The claustrophobic trenches of Sam Mendes’ World War I epic, 1917, offer one of the most anxiety-inducing settings of any war film since Das Boot. High mud walls obscure a hidden enemy, unpredictable shelling snuffs out any sense of safety, and the inability to dispose of corpses even lends an element of horror to Mendes’ unique depiction of World War I combat. Despite the gloomy backdrop, 1917 relies on editing, not setting, to build tension. The movie succeeds thanks in large part to the master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock.
Mendes’ journey across the Western Front is a major accomplishment in film editing, successfully telling a war story in real time. The events of the plot unfold as the audience sees them, with no jumps in time. Similarly to 2014’s best picture Oscar winner, Birdman, 1917 is shot and edited to create the illusion that the entire film is one continuous take.
Hitchcock first created the illusion for his 1948 film, Rope. He disguised several unusually long shots as one by hiding cuts in easy-to-miss moments when the camera’s view was briefly obstructed. A character passing in front of the camera or a fleeting moment of darkness is meant to fool even the most hawk-eyed audience members.
Mendes borrowed Hitchcock’s method and applied it to his heart-pounding story of two young soldiers in the middle of World War I. Mirroring Tolkien’s odyssey of Frodo and Sam, 1917 follows Will Schofield and Tom Blake, two common soldiers striving to deliver a vital message. The fate of thousands — including that of Blake’s brother — rests on the success of the two lowly lance corporals. The camera never stops rolling as the pair venture into no man’s land in a nerve-wracking attempt to save their comrades.
Unlike Hitchcock, Mendes had an editing team of more than 300 people to help him hide the cuts. Lee Smith — the editor in charge of the massive department — won the Oscar for best film editing for his previous work on Dunkirk. While some fans claim to have found all the hidden cuts in 1917, Smith denies that anyone has come close to finding the real number.
“We spent the entire post-production burying the edits so deep that no human could spot them,” Smith told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We had all the resources known to man to bury these cuts, and that’s what we did, that was the job.”
Despite Hitchcock’s never winning an Academy Award for best director, his innovative technique for converting the camera into the gaze of the audience revolutionized filmmaking. The Hitchcock-style edits in 1917 contributed to three Oscar wins, though a nomination for best film editing was conspicuously missing from the film’s 10 nominations. Before filming began, Mendes and Lee joked about the irony of a job well done resulting in no one’s noticing the extensive edits. But their successful imitation of Hitchcock’s single-shot illusion transformed 1917 from just another war movie into a nail-biting roller coaster of perseverance against all odds.