1917 (2019)

2020 #6
Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

1917

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
9 nominations

Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

“Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

Deakins!

And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Wings (1927)

2015 #153
William A. Wellman | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | PG / PG-13

Students of the Oscars well know that, technically speaking, there wasn’t a single “Best Picture” award at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Instead, there were two awards that covered that ground, seen (at the time) as being of equal significance. One was for “Unique and Artistic Production” — which I’d argue is more or less what most people think Best Picture represents today. That was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The other was more generically titled “Outstanding Picture”. Presumably because of the more obvious similarity in its name, that’s the one the Academy have retrospectively decided was the first Best Picture award; and that’s why Wings is, officially speaking, the first Best Picture winner.

In small-town America in 1917, middle-class Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) and rich David (Richard Arlen) are rivals for the affections of city girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). She’s actually only interested in David, though Jack’s too naïve to see it. He also doesn’t see that his neighbour, Mary (“It girl” Clara Bow), is infatuated with him. When both lads sign up for the air service, they find themselves in training together, where they eventually bond by having a punch-up. Boys, eh? Before you know it they’re on the front line of the First World War — via a brief encounter with Cadet White (a pre-fame Gary Cooper) — holding their own in dogfights against ace German pilots. Meanwhile, Mary has also joined the war effort, arriving in France as an ambulance driver. What are the chances she’ll run into Jack and their potential romance will have an opportunity to progress, I wonder?

So Wings is part rom-com, part war-action movie. On the ground, Jack and David’s interactions with Mary and Sylvia (the latter of whom barely features) are based around misunderstandings and almost-slapstick drunkenness. In the air, the picture comes alive in thrilling battle scenes, performed by fearless stuntmen and shot by bold cameramen. Well, most of the time: famously, Rogers and Arlen had to pilot themselves (in Rogers’ case, he learnt to fly just for the film), and, mid-flight, had to film their own close-ups by switching on battery-operated cameras mounted in front of them. You wouldn’t know it from watching the film itself, though: even today, the action sequences carry a palpable air of excitement, aided (perhaps even created) by the knowledge that it was all done for real — including the crashes.

At the time of production, director William A. Wellman was pretty much unproven, having mainly directed B-level Westerns. Conversely, Wings was a risky proposition, with a remarkably high $2 million budget — not the most expensive silent film (that was Ben-Hur, at $4 million), but in the very top tier (according to this Wikipedia article, the average cost of an MGM feature at the time was $160,000). However, Wellman got the nod because he was an experienced combat pilot, having flown in World War One himself. This knowledge paid dividends for the film’s eventual quality, though caused some friction during production, as Wellman spent weeks on location not shooting as he waited for the right clouds. Sounds ridiculous, but the movie was shot in clear-skied Texas, and with no clouds there would be no sense of depth or speed for the planes.

Why Texas? It’s where the country’s largest military base was, with up to 10,000 troops stationed there. The military committed resources to aid a picture that was seen to cast them in a positive light, reportedly providing the production with $15 million worth of men and equipment. Yes, not 1.5 — fifteen. In today’s money, that contribution comes to around $200 million, which alone would put Wings among the top 50 most expensive films ever made. It was a remarkable undertaking. This included occupying a five-acre site where they “built France”, including an entire village and a trench-crisscrossed bomb-pockmarked battlefield. Those bomb craters were, in fact, genuine: the military spent a few days before filming using the location for target practice. The climactic battle that occurred on this site was filmed with up to 19 cameras at once, including some mounted on four towers, the highest of which reached 100ft. I know this is a review, not a catalogue of production numbers, but it’s quite incredible.

As is the movie it produced. Whatever Wellman’s status before and during production, the end result proves his skill as an action director. Unsurprisingly these sequences don’t have the adrenaline-fuelled fast-cutting of today’s action scenes, but they have a mind-boggling scale that armies of CGI will never replicate, and an accompanying sense of awe to match. It’s not exactly thrilling, because Wellman takes time to find asides that show the cost of combat — this isn’t just a Boy’s Own gad about in the jolly old First World War. Tragedy strikes, and Wellman makes it suitably affecting.

If the same can’t be said of the romantic storylines then, well, it could be worse. A mid-film sequence in Paris, where Jack gets plastered and starts imagining bubbles floating out of everything, wins bonus amusement points for actually showing those bubbles, though loses some for going on too long. It also doesn’t help matters that Jack’s actually a bit of a dick in the way he treats other people throughout the movie. He undermines and borderline bullies David thanks to their shared affection for Sylvia, while we know David’s being kind enough to not tell Jack that Sylvia’s actually in love with him. Even after they’ve made up, the same situation rears its head late in the film, when David tears up a photo of Sylvia to stop Jack seeing the love note jotted on it. That’s before we even get on to how completely ignorant he is of Mary’s affections.

How much these factors affect the film’s quality seems to be very much a personal matter. Wings set the stall for many a Best Picture winner to follow by being not that well regarded by critics; indeed, more time and praise is given to its top-award compatriot, Sunrise. For the most part, I found the personal dramas passable enough, with a few outstanding scenes — David’s farewell to his stoical parents; Cooper’s scene; the bubbles (at first). However, the combat sequences, and in particular the aerial photography, are stunning; so impressive as to easily offset whatever doubts the other elements may engender.

At a time when silent movies are still routinely overlooked by the studios (and the best most labels outside the US seem to release is the canon of accepted greats (plus a few random outliers)), I think it’s safe to say Wings has only received extensive restoration and re-release thanks to its position as the official first Best Picture winner. Would it receive such royal treatment from Paramount without that accolade? I think we can be pretty certain that — even though it was both an extraordinarily expensive and extraordinarily successful film — it would not. On the bright side, it’s deserving of such attention for its inherent qualities, even if it remains a shame that other equally (or, arguably, even more) deserving silent pictures not only don’t receive the same love and attention from their rights holders, but don’t receive any attention whatsoever.

But I digress. Wings is a film that deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote. It’s not just a trivia answer to “what was the first Best Picture?”, but a worthy winner of that prize; a movie that, almost 90 years after it was produced, still has the power to elicit excitement and awe. Wellman’s picture may not have been deemed unique or artistic, even though it’s definitely the former and possibly the latter, but it was deemed outstanding, and it’s definitely that.

5 out of 5

This review is part of The Silent Cinema Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.