Navigating 1917

A guest blog today from Nik Huggins. I’ve worked with Nik behind the scenes on several projects, including the wonderful short animations on this site. This blog stems from Nik’s observations and has not been sponsored by the filmmakers.

It’s not every day the worlds of Natural Navigation and Hollywood moviemaking collide, but Sam Mendes’ blockbuster World War I action movie ‘1917’ presents something of a rarity for the eagle-eyed spotter of outdoor clues and signs. In amongst the shell-shock and the shrapnel there are some exhilarating moments where accurate pathfinding, or the lack of it, becomes central the plot of the film, and presumably, the entire allied war effort.

Mostly spoiler-free observations to follow…

The film, thrillingly shot in a single long take, follows two fresh-faced British soldiers, selected for a perilous mission across no-man’s land. Their objective is to sneak through enemy territory undetected and warn a British battalion, poised to go over the top, that they’re walking bayonets-first into the jaws of a German trap.

From the moment Lance-Corporals Blake and Schofield heave themselves out of the soupy trenches, the natural world becomes an ever-present companion on their quest – something of character in its own right. The landscapes shift constantly as we’re propelled from field to mineshaft, river to forest. A cherry orchard in blossom signals the coming of summer. The thalweg thunders in one particularly immersive fast-river sequence.

The audience is constantly reminded that Blake and Schofield’s objective lies to the south-east. In daylight, the accuracy of their pathfinding across the flat plains of North-East France is difficult to read, but as night falls the film reveals its most obvious tribute to natural navigation. After taking refuge overnight in a burning town, a mad dash towards the distant dawn gives us a clear indication that the soldiers are still on track – choosing not to go desert and head swiftly for Calais – as many of us would be itching to do.  

Scarcely have I seen a mainstream movie in which nature has such a powerful impact on the plot. With each story transition, environment becomes a key indicator that change is happening – and that we’re getting closer to a climactic reckoning. The act of finding direction and staying on course becomes a powerful generator of tension throughout.

Most movies that contain an epic journey or great quest, focus on the why without ever considering the how. We never question that Gandalf knows the way because he has a staff that lights up and rides Middle Earth’s fastest horse. Blake and Schofield, by contrast use a map, and when that map is destroyed, they’re forced to rely on more instinctive methods to reach their goal.

Did you spot any clues or signs in 1917? Let us know if you did and we’ll try to share them here.

Thanks Nik!

PS. I didn’t want to derail your first sentence, but I see natural navigation in every movie, and I haven’t even seen Moana yet 🙂

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