Epic “1917” — in class by itself

by Glenn Lovell

We screened British director Sam Mendes’ “1917” in my Intro to Cinematic Arts class last week. The World War 1 epic, recorded in what seems one continuous shot for that full-on immersive experience, had the intended effect — it left some students slack-jawed in amazement, some fighting tears because the story of survival in No Man’s Land struck too close to home. Others were exhilarated by its mix of surreal dreamscapes (the bombed-out French village), grim set design (a mask-like face peering from the wall of a crater, frozen mid-scream), and ever-intensifying obstacles in what is essentially a salute to such elemental foot races as “The Naked Prey” and “Run of the Arrow,” directed by, respectively, Cornell Wilde and Sam Fuller.

Here  are handout notes prepared for the screening. Strong Spoiler Alert: this analysis, in ID’ing protagonist, timely themes, act breaks — assumes the reader has seen the film.


“1917” Study Guide

Directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall”); original screenplay by Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns; cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”), composer Thomas Newman (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”)

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Cwar2pl Blake), George MacKay (Lance Cpl Schofield), Colin Firth (Gen. Erinmore), Benedict Cumberbatch (Col. MacKenzie)

Setting: Northern France, Hindenburg Line; network of British and German trenches and cratered, barbed-wire-entangled battlefields (No Man’s Land) that separates the two.

Time span: little more than a day, Friday into Saturday, April 6-7, 1917. (Note: U.S. entered war in April, 1917.)war3

Plot, based in part on stories told to Mendes by his World War 1 veteran grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes: Blake and Schofield, two British corporals, must cross a ravaged, otherworldly landscape to warn gung-ho colonel that his regiment is about to charge a heavily fortified German position. At risk: 1,600 men, including Blake’s older lieutenant brother.

Note: Blake and Schofield form a study in contrast — Blake’s impulsive, garrulous, funny, brave but uncertain how he’ll acquit himself in battle; Schofield’s deliberate, analytical, more of a loner, cynical about why they’re fighting.

Genre: War saga; race-against-clock adventure; rite of passage (into manhood); suicide mission into enemy territory a la “Saving Private Ryan”; spiritual odyssey

Narrative Voice: Omniscient

Protagonist: Cpl Schofield

Antagonist: German military; time (the loudly ticking clock); Schofield himself (who’s initially reluctant to join mission, risk his life)

Main thewar4me: Bravery isn’t about sworn duty or shiny medals (what Schofield dismisses as “just a bit of bloody tin — it doesn’t make you special”) but risking all because it’s the right thing to do.

Secondary themes: Insanity of war a la Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”; survival, rebirth, brotherhood

Act Breaks

I/II Schofield assures mortally wounded Blake that he “knows the way”; Blake dies

II/III Schofield escapes German soldiers by leaping into river, battling rapids, symbolic vortex (see Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”)

Climax: Schofield’s final sprint across battlefield

Movies that influenced Mendes and cinematographer Deakins: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket” (see stark, surreal ruins at end), King Vidor’s silent “The Big Parade,” Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Robert Enrico’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Others?

For tricky, continuous shot technique: Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” the director’s own “Jarhead” and “Spectre” (see Day of Dead opening). Others?

Symbolic rebirths: Schofield, buried alive in German dugout/tunnel, pulled from rocks by Blake; Schofield survives Styx-like river, rapids, roiling vortex, rotting corpses. Other examples?

World War 1 terms: No Man’s Land; trench warfare, “war of attrition”; Schofield’s bartered medal comes from Battle of the Somme (November, 1916; 1 million men killed or wounded); boshe or Huns (offensive terms for Germans)

Lovell teaches film esthetics classes at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA




One Response to “Epic “1917” — in class by itself”

  1. Steven Yvaska Says:

    Always enjoy your comments…See you Sat.? xoxo


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