Of all of this Sunday’s Oscar nominees, 1917 has been the most lauded for its technical achievements. Given the frequency with which the cinematography of 1917 is discussed among film fans and Oscar pundits, it surprisingly boils down to just two main topics. One is the commonly held belief that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins deserves his second Academy Award for his work on the film (and barring any shocking upsets, he certainly seems poised to.) The other is the endlessly tedious debate over the merits of the one-take aesthetic utilized for the majority of 1917 — whether it’s a cheap gimmick or a cannily employed cinematic achievement. But these discussions miss the most noteworthy element of Deakins’ cinematography: that through the one-take style, the unusually active camera takes in a more expansive view of the theater of war, creating a rich exploration of a cinematic space that goes far beyond what we normally see in combat films. Deakins uses confined trenches, open vistas, and village ruins to create starkly different landscapes that each reflect the horrors of war in their own way.
In the beginning of 1917, we are given what is perhaps the most conventional visual associated with the First World War, as our heroes spend a significant amount of time navigating through trenches. The real horrors here are the mundane but nonetheless dispiriting realities of war: the stench of the dead and dying, the pervasive sense of dampness, the active and thoroughly indomitable rats, and the claustrophobia of being surrounded by hundreds of other men in inhumanly tight quarters while waiting for death.
The tunnel system, stretching seemingly forever in either direction, creates a sense of disorientation that would be maddening even for someone who wasn’t shell-shocked and traumatized. It is, quite simply, a gallery of horrors, and the roving camera takes in every inch of it. And this is about as far as many World War I films go — the trenches, perhaps, and a few meaningless yards of no-man’s-land just beyond. Deakins and director Sam Mendes go significantly further afield, exploring cinematic spaces that are just as perilous.
As Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George MacKay) set off on their mission, they leave the unsettling familiarity and relative safety of their trenches and venture into the unknown. Maze-like ditches and underground tunnels give way to wide open panoramas of the French countryside, deceptively idyllic and peaceful. Where previously the camerawork has been tightly framed, almost oppressive in its insistence on capturing everything, here it relaxes. As the characters get further away from their own trenches and the booby-trapped German mines, the compositions become more open and expansive, capturing beautiful vistas that nonetheless contain their own potential horrors.
If the trenches are overwhelmingly of the present, vibrant and over-stimulating and constantly in motion, the tree-lined landscapes are of the future, of unknowable dangers lurking anywhere made all the more menacing by the fact that they are unseen. Its quietude is a trap, a false sense of security that leads a man to lower his guard. It’s easy to think that because the sun is shining, a cloud of cherry blossoms fills the air, and there are no machine guns in sight, they’re safe. But it’s there, by an abandoned farmhouse and one lone surviving cow, where Blake and Scofield find themselves in peril.
Finally, Deakins takes us into a ruined village, a place of inherent contradictions at the exact intersection of civilization and barbarism. A village is a community, which implies security, but in this case that notion is inverted, as the presence of others is the only thing actively endangering Scofield on his quest. Bathed in a hazy orange light indicating the first moments of a sunrise, the bombed-out vestiges of society provide momentary refuge for Scofield, just as they help to conceal his enemies. The coming of dawn represents hope, but it will also make the next part of Scofield’s journey ever more perilous, as he is no longer able to rely on the cover of darkness to keep him hidden from German soldiers. Every protection a town ought to be able to provide is denied Scofield, and in fact only exacerbates his plight.
Throughout this hero’s journey, Mendes and Deakins work tirelessly to construct a variety of set pieces that accurately reflect a wide spectrum of wartime threats. Furthermore, each setting plays an active role in cultivating a visceral sense of danger that are each visually and narratively distinct from one another So while the focus of 1917’s media narrative may be squarely on the “one-take” editing style, this actually does the film a tremendous disservice. It allows nay-sayers the opportunity to write 1917 off as a mere gimmick, when its inventive use of movement and physical space elevate it far beyond other typical combat films.