Spoilers for 1917 follow below.
A latecomer to this year’s awards race, filmmaker Sam Mendes’ one-shot World War I film 1917 racked up three Oscar wins earlier this year. The honors were well-deserved as the film is a technical marvel that also serves as a visceral, triumphant tribute to the lives lost during the Great War.
But one nomination 1917 didn’t receive is Best Film Editing. You may think recognition in that category doesn’t track with a film presented entirely in a single shot, but in truth a lot of editing had to take place to make the film feel seamless—including the one explicit cut in the middle of the film.
When George MacKay’s Schofield confronts the German soldier hiding inside the building about halfway through the film, he gets knocked out cold by a ricocheting bullet. The screen goes black, and suddenly this one-shot experience stops in its tracks. It kicks up again when Schofield regains consciousness, as the conceit of the one-shot presentation is to put us in the shoes of Schofield—so when he’s unconscious, so are we.
But it’s a bold twist in the middle of the movie, so when I recently got the chance to speak with the film’s now Oscar-nominated co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, I asked her about the decision to make a cut in the middle of the movie. She says they hit upon the idea early in the writing stage.
“That was on the page, that was always the plan. The idea of, after he gets shot in the head when it pings off his helmet, he wakes up in Écoust-Saint-Mein. Everything after that, even though there’s so little dialogue in all those sections, is the thing I’m most proud of in the script and the things I’m most proud of in the finished film because it’s cinematography, it’s sound, it’s the score, it’s the lighting design, it’s the set design, everything working together, with the acting and the directing, to let you the audience understand a character’s inner feelings without him without him over-acting them.
You understand that the whole world is being spun on its head for Schofield, but he wakes up, he’s not even sure who he is. Where he is, he doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. He literally walks through that town and it’s hell-scape. The church is burning, these basements with these young women in this building that has no name.”
Wilson-Cairns says everything after this big cut takes on a more mythic quality as the dialogue recedes:
“We wanted it to really feel almost like myth in the second half of the film. And also, you as the audience, we’ve told you one rule, we’re never going to cut, we’re never going to cut. And now we’ve cut. So you know the gloves are off and anything can happen. He might not make it.”
The screenwriter says they really wanted to drill down into the audience the feeling that Schofield not only might not get his message to the troops in time, but that he himself might die before he gets there:
“That was the thing, is you really want the audience to believe that he might not make it, and in a way he doesn’t make it. He doesn’t make it in time. He doesn’t save that first wave of men. And so all of that was sort of in service of the story. Everything was done to tell the story, to make the audience feel like… when he crawls out of that river and he cries on the ground, you need to feel like absolutely drained as well. You feel like, ‘I can’t go on’ and then he hears that music and it leads him up the hill.”
Wilson-Cairns reiterates that this was always part of the plan, which not only raises the stakes but also provides some dynamism to the film as the first half is very much a “men on a mission” movie whereas the second half is pure survival-at-all-costs mode:
“That was the plan always with that part was just to, from a story point of view, throw everyone and raise the stakes. And our plan was, in the script, it should have the feeling of reality. It should have the stakes of reality, but the feeling of a dream.”
Indeed, the rest of the film after the cut feels almost dream-like, and no doubt takes some cues from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, but it works beautifully as a whole with the entire piece.