusion of the single shot film.
Fast forward from thirteen-year-old me in 1998 (or from 1948 which is when Rope was released) to 2014. I’m halfway through my first viewing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s spectacular Birdman when I realize there hasn’t been a cut since the beginning of the film. But it feels so natural and unpretentious, the total opposite of Rope. It doesn’t feel experimental or avant-garde. It feels completely normal. In fact, the thing that makes Birdman so special is that it’s the first film I’ve ever come across that feels exactly like a play without any of the physical trappings of the stage. This is because the viewpoint never changes. The drama is continuously in view without the violence of editing. There’s even a very obvious intermission where the camera just sits for a while on an empty hallway.
The best special effects are the ones you don’t even notice. Film itself is a special effect because it’s fundamentally built on an illusion. A few years ago, I wrote this in The Federalist:
“Film is a constructed reality. It gives no steady stream but tiny chunks that are stitched together to form what only appears to be a continuous narrative. Traditional 35mm film creates the image you see at 24 frames per second. That means there are 24 pieces to every moment of a film. Every moment of a film is a montage.”
The most basic film theory was the realization by Sergei Eisenstein that film is montage. The single shot film (like Rope and Birdman) is the natural evolution of Eisenstein’s theory, but 1917 is the apotheosis.
1917 is easily the best film of 2019, and it might be the best film I’ve ever seen. From beginning to end, the viewer feels completely lost in the seamless wonder and horror of war. Yet it isn’t really a war film; it’s more like a quest or an adventure. It focuses on the basic humanity of the Soldier in a way that no other war film ever has. And its dependence upon the single shot technique is a huge part of what makes this film so successful.
It isn’t a gimmick. Despite my love of Birdman, I can acknowledge its detractors and see their perspective. The film is very self aware, and maybe a bit too self congratulatory. The filming technique, on top of all that, is just too much for some people. And just because a film appears to be done in one shot doesn’t make it special, as Rope proved. Especially in our contemporary context, where it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate between computer and practical effects, pulling off an effective one shot film is far more plausible today than it was in the past. But unless you’re actively paying attention to the camerawork in 1917, the one shot technique does this truly amazing thing: the viewer forgets they’re watching a film at all. That’s what makes 1917 so good. Since there is no “editing,” the film feels unedited. It feels completely real. I hope that this doesn’t become an overused fad the way found footage (which is the easiest way to do a “single shot” film) was a few years ago. Not every film needs to be shot this way, but 1917 did. It’s a perfect pairing between the script and the production.
It’s set during 1917 within the British trenches of WWI. The so-called Great War is the least romantic event to ever take place, a totally pointless exercise in statist ideology that killed millions upon millions of humans and logically led to WWII, which doubled its death count. Estimates of total deaths for WWI are thirty million, and for WWII the count is seventy. That’s about a third of the current population of the United States. Imagine if tomorrow we were simply missing everyone who lives in California, Texas, and Florida. That’s what the wars of the first half of the 20th century did, though thankfully, Americans were almost entirely isolated from the carnage.
But if we’re honest, those are just numbers. We can’t really comprehend them. War films like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan try to help us feel the weight of that death count through existential musing and overloading the senses with violence respectively. In the end those attempts, though effective, just make us feel numb. 1917 has outdone all of that by focusing on a couple of Tommies trying to deliver a message to the front lines. 1917 is never meditative or crassly exploitative of its subject matter. It’s a simple story that goes from point A to point B, all the while impressing upon us the paradox that while war is the most wasteful evil humans have yet invented, it is also the easiest way to reveal our greatest virtue: love.
We most associate the heroism of war with courage, but there is no courage without love. In Steven Pressfield’s magnificent novel about the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, he gives the bravest Spartan of them all this amazing line:
“The opposite of fear,” Dienekes said, “is love.”
According to Herodotus, when the Persians boasted that their arrows would be so numerous they would blot out the sun, Dienekes said this was good news because it meant their battle would be in the shade. You can’t love without guts. Love is the most dangerous thing in the world. C.S. Lewis wrote, “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” – which just proves that the Northern butcher, William Tecumseh Sherman, who is most associated with the phrase “War is Hell,” was wrong. It’s far from heaven, but it’s more full of love than we can bear to admit.
Part of the inspiration for 1917 comes from the stories director Sam Mendes heard from his grandfather, who was himself a Tommy in WWI. All throughout the film, two contradictory emotions are ubiquitous: the terrible tension of war and the palpable love and gratefulness that one generation feels for another. As awful as WWI was, it taught generations to be thankful and gave them examples of love and duty. A life lived entirely for oneself is no life at all. We cannot be thankful for war, but we must be thankful for our warriors. Politicians, generals, and elites make war. Not soldiers. In America, the Conservatives have always supplied the most soldiers, and until very recently, they also provided the most anti-war sentiments. And it’s easy to see why. If you’re pro-soldier, you must also be anti-war.
But we still feel guilt from Vietnam’s long political fallout. We feel collective guilt over the ignorant Jacobins who called the returning vets baby killers. Today, many Americans think criticizing war is the same as criticizing our warriors.
The exact opposite is true. We must love the soldier and hate the war. We can’t love the soldier without hating the war, and we can’t really hate war until we love soldiers as the men they are. This film presents that ethic in a way I’ve never seen before. By focusing on one small tale in the epic struggle that overtook Europe, it brings the entire tragedy into clear emotional and moral focus.
The images and story also feel strangely reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the films), specifically Sam and Frodo’s quest. When I reviewed the Tolkien film for FilmFisher last year, it was clear to me that the filmmakers were trying to connect Middle Earth to WWI. And while every Tolkien aficionado knows that the Lord of the Nerds served in the Great War and that it clearly influenced his writing, the Tolkien film did not bring those strands together with any great profundity. It was too obvious, too cloying. Here, it’s just obvious that the European fields of death and fire that Tolkien saw firsthand must have influenced him. The two Tommies on their quest may as well be two hobbits crossing the plains of Gorgoroth, carrying the One Ring to the fires of Orodruin.
The end result is a deeply impactful film, because it doesn’t feel like a film. There are almost no movie moments; nothing is contrived to produce an effect. It’s just a roller coaster of seamless narrative, an unrelenting tide of story told in real time. The closest the film comes to sentimentality is when one of the soldiers sings “Wayfaring Stranger” before his company mounts an offensive. This, too, feels Tolkienish. They are surrounded by dark European trees and the simple soft lyrics float to our ears with an almost magical quality. It is shelter from the dark storm of war.
The lyrics of that old folk song seem as appropriate a way as any to end this review:I know dark clouds will hover o’er me, I know my pathway is rough and steep But golden fields lie out before me Where weary eyes no more will weep I’m going home to see my father I’m going home no more to roam I am just going over Jordan I am just going over home I’ll soon be free from every trial This form shall rest beneath the sun I’ll drop the cross of self-denial And enter in that home with God