Immersion. One of the main reasons we venture to the cinema or take a few hours out of our schedule to watch a film at home. 1917 capitalises on this fact with a one-shot format that brings you directly on to the World War 1 battlefield. In doing so, it elevates a standard war film into something much more.
Inspired by stories director Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him as a child, the plot is a simple one. Two young British soldiers have to get from point A to point B in order to deliver a message within a certain amount of time. The stakes are high as said message will help avoid the deaths of 1600 soldiers (including one of the young men’s brothers) who are walking straight into a German trap. The journey has more than a few bumps along the way as we follow the duo on their travels through desolated churches, burnt out farmhouses and a no-mans land littered with dead bodies. Due to the remarkable camera work, we feel like a third person on this journey. The shooting style emphasises the urgency of the mission and sometimes we are taken delicately by the hand, other times dragged along by the scruff of the neck.
Single-shot films are nothing new in cinema. In recent years we have seen the releases of German drama Victoria and Norwegian thriller Utøya: July 22. 1917 is more akin to Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, in that it’s an illusion of one continuous take. Yet it still ensures that there’s a relentless tension to proceedings. Having multiple long takes sewn together to seem like one-shot might be labelled an arty gimmick by some. When you experience a production like this it’s hard to argue against anything other than an incredible way to increase the viewer’s immersion. Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the idea with Rope back in 1948. That was a simple crime drama set within the confines of a single room.
Sam Mendes demonstrates just how far the technique has evolved in the last 70 years.
To be able to incorporate the level of outstanding set pieces into this style is remarkable. Some will make you jump out of your seat, some will bring you close to tears, some will have you scraping your jaw off the floor. It’s not all blood and thunder action either. There are a few occasions where the camera is focusing on one of our protagonists and something ominous will appear slightly out of frame. Couple this technique with surreal lighting that gives the impression of a nuclear holocaust, and one scene in particular feels like it could have been plucked directly from a horror movie. It’s masterful directing from Mendes.
There are also quite a few moments of downtime that mix up the pacing. If you’re easily distracted you might find your mind begin to wander, but the price of shooting in this style is the inevitable ebb and flow of respite and action. It can feel a little contrived as we have a formula of set-piece, breath a little, set-piece, but when the action is so enthralling it’s a minor complaint.
Another aspect that’s incredibly captivating is the meticulous attention to detail imprinted into every second of screentime. From beautiful cherry blossoms to gruesome horse carcasses, water bloated corpses and rat-infested bunkers. Even the stark contrast of our protagonists hustling their way down trenches compared to other soldiers frozen in place, gripping their rifles as they await orders to embark. It’s little details like this that really draw you in and make you feel part of the unfolding chaos.
There are a number of high profile cameos from British stars (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong) but 1917 is undoubtedly all about George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Considering we never leave their side, it’s essential that they deliver great performances. If we didn’t care about their characters then none of the previously mentioned action or stylistic choices would matter. We are given no background to their lives outside of the war, yet we can still emotionally connect with them as they represent the haunting youthfulness present in World War 1. This is crucial to making the entire production work
There is no doubt 1917 is an impressive achievement. It has already won 2 Golden Globes and been nominated for 10 Oscars. It was a brave move from Sam Mendes to plump for the directorial style he did, but I for one am thankful he took the chance. Rarely has the hellscape and horrors of war been portrayed as effectively on the big screen.