Storytelling Strategies: "1917" and the Roads Not Taken

Paul Joseph Gulino examines the film "1917," and how to deal with an implausible or impossible premise.
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Early buzz on the film 1917 (written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns and directed by Mendes) was that it’s inspired by a real story. A title at the end of the film hedges it a bit — acknowledging the inspiration of Mendes’ grandfather — a veteran of World War I — who “told us the stories.” Note it doesn’t say “told us this story.”

That hedging is appropriate, because anyone with a passing knowledge of World War I can readily recognize that the story could not have happened as portrayed, because no commanding officer would order the mission that constitutes the main action of the story.

The inspiration for the picture was Mendes’ grandfather’s adventures running between British trenches to deliver messages or into no-man’s land on various missions. When developing a story, that kind of initial inspiration or vision is a useful benchmark. Ideally, one develops a story in a way that justifies and foregrounds that vision, and that means figuring out ways to justify the behavior of the characters involved so that they wind up doing things that deliver the scenes you want in the movie.

The trap to avoid is to have the characters do things that are unmotivated or illogical for the sole purpose of getting them to adhere to the story. Such a trap tends to yield empty virtuosity. A case in point is 1917.

Striking Visuals and Action

The most striking thing about 1917 is that it appears to be filmed in one continuous shot. The story is a simple journey with destination: On the Western Front in World War I, two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are ordered to go on a mission through recently abandoned German lines to warn the commander of a 1,600-man British force about a German ambush awaiting them. The two overcome a number of obstacles before one of them accomplishes the mission (pretty much) before the end of the film.

The story thus lends itself to the single-take execution: It’s continuous action as the men go on their journey, and the camera follows along through it all. The director’s explanation for this stylistic choice is that it is in the service of making the film emotionally engaging because there is so little exposition — “you don’t really know who they are, and the one shot technique allows you to live with them and breathe every breath.”

[Script Extra: How to Write a Screenplay Based on a True Story]

The result is certainly emotionally engaging — but it’s on the level of a first-person-shooter game or perhaps a roller-coaster: 1917 has little impact once you get up and walk away from it. Further, because of the skimpiness of the setup, the storytellers are left with few options in the third act (the two men either accomplish the mission or they don’t — and you can pretty much assume they do).

Further, a viewer is left with little sense of any kind of theme or deeper meaning. “Doing your duty is a good thing” perhaps? “War is hell but one can be heroic in it sometimes”?

The Illogic at The Heart of the Story

Certainly films can be good, or even great, despite highly implausible or illogical behavior of their characters; The Graduate come to mind (ask any 20-year-old woman you happen to come across how likely she is to fall in love with a man she has just discovered has been sleeping with her mom. Yikes!)

Sometimes you just have to ignore illogical behavior and hope for the best.

In this case it appears the storytellers’ decision to skimp on details about the main characters and overlook their illogical behavior in the service of this immersive journey experience robbed them of a chance to create something with broader, deeper and more long-lasting impact.

Why was the behavior illogical?

The British commander, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) orders Blake and Schofield on the dangerous mission to deliver the message to the doomed battalions because, he says, the Germans had cut the phone lines so they couldn’t be warned that way.

But there are at least four other options Erinmore had before ordering such a dangerous mission. Why not a simple phone call to the rear area of the doomed battalions (the Germans would not have been able to cut those), relayed to them at the front? How about a motorcycle messenger sent behind Allied lines and then sent forward to the battalions at the front? How about a homing pigeon sent bearing the message? How about sending an airplane over the battalions to drop the message?

Finally, if this is such an important mission, and sending men through enemy lines was the only option, why not send more than two men? Erinmore justifies this with a line about two being able to travel faster. But why not send out several groups of two? A general who depends on the slender chances of two soldiers to save 1,600 from massacre is setting himself up for a court martial, for sure.

[Script Extra: Components of Screen Storytelling - The Protagonist]

Solutions

Obviously omitting the mission in favor of the other options listed above is not an option for the storytellers, since the mission was the whole reason for making the film (unless the storytellers were enamored of creating a film about a homing pigeon's adventures on the Western Front). The key story development strategy in this case is not to ignore the problem but face it head on, do a bit of brainstorming, and justify the behavior. And a skillful storyteller can pretty much justify anything.

The simplest solution is that the mission is a mistake. It is proposed at headquarters but dismissed because other options for sending the message present themselves. But the order goes out by accident and Blake and Schofield depart on the mission unaware it is a mistake — and there is no way to recall them.

The film suddenly is imbued with an extra layer of richness because of the dramatic irony in play — the two heroes are unaware they are risking their lives for nothing. This in turn yields the beginnings of some actual themes about the meaning of war, or its insanity, or doomed heroism. Themes that go beyond just two guys doing their duty.

Such a choice also yields far more promising storytelling options for the third act. Instead of a simple yes or no question — they either warn the 1,600 or they don’t — things get a lot less predictable. Will the battalions have withdrawn by the time Blake and Schofield reach British lines? Where does that leave them? Could Blake and Schofield’s journey uncover hitherto unknown intelligence about German positions that proves unexpectedly valuable, changing the tide of battle in unforeseen ways?

If so, the journey we thought was meaningless proves to be decisive in the Allied victory. More richness derived from irony.

[How To Express A Script Theme In 3 Acts]

Another solution: what if a storm has grounded aircraft and pigeons and made road travel treacherous? That eliminates a lot of options for Erinmore. The cover of a storm would also help Blake and Schofield cross no-man’s land.

And this choice doesn’t lock the filmmakers into having a storm throughout the film — if the storm clears after Blake and Schofield depart, it can yield the irony described above if Erinmore tries to recall the troops but it's too late .

Other options present themselves that might foreground the characters more. Perhaps Blake gets the idea of the mission and takes it upon himself to go on it in spite of orders rather than in obedience to them, in the service of saving his brother. He risks not only his life but, even if successful, jail time for disobeying orders. Such an approach would yield a treasure of insights into his character currently lacking in the film.

Perhaps the mission is the result of treachery—e.g., rivals or enemies of Blake and Schofield contrive it to be rid of the two men, who unexpectedly triumph. Irony and theme again emerge and present rich possibilities.

1917 is a visual and cinematic treat despite its limited script, but since aspiring screenwriters don’t have the option of deploying visual dazzle, they have to do it on the page. A bit of brainstorming about story logic problems can enrich a script beyond whatever vision may have initially inspired it.

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