Faux one-take films are not a new invention. Alfred Hitchcock utilised the approach in the excellent 1948 thriller Rope, while the Academy Award for the best picture of 2014 went to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. It’s often questionable as to what the technique actually brings to a production: certainly with the latter it served only to add to a sense of deep pretentiousness, in a film trying far too hard to convince us it was high art. With that in mind, it was difficult to come to Sam Mendes’ 1917 without wondering whether the approach would serve the story, or whether Mendes had similarly fallen in love with nothing more than a gimmick, having used the approach in the opening sequence of 2015’s James Bond film, Spectre.
1917 tells the tale of Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), as they are given a letter by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) and tasked with delivering it to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The letter orders the calling off of an attack the following morning, as it has been found that the German retreat that prompted the plans for this advance has been feigned in order to draw an attack. Essentially the Devonshire Regiment are walking into a trap – a trap that could cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother (from here on in we’ll avoid naming further cast members, as some of them are certainly designed to be surprises). Setting off into no man’s land, Blake’s map reading and sense of direction work well together with Schofield’s greater experience as a veteran of the previous year’s Battle of the Somme.
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From here the film takes the two men through a series of harsh environments in which they have no idea what resistance or traps they may meet. Encountering the bodies of numerous victims of the war, the men have to fight their own fears, as well as make quick judgements of aerial reconnaissance they see en route. All the while, any and all delays add to the risk that they will be unable to get to their destination in time and prevent a massacre.
The two lead characters of 1917 never see the same environment twice, as they are constantly on the move from their own trench to that of the Devonshire Regiment. As such, the one-take approach serves this story in a number of ways. First, it means that there are no cutaways or establishing shots, and as such the viewer is seeing each part of the terrain at the same time – and often from the same angles – as the protagonists. It also prevents excessive use of aerial shots, so we have no more idea of the correct route than the leads – beyond the various markers they identify, such as trees and farms. This lends the film a sense of foreboding that is appropriate to the front line of the First World War.
The approach also means that, with one small exception, we get a complete and accurate sense both of time and of the toughness of the terrain. Taken from the perspective of Blake and Schofield the ground is soft, wet, and incredibly difficult to navigate at times. We see, at times, walls of barbed wire in front of them, and frequent swith decaying corpses, both of people and of horses. This truly is the finest use of a faux one-take approach in memory, to the point that it is difficult to imagine this film having been made any other way. By the film’s denouement, the sense of the exhaustion felt by characters is visceral. The sheer sodden desperation of life in the trenches has rarely been captured in a way that feels more authentic.
Thomas Newman’s score is characteristically unflashy, but complements the film’s intentions at all times. It underscores the sense of tension, as the soldiers don’t know what is around the next corner; ramps into gear at times when the pace quickens; and serves the more triumphant parts of the story, without lapsing into being inappropriately heroic. This is supported by an extraordinary feat of cinematography from Roger Deakins. The sheer level of planning that would have had to go into this production is astounding: from where to hide the discreet cuts (very obvious once or twice, but generally seamless), to how to navigate the terrain, even to which character to follow at times – as they may go either side of a building to scope it out. This is not soundstage work, and there is little room for sleight of hand: they cannot just skip difficult bits of terrain, a route had to be chosen that looks difficult but can be navigated, that can accommodate motion picture production, and that gives the correct amount of distance to fill the running time of the film. Along with this, the lenses chosen need to suit all of the needs of the film, from quiet character moments, to pulsating action, to pulling out and drawing in, as there is no scope for changing angles or switching to another camera. On logistics alone, this film deserves serious plaudits.
Character work is excellent, chiefly in that it manages to draw significant differences between the two men, without lapsing into cliché. Schofield is the older, more reserved man, more battle scarred, psychologically; while Blake is funnier and looser as a character, excepting, of course, that he starts off with a huge degree of urgency, as the life of his brother is on the line. The film avoids having Blake too idealistic, or Schofield too world weary, however. They play as real people, speaking in terms we’d understand and recognise. They are tired of war, and the environment is tough, but the film lets that environment speak for itself – it feels no need to hammer home the hell of war, when it is right there in front of us. The film keeps moving – literally and figuratively, and has a marvellous pacing that never allows it to feel like two men just walking and talking: the route is split into a number of set pieces that are well-spaced and well-timed, without feeling rote.
1917 is a marvellous feat of filmmaking, a career high for Sam Mendes, and a career highlight for the legendary Roger Deakins. Never less than immersive, the film takes a device often used as a gimmick and makes it an utterly essential part of the experience. As such, it makes a significant contribution to the language of war cinema, and, hence, may well come to be seen as a classic in years to come.