If you’ve read anything about 1917 other than the basic plot, you’ve probably heard it’s a one-shot film. The term refers to a movie made with one continuous, single camera take or at least one cut to make it seem so.
The inherent challenges are legion.
Sets have to be built to scale and in the correct physical and chronological order. The entire script must be rehearsed and blocked, also in the right order, before any tape is made. For these and many other reasons, true one-shots are rare. Two personal favorites are Timecode and Russian Ark, from 2000 and 2002 respectively. Birdman is a popular recent example of the concept but, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, it was manufactured to appear unbroken.
1917 follows that latter course but the experience is no less thrilling because of the conceit. Stories about the Great War have become more common recently due to the centenary. But 1917 is the first to force us to take literally every step with the protagonists.
It’s a simple set up. Two young soldiers are sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. But since we never get to leave their sides, their story is intimate and powerfully small compared to everything that is happening off screen. War is a spectacle, but people are not. Director Sam Mendes captures this duality brilliantly. His filming both removes context and applies it surgically. With our gaze focused on humble individuals instead of battalions, we always know what, and who matters most.
The odyssey of Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (portrayed wonderfully by Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay) plays out a bit like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. Their progress is marked by increasingly harrowing encounters with friend and foe alike. The constant parade of A-list cameos gets a little exhausting after a while. But it’s ultimately forgivable—all the players are fully committed to their parts. These vignettes are meant to fill exposition gaps and change the stakes in unpredictable ways. But each new character also adds a necessary touch of scale just when things seem too quiet to be real. You don’t realize you need this as a viewer until you get it the first time. And you depend on it after that.
It’s so easy for a director to get in their own way. They all have ticks and habits that veer into empty indulgence if they aren’t careful. Think about Nicolas Winding Refn, a director I like very much. He followed the absolute masterpiece of iconoclastic filmmaking of Drive with the self-aware mess of Only God Forgives. The choice to highlight style over substance was to blame. It almost always is.
For his part, director Sam Mendes made a technical decision for 1917 that was guaranteed to get attention, but not guaranteed to tell a meaningful story. Luckily, this film has substance to spare, enough to make the style substantial in its own right. I really can’t imagine this tense and claustrophobic tale told any other way. The immediacy of the fear, courage and fleeting calm felt by the Lance Corporals would not have made the same impact had I not experienced it with them in real time.
World War II is a conflict blessed with countless experimental movies to tell its stories from fresh, artful perspectives Vietnam too. World War I was due for a contemporary masterpiece. Thanks to Sam Mendes, it just got one.