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There’s a moment in 1917 that almost singularly defines the challenges of director Sam Mendes and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ real time approach to their wildly successful World War I drama. Towards the end of the film’s perilous journey, George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Scofield is running along a trench in his quest to deliver his important message. While it looks absolutely flawless in its execution, there’s actually a huge accident that made itself into one of the movie’s best moments.
As it turns out, the moment where Scofield is knocked down on the battlefield was a moment of unscripted happenstance in 1917. It’s all thanks to an extra running into George MacKay during one particular take, which led the actor to recover instantly and continue his run.
That relief only came after a real time moment of panic, as Krysty Wilson-Cairns recalled this event during a conversation between the two of us, as part of the home video press rounds for 1917. Initially, the reaction to this developing situation was one of pure panic, with plenty of people anxiously watching it from the sidelines. The specifics of that moment were recalled by Wilson-Cairns thusly:
500 of us [were] sitting there, all backstage, behind the scenes, watching it get filmed. I remember when George fell down, I screamed. It was like watching your team mess up a field goal at the Super Bowl.
Under the circumstances of any normal film, a spill like George MacKay’s would wind up on an outtake reel, and that scene would be reset for another take without a thought. However, 1917 was far from a “normal film,” as the demands of the real time experience dictated that not only would every scene be rehearsed meticulously, but they would be shot as close to a single take as they possibly could be.
Every piece of the film’s production factored into its scope, which meant that there weren’t multiple takes to sort out in the editing room. The traditional shortcuts weren’t available to 1917, which naturally meant when something as big as an extra knocking into George MacKay happened, it would initially be seen as a disaster.
Further describing the reaction to George MacKay’s big tumble, and the shockwaves it send through the set, Krysty Wilson-Cairns then shared how director Sam Mendes responded to this pretty big happening. As you’ll see, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a man who directed two James Bond films before tacking something like 1917:
I just remember Sam Mendes screaming, ‘He’s up! He’s up! Keep filming!’ And out of that came a sort of movie magic, I think, personally. I’m obviously a little biased, but it’s one of my favorite scenes of the film. And I think, I wish I wrote that. I actually said that to George after. … It’s life talking back to you. It’s very satisfying to be able to be on a film where that can happen.
In the long run, 1917 benefitted from this instance of, as Wilson-Cairns herself put it, “life talking back.” While the sequence running along the trench leading to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel Mackenzie would have been as effective if it went off as planned, that added tension of an unchoreographed spill certainly gooses the tense energy running throughout what was already plotted.
Though thinking even further along the lines of this particular event, you have to wonder how many takes had occurred before George MacKay’s big tumble came to be. Even greater still is the prospect that there may have been at least a couple more takes after that point where this happy accident had to keep happening.
Recalling how George MacKay described the physical toll of his stunt work on 1917, your muscles could practically tense up when thinking about how long of a day went into shooting the big trench sequence. But it’s hard to argue against the results seen on the screen, and how it enhances the script that Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Sam Mendes worked on together.
Movies truly are a magical medium, as the next mistake or riff could wind up being built into the vital fabric of a film like 1917. Plans, in their best context, are roadmaps to the vision ahead, and a goal to be achieved through action and decision.
But sometimes, to borrow the words of an animated alien from the Adult Swim line up, plans are for fools, and the unexpected should be allowed to reign; even if it’s just in the moment. Working in something so small, yet so huge, into the painstakingly structured path 1917 unfolds on perfectly symbolizes that sort of thinking.
When you watch the scene with that in mind, it really is hard to imagine events taking place any other way than how they were captured on film. Part of that is undoubtedly because the scene is shown in every trailer that 1917 has to offer. But without question, life talked back to Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and that conversation yielded one of the best moments this movie has to offer to its audience.
You can see this, and every other beautifully nerve-wracking moment that 1917 has to offer, for yourself, as the film is now available on Digital HD, as well as 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.