If you haven’t yet seen 1917, go do that, and then come back here.
With the Oscars only a couple of days away, Sam Mendes’s World War I epic 1917 is the entrenched frontrunner for Best Picture. Having taken home the biggest prize at most of the awards ceremonies leading up to the Academy Awards, including the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and most of the guild awards, 1917 will probably take the day.
Is 1917 the best movie of 2019? No—*cough* Parasite gets my vote *cough*—but its impressive, faux-one-take style brought a vital freshness to the war movie. Much has been made of 1917’s fluid camera work and mission-based plot—at times, it has perhaps more in common with a video game than, say, the Copa scene from Goodfellas. But the film’s best scene, and its most devastating moment, is worth dwelling on for the way it actually subverts an iconic video-game trope. It helps make the case for 1917 as a presumptive Oscar winner, rather than a contender at the Game Awards.
For the first half of 1917, we’re following two main characters, George MacKay’s Lance Corporal William Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Thomas Blake, as they embark on a harrowing journey across a no man’s land and through enemy territory in order to deliver a message that will stop hundreds of men from charging into a trap. Schofield is nominally the main character, although Blake has a more personal connection to the mission: His brother is one of the men they’re trying to save.
The pair enjoy a brief but tense moment of peace when they discover an abandoned farmhouse, but the relative tranquility is shattered when a German biplane crashes into the bar after losing a dogfight. Schofield and Blake barely avoid getting crushed by the flaming wreckage before quickly working to pull the German pilot from his burning plane. Blake wants to help him, and the camera, which hasn’t yet cut away from the scene, follows Schofield as he rushes to get water for the injured man. Behind him—out of the audience’s view—he hears a scream.
While his (and our) backs were turned, we learn, the German stabbed Blake in the gut. Schofield instantly puts two bullets in the attacker and goes to help Blake, who is staggering but on his feet, clutching his wound. At first, it’s unclear how bad this is. A knife to the gut isn’t good, but we just saw these two survive a bomb. Plus, Blake’s still standing, right?
The camera, unflinching, doesn’t cut away, so we see in real time just how bad it is. Blake begins to fall—it seems like he might not be able to finish the mission, but that Schofield will get him the help he needs. And then, gradually, both the character and the audience learn his off-screen stabbing is fatal. He goes pale and dies in Schofield’s arms. We watch the entire process in what feels like both an eternity and a far-too-quick flash.
It’s jarring and upsetting to see a death play out like this. It’s contrary to how death works in most video games, despite the rest of 1917’s gaming aesthetic. In most games, death is a binary, and it’s quick. If you get shot to death in Halo or Call of Duty, your corpse falls to the ground the instant you’re out of hitpoints.
This isn’t how death works in war movies, either. Death is everywhere in war movies, and while miscellaneous soldiers often receive quick, inglorious ends in the background, the camera tends to inflate the drama when a main character dies. Cuts between the dying person’s face and their grieving comrades shape the audience’s response. It’s a dramatic, choreographed scene. 1917 was obviously choreographed as well, but because there are no cuts, we’re seeing a fuller, seemingly more organic picture in real time. There’s a disquieting degree of intimacy—and perhaps complicity—because it doesn’t feel like watching a “death scene.” We’re just watching someone die.
Here, Mendes deploys his one-take style to achieve something more than heart-pounding suspense. Instead, it’s going for raw disbelief and grief, and perhaps more than any other time in an otherwise very game-like movie, the scene makes it clear that we in the audience don’t have agency. For a moment, this war movie isn’t a game or an adventure, and we’re given an unblinking look at how people in war lack that agency, too. When Blake bleeds out before our eyes, there’s no thought of extra lives. It’s a somber, breathtaking highlight in a film that isn’t lacking in them, and one that leads to a reaction Best Picture winners often invoke: All we can do is sit and watch in disbelief.