Outstanding dramatic and technical achievement! 1917 is an anxiety-inducing, gripping motion picture. Sam Mendes’ direction is exemplary and the cinematography mind-blowing. Winner of two Golden Globes, and destined for Oscar nominations, this film is one that I highly recommend that you watch in Dolby or IMAX (if Dolby is not available in your cinema). While 1917 is not a horror film in the conventional sense, it delivers unparalleled wartime brutality that forces us to face the real horrors of war and never let up for the duration of the film. After the box office bomb that was Cats, Universal Pictures needed a homerun for both revenue and awards-possibilities. Suffice it to say, 1917 will rake in the award wins and nominations and the box office revenue that the legacy studio needs to keep financing/distributing original films of both mid and high budgets. This film is more than a cinematographic exercise of telling a feature-length visual story with one continuous tracking shot. Obviously there are moments of cuts (if you try to look for them); but for all intents and purposes, Mendes sells audiences on the tracking shot, even when the camera literally glides across the water. The film is both gorgeous in its technique and beautiful in the story. It’s not simply another war movie, it is a powerful experience that places you at the front lines of World War I. Compared to past films about WWI or WWII, I cannot think of a single other film that captured the atrocities of war and the unending violence and anxiety in nearly as brilliant or artistic a fashion. Tension will run high, and continue to ratchet up as the story unfolds. While much emphasis has been placed on the “single take” approach to shooting this film, there was the risk of the film not allowing for other elements of a good story; however, Sam Mendes delivers both a film that is shot brilliantly and one that delivers a dynamic, complex central character within a simple yet compelling plot.
During World War I, two British soldiers — Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades — including Blake’s own brother.
Let’s start out with the element that is being talked about more than anything else–and that is the cinematography by Roger Deakins. There is so much more to this film, but I want to address that aspect first. It’s not one continuous shot. And so what??? It is unrealistic to shoot an epic (much less war movie) in a single take for two hours. However, the film certainly feels like one continuous take more than 90% of the time. And to that end, the this technical achievement is phenomenal! While it may not be innovative (as it has been done before) how the commitment to the single take approach was was executed was outstanding! There is even a moment that our two central characters are navigating navigating around a giant crater and the camera glides across the water, never stopping before or after. Talk about fantastic! More than an exercise whether or not this could be accomplished as nearly flawlessly as it was, there is also the added benefit of the enveloping experience of being on that battle field with our characters, because there is no break. A cut or break could remind us that we are safely in the auditorium, but continuing the shot never allows for a break in the excelling rising tension for the whole film. All that said, I did experience a disadvantage of knowing about the whole one shot going into the film because I found myself looking for the moments when a cut happened. And it was ultimately a distraction in the beginning. As the film progressed, I was less obsessed with looking for the cuts and simply allowed myself to get lost in the film. So my advice to filmmakers and critics watching this film is to not look for those cuts as it could become a distraction.
Here’s where it’s met with some opposition from critics: the story (inclusive of characters). There has been some notion that the method of story execution (the aforementioned “single tracking shot”) prohibited traditional story, character, and plot development. While the single tracing camera approach does minimize the amount of time that can be covered (because the story exists mostly in real time) and the points of view from the camera, there is still a powerful story of courage and determination. It is clear that Mendes desired to do for WWI what Saving Private Ryan did for WWII, and in my opinion, he did just that–and more! We are introduced to our two central characters: one is determined (Blake) and the other apprehensive but compliant (Schofield). Without going into details that would get into spoilers, there is sufficient character development that shows a transformation in worldview and level of purpose and courage when these characters are faced with grueling conflict and setback after conflict and setback. Through the brutalities of war, these two characters, of which Schofield emerges as THE central character (with Blake chief supporting), we witness demonstrable growth that affects Schofield in such a way that he is forced to take certain actions that directly impact the plot and his personal development. I don’t mean to be vague, but it’s important that you go into the film with a little knowledge of details as possible.
Once our two soldiers are sent on their mission from the General to take orders to another company on the other side of what is referred to as No Man’s Land (through German encampment), it is a nonstop brutal adventure with stakes as high as life and death. Mendes shies not away from the gritty violence and total destruction of war. At one point, one of our main characters cuts his hand on barbed wire, then not long after, plunges his hand into the chest cavity of a corpse. And that is as tame as it gets–only gets more terrifying and brutal from there. Everything feels so incredibly real. Like, you should duck for cover yourself as the bullets and shells fly across the screen. If you choose to see it in Dolby (as I did), you will feel as though you are in the middle of the battle field and deep in the trenches along with the brave men fighting for the freedom of France and the rest of the world. Not since Saving Private Ryan has there been such a masterful war motion picture to hit the silver screen.
Don’t sleep on this film, even if you are not typically into war pictures. Take me for example. I am not ordinarily into war films (or sports movies). And yet, I find this one truly compelling! There’s an unapologetic authenticity in everything Mendes’ film has to offer audiences. Do yourself a favor and watch one of the best films of 2019/2020.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!