The heavily Oscar-nominated World War I film 1917 offers its audience some disorienting whiplash. The first hour feels like a bizarre video game walkthrough. It’s full of strong dramatic elements, but director Sam Mendes mutes or elides them in order to focus on a visual conceit. But after a moment where the screen cuts to black, what follows is about 20 minutes of some of the most riveting, jaw-dropping cinema in recent memory.
The story follows two young soldiers, Lance Cpls. Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), on a perilous mission through English and German trenches, over no-man’s-lands and across the French countryside, to deliver an urgent letter that could save 1,600 fellow soldiers, including Blake’s older brother.
The film’s big trick is a Birdman-esque illusion that has all the action appearing to unfold in two long, unbroken takes of about an hour each. The invisible cuts within each half of the film are disguised by CG, by smoke or shadow, or by MacKay and Chapman’s bodies moving in front of the camera. (Alfred Hitchcock used similar sleights of hand on Rope in 1948, since 35mm film reels run only 10 to 12 minutes, preventing him from even trying to shoot the entire film in one take.) According to Mendes himself, 1917 is composed of 40-something different shots carefully stitched together.
To the filmmakers’ credit, it does often come across as a technical achievement where lengthy stretches of time, filled with impressive practical effects, are captured all at once. But hitting this singular aesthetic goal doesn’t necessarily mean 1917’s story is effectively told.
[Ed. note: The following contains major spoilers for 1917.]
The first time the long-take idea truly serves the film is when Chapman’s character, Tom Blake, is stabbed while helping a stranded German pilot. As Blake bleeds out in Schofield’s arms, the constantly moving camera comes to a standstill, capturing the duo in a medium shot, posed akin to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The focus falls on mostly on their faces and on Blake’s quickly reddening wound, as Blake takes his last breaths. While dying, he lays out Schofield’s objectives: delivering the official communique before the enemy’s ambush, and relaying Blake’s dying words to his family. It’s a vital scene, both logistically and dramatically — until this point, Schofield hasn’t fully committed to the mission or to his comrade — and it’s portrayed deftly and economically, placing the film’s most potent drama front and center. Seeing the life fade from Blake’s eyes in real time is difficult to watch.
Shortly afterward, however, Schofield boards a transport truck with a regiment passing through, and the camera hops in with him. The film loses all sense of space in this segment — the transport is mostly covered, and the camera closes tight on Schofield and the other soldiers — when the amount of ground he needs to cover is vital. 1917 is a journey from point to point, and distance is a vital element of the story. But the one-take conceit often prevents it from keeping this idea in focus.
The technique isn’t a hindrance in and of itself. Filmmakers have experimented with shooting entire films in actual single takes since the advent of digital cameras. Béla Tarr’s 1982 made-for-TV project Macbeth consists of one five-minute opening shot and a second 57-minute one-take sequence. Russian Ark (2002) is often mistakenly thought to be the first example of the conceit, but the four-way split-screen Timecode beat it to the title by a few years, and managed to do it with four cameras simultaneously (on its 16th attempt).
Both of these films capture movement across vast spaces, but both are experimental films. Traditional narrative features like Victoria (2015), a romantic crime thriller filmed in a single 138-minute shot, have since figured out how to work narrative ebbs and flows into a similar visual fabric. These stories are often reverse-engineered, but when they work, they work. Victoria, for instance, uses real time to capture both moments of romantic spark and the devastation of sudden loss. It’s a sprawling production that unearths intimacy through nuanced reactions, and it makes it all seem thrilling as the title character is chased through Berlin.
Even in films with traditional editing, long takes have always served to explore spaces or hold onto specific visual and thematic ideas. Directors like Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa let their characters’ rhythm dictate the camera movements, moving between different kinds of shots (e.g., long to medium to close-up, and back) within a single take, approximating the shot selections of a traditionally edited scene. More pertinent to 1917, however, are the showier, more action-oriented versions of this visual idea, as in Oldboy and Children of Men, where movement through space is a vital element of the scene — how much ground do the characters cover, and what stands in their way?
In 1917, though, as the characters move through open fields, the landscape rarely changes, so there’s little indication of how much progress they’ve made, or how much they’ve yet to make. In both Oldboy and Children of Men, the camera always maintains a sense of proximity to danger. Threats coming for the characters are introduced visually well before they’re confronted, which helps clarify the stakes and build the tension. Conversely, when Blake and Schofield wade through barbed-wire obstacle courses and into dingy tunnels, their objectives almost never enter the frame until they’ve arrived. The film feels more like a side-scroller than a first-person shooter; tension dissipates as soon as it’s introduced, if it’s introduced at all.
The camera usually tracks Blake and Schofield from the front, moving backward and guiding them on their path — like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, sans cutaways to emphasize emotional beats. But what actually lies ahead of the characters, both immediately and in the distance, is often a mystery. That’s a shame, considering the film’s impeccable production design. An early shot of the duo with their backs to trenches lined with rotting bodies hints at the horrors they’ve endured. But for the most part, we rarely see what the characters are looking at in a given moment.
MacKay’s shocked expression when his character comes face to face with a dead soldier while climbing out of a ditch, and his sudden stillness amid the scene’s momentum, paint an adequate picture of his physical reaction. but the lack of a POV shot robs us of his psychology. Maybe some things are better left to the imagination, but the recent film Underwater executes this exact scenario much more effectively, with characters reacting to the lifeless eyes of a fallen comrade, which the audience actually gets to see. In 1917, the few times we do see what the characters see, the camera is behind them, and we lose their reactions, the emotional crux of the story. Either way, half the film feels missing at any time. It’s something of a reverse Kuleshov effect; images rarely juxtapose or complement one another.
“Time is the enemy,” the 1917 poster says, but the film’s refusal to actually manipulate time and space through editing is what hurts it the most. That is, until the film finally does make the decision to do so, briefly transforming into something masterful in the process (and something that, unfortunately, makes the rest of the film look worse by comparison). About an hour in, Schofield is knocked out while killing an enemy sniper in the ruins of Écoust-Saint-Mein. When he awakens, the film has gone from day to night, and as he looks out over the abandoned village, the danger of his mission suddenly snaps into focus. Not only has the several-hour time gap made his mission all the more urgent (see what just a little bit of editing can do?), the shot of the bombed village also provides a sense of perspective that felt sorely lacking in prior scenes; it looks distinctly hellish. Schofield’s obstacles are laid out visually and aurally — a burning village awash with enemy gunfire — and the shift from day to night allows cinematographer Roger Deakins to sculpt a truly haunting landscape.
With due respect to 1917 focus pullers Andy Harris, Andrew Harris, and Chloe Harwood (my word, what tremendous execution), the day scenes often fall victim to a certain flatness, despite the characters’ proximity to the camera constantly changing. Barring the brief trip through a dark tunnel, these scenes rarely use light or shadow to illuminate anything about the mood, the characters, or the spaces they traverse — shaping daylight becomes incredibly difficult when the landscape needs to be free of grip and electric equipment for lengthy stretches. But when the film skips forward to nighttime, the village is lit by flames on the ground and flares overhead. Light itself moves through space, illuminating the contours of Schofield’s obstacle course and the contours of his face. Shadows become his enemy when it feels like German combatants could pop out from almost anywhere; war itself feels like a lurking, unknowable beast, but Schofield eventually makes this darkness his ally, both when he runs between shadows to evade gunfire, and when he creeps up on unsuspecting soldiers. The whole labyrinthine sequence is a medley of light, sound, and haunting opera (some of Thomas Newman’s finest work), and movement through space is absolutely vital to its drama — in a way it often fails to be in the rest of the film.
During the climax, Schofield has to navigate a series of trenches to deliver his letter. He’s late delivering his message, and the attack has already started. So as he tries to reach the area’s commanding officer, Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), to save as many of the soldiers as he can, Schofield breaks into a sprint. It’s a wonderfully staged shot, with MacKay racing toward the camera as soldiers begin to leave the trenches, charging to certain death in perpendicular waves from right to left.
MacKay embodies the scene’s urgency with aplomb (he has one of those memorable, Tom Cruise-esque movie runs, his hands slicing desperately through smoke), but the camera never suggests his proximity to Mackenzie’s bunker. Here, the one-take conceit really kneecaps the film. If Mendes moved the camera behind MacKay, he’d lose his expression. Keeping the camera fixed on him, though, Mendes fails to establish the scene’s geography. Either way, he undercuts the tension, and the wartime horrors he hopes to capture are lost to visual trickery.
In a purely technical sense, 1917 achieves exactly what it sets out to do. But in the process, it loses the relationship between images and cinema’s ability to create meaning beneath the surface. The result is a run-on sentence with vital words plucked out. It’s a failure of language made all the more grating by the scenes which actually work, and which make a flawed story seem momentarily poetic.