One Cut Was Enough [1917]

This post was written over a year ago after seeing 1917 in theaters. For some reason, I did not get around to posting it until now.          

The first time I really heard about the concept of less cuts in film was with The Revenant. This might have been when the national conversation about it, outside of directors, began, but it certainly was when it began for me. I was told with awe and amazement that The Revenant“barely had any cuts,” and used “as few shots as possible.” I was confused. I wasn’t sure why that would be better. I didn’t think it would make it worse, and I understood why that would make the creation of the film more challenging for the director, but I had trouble comprehending how it would enhance my reception of the story being told.

To be completely honest, I was not all the much more convinced after watching The Revenant. I liked the movie. I still remember the fight scene with the Native Americans, arrows flying onto the screen, camera taking us from one man to another, in and out of action. It was really cool. But holistically, it felt like it came short of impacting the overall movie. I guess I thought I wouldn’t have even noticed unless someone had told me. The impact of those scenes would have still been there, and it made the film better, but the conversation to application seemed off balance. And as time went on, I fell more and more disenchanted with the idea and concept. In short, I felt it created fun scenes. But was mostly an overblown way for ‘film buffs’ to pretend like they could be directors.

Therefore, I was a little dubious when I was told about 1917… the movie done in one cut. This again? Sure, it’s cool, it’s difficult, but does it impact the story? Doesn’t it just feel like a Wes Anderson movie? Fun to look at but not in complement to the story (except for Moonrise Kingdom, I think it complemented the story being told in Moonrise Kingdom)? These were the questions I walked into the movie with, and as far as a mindset to walk into a theater with, it was a death sentence. 

Fast forward one hour and fifty-nine minutes.

I loved it. It blew me away. One cut was enough. In this case, the method of shooting the movie all in one shot fit the story and enhanced the emotions inherent in that story. To me, The Revenant was this ode to directing and film-making. “Look upon these challenging things I have done and tremble!” But I probably missed ninety percent of what was cool and challenging about that movie, because I don’t think that movie was made for me, it was for the director and other directors. But 1917 was made for viewers, for me. The challenges were overcome for me, the style was selected for the story, the movie was told for my emotional engagement. If The Revenant was masturbation, 1917 was making love.

The scenery was the most obvious reason that the one-shot method enhanced the experience. I was entirely caught up in drinking in every image possible, recognizing I was failing, and trying to take in even more as the camera followed Skofield on his epic journey. I have never felt that urge more. The scenery was that good, and I had the time to consider it since there were no cuts. The director was committed to moments that most movies skip over. This could have detracted from the story by adding unnecessary moments. But it didn’t. It added a level of detail to parts that other movies don’t even have.

This was the same for character development and dialogue. They had the time they had in the film, and they had the journey they had. So when the characters were walking across a field or through a trench they were committed to showing it all. So the time was not just filled with amazing camera shots and settings, but it was used to help us understand the characters and the relationships they have with others. In a movie that communicates the humanity present in war as powerfully as any movie, these moments don’t become a necessary evil, but are leaned on as crucial opportunities to establish who the characters are before putting them in unfathomable situations. 

The efficiency of the opening scene is maybe the best example. Blake is called to the officer’s quarters and Skofield re-closes his eyes to pretend he is asleep. Blake holds out his hand because he knows he is faking, and Skofield grabs it even though he doesn’t want to go. In that moment we know exactly what type of friendship they have and they just need to establish it further. Its efficient and effective and engaging and it more than gets its return when these characters stick their heads above the trenches and wander in to no-man’s land or when Skofield cuts open his hand and sticks it in a dead body. It all meant something because of the quiet moments that came before that were embraced by the method of shooting the film.

The most abstract impact created by not cutting was how time impacted the viewer. In a movie that was a race against the clock, we felt every minute lost as something precious. 

But I experienced something deeper than that- a sense of ‘not again’. Because I knew nothing else had happened in-between. The moments of respite were laid out in front of me, and the fresh memories of the traumas and trials they had gone through were even fresher to them. I couldn’t make excuses about how much time had elapsed or about what they were able to do or experience while the camera cut away. I had seen it all, and in doing so, I felt the speed and intensity of the journey. Skofield had just been buried alive in stone and saved by Blake not too long ago as he cradled the body of Blake after having bled out from his knife wound. And the pain on his face as he tried to lift the truck out of mud was the pain of a man who had lost a friend because it was what we all were still thinking about. We witnessed the whole journey, and it all felt more present because of it. 

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If you liked this, you may also like:
On Trial [Parasite] vs [1917] (Best Picture)
Technology In Film: As Seen In [Patriot Games]
Language, Wharfianism, Diplomacy, and [Arrival]
National Pride [Dunkirk]
The Dance [Pride and Prejudice]

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