Sam Mendes’ reliance on continuous shots in his new film '1917' is a faddish abdication of artistic responsibility, writes Spengler.

Two British soldiers carry a message of mortal importance across No Man’s Land during the Battle of Passchendaele in April 1917. Thanks to director Sam Mendes’ ham-handed attempts at cinematic innovation, the audience views the sequence of events from the perspective of a small dog dragged along on a leash behind them. The film, which opened on Christmas Day in the United States, leaves the audience with no more understanding of war or the men who fight it than a canine mascot must acquire.

The new film has many virtues, or rather qualities which would have been virtues had they been in a different film. It offers superb acting and no-expense-spared sets and effect, but its strengths are vitiated by a wrongheaded conception of cinematic time.

Mendes and his crew made enormous efforts to film as much of the action as possible in continuous shots, where the camera follows the actors for a lengthy interval, as they explained in a 12-minute “making of 1917featurette. The camera trails the actors in what Mendes imagines to be “real time” through trenches, battlefields, ruined cities, and assorted disasters. Technically this poses great challenges, but the aesthetic outcome is a canine perspective on human events.

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Time is represented as an indifferent sequence of moments, which means practically that every moment commands equal attention. In this nightmarish world there can be no drama, that is, no climax. On the contrary, every occurrence of importance to the thin narrative necessarily becomes an anti-climax.

The effect is queasiness, similar to the experience of certain virtual reality videos. When you leap into virtual space or drive a virtual race car while wearing a VR headset, the cognitive dissonance between your artificial perception of motion and your stationary body makes you dizzy. It is of clinical interest that a similar effect is produced by moving through an endless blah of cinematic time, stumbling from moment to moment without direction or purpose.

The barebones plot sadly reinforces the sense of temporal disorientation. Two corporals (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are dispatched to warn a British division against charging into a German trap. They walk past piles of corpses in shell craters, through abandoned but booby-trapped German trenches, and ruined villages. In the midst of their journey, a German plane is shot down. They rescue the pilot from the burning aircraft, but he stabs one of them to death. The surviving corporal makes his way past German stragglers to the British lines, and with heroic effort persuades the commanding officer to call off the attack. The officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) comments cynically that today he has been ordered to stand down, but next week it will be “attack at dawn.”

Fever nightmares that drag on interminably convey a similar effect. Although 1917 has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the resemblance is entirely superficial. In the 1998 film, a squad is dispatched on a humanitarian mission to find a soldier who has just lost three brothers in combat. The Spielberg film, one of the best war films ever made, asks viewers to consider the value of a single human life: Is it worth sacrificing the lives of several men for the life of one, even under exceptional circumstances? “Ryan” does not offer an easy answer.

What separates “Ryan” from 1917 is cinematic time. Spielberg’s film is shown from the perspective of the now-elderly Ryan visiting the grave of the captain who died saving him, wondering whether the life he has lived has been good enough to redeem the sacrifice. Spielberg well understands that our perception of time is not linear. Time is not a succession of indifferent moments (except perhaps to Schopenhauer), but a composite created by human reflection. This was first stated clearly by St Augustine in The Confessions: the past is gone, the present moment is too insubstantial to grasp, and the future has not yet arrived. Past, present and future therefore cannot be perceived directly. What we call time arises from our own reflection. It is a composite of memory and anticipation.

What makes “Ryan” an effective work of art (and not merely a lesson in morality) is Spielberg’s cinematic ability to evoke reflection in time. Sam Mendes’ reliance on continuous shots is a faddish abdication of artistic responsibility.

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  1. I thought it was darn good movie, without the usual Hollywood BS, and it showed aspects of WW1 that most people might not be aware of. Not to mention people who don’t know what WW1 was !
    Besides, IMNSHO, like Dunkirk and Churchill, any movie that gets a young teen boy and GIRL, interested in History, is okay with me !

  2. Ultimately a movie about war is just that, a movie. If you were to try to actually show what war is, you would leave the entire audience with PTSD, and maybe have a few hundred thousand tickets sold for your efforts. It would not even be a movie that anyone you would hope would see it, would see it.
    So the best any movie can do is try to inject moments of truth in what is ultimately always going to be a piece of theatre.
    I also have to disagree with your critic of the momentum of the film. While I understand the continuous take is so talked about it almost takes away from watching the story, because you are sometimes catching yourself wondering about the shot, but 99.99% of movie goes are not going to be like a film critic and have that break their immersion like it would say to someone who understands cinematography/film etc. Which is played out by the film’s reception it would appear that seems to be the case. And for myself personally, I also believe to ham up important moments by slowing down time etc as you said is actually the opposite of real war. Real war slams forward without a bloody care if the moment before was and will be utterly the ugliest moment in some young men’s lives, or some unbelievable beautiful moment against the backdrop of the insanity. The moment in the film about halfway through the movie in the back of the truck, with soldiers joking while he is shell shocked from losing his friend to the German who he had just saved from a horrible death is actually in some ways more of a portrayal of the reality of war then I have seen from most war movies. That indifference to the insanity that a person just went through to the world, as life goes on around like it was of no importance, that is part of what is hard to deal with to anyone who has been through such so far outside what almost all humans experience in their lives. And as well as coming home, when there is no understanding of what cannot be explained in words, or through any movie, about something that unless you experience it, there is no way to share that experience in a way that can be understood by 99% of the world, and so that divide, that loneliness in dealing with coming home to a world that carries on the same as when you left, but yet everything is different. I think that moment in the back of the truck was a very insightful and truthful moment. That plus a few others, putting an already cut hand into the guts of a rotting soldier, etc. As what it is, a movie, it at least has it’s moments. Saving Private Ryan was about as good as it gets, but it has been done, and doing the front line reality honestly, they could have done that, I admit I was expecting it. But in some ways it was nice to feel like they didn’t go for the obvious Saving Private Ryan moment except with the reality of what rushing the lines in the first world war was like. It would have basically been the same insanity, the reality that if you were to have lived through it, most likely the two guys to either side of you probably didn’t.
    I get the wish to show war in a way to wake the public up to the reality of war vs the fantasy that the majority of people see it as, but honestly, any movie that did that wouldn’t get more than a hundred thousand tickets sold at the box office. Saving Private Ryan did a pretty darn good job of capturing one heck of a moment, and I have heard more then one vet say they couldn’t even watch it because it was to much. But it really did at least show some realities mixed in with what in the end is about selling tickets. And how has that turned out, it turned into two billion dollar video game franchises that emulated that experience and now it is sold either a desensitizing video game piece of theatre or worse, the other franchise has made it into a giant piece of blatant propaganda that is worse than had that movie never been made. A movie is not always able to be the education to the public some would hope. Any story that starts with that intent always fails. There is just something almost impossible about trying to do that.
    Mainly for two reasons, the only people qualified to write that type of script have lived through it, and anyone who lived through it is going to have a very biased view of the situation, often times just utterly the opposite of what you you stated above that you wanted to see, and that is just how war is, and so it would not present the objective view you are hinting at anyway, and anyone who has an agenda who wants to wake the public up to the reality of the horror of war, honestly almost always never has been in it, and so it will come across as naive, and possible just utterly fail anyway. The closest being war photographer, but again, anyone who has been involved in war utterly is going to write from a very biased viewpoint. How can you not if you see some injustice, or friend die, you will not be able to objectively portray the reality. Because you would not be able to resists trying to make a point that chooses a side in a very obvious way.

    I would be interested in any book you think could tell the story in a way that would not fail into one of those two categories. All the great books on war written during or just after WWI seemed to be either written by medics/stretcher barriers, or intelligence officers. Otherwise, they were heavily influenced by the propaganda at the time which was considered part of the war effort. Most of the books that tried to be somewhat more critical seemed to come much later, like the W. Somerset Maugham, etc. But if you tried to make a move like The Secret Battle by Herbert, no one would bloody go see it…

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