The concept of the “One shot feature film” is an instantly attractive premise. The idea that you’re following a protagonist, generally in real time as they go on their various trials and tribulations, will always be something that leaves audiences asking, “How did they do that?”
In truth, the actual number of films truly filmed in one take are more of the art house variety and rarely seen by most of the general public. But the actual technical achievement of making you believe that something was “done in one” is, in of itself, pretty remarkable. Some recent examples include the Best Picture winning Birdman and the Best Foreign Language Film winning Son of Saul, as well as a few television attempts in the same vein (Mr. Robot and the Haunting of Hill House). With 1917, Sam Mendes takes a swing at this most-immersive of picture show experiences and perhaps makes the best case for how it can be used to envision the ever-evolving journey of the epic hero.
Beyond technical wizardry, 1917 holds a few behind the scenes curiosities of note. Most pressingly is that Mendes is utilizing it a bit of a bounceback for his own career, his last outing being the Bond franchise misfire Spectre. Though he followed that with successful television credits, it’s a stench that’s hard to wash off. And driving past the interpersonal narrative, there’s the simple fact of just how few World War I films Hollywood actually produces. A bloody, complicated conflict that is difficult to distill into the big budget demands of “good vs. evil” that World War II ascribes to in much easier fashion (take, for example, how little 2017’s Wonder Woman touched on these dynamics). All of these factors come together to develop the core of 1917, a full-blown masterpiece of the highest order.
In a simple description: 1917, which is based on stories told to Mendes by his grandfather who served in the British army during The Great War, centers on two young soldiers in the Queen’s service: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). Tasked by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to halt a British force before they walk into a trap laid by the German army, Blake and Schofield must to do the impossible: crossing over No Man’s Land. This includes evading enemy forces, taking shelter in ruined buildings, and traipsing over unseen obstacles and near doom at every single turn. In large part, while character remains a significant fulcrum, this is a story of man vs. man-made brutality. Given the subject matter, such a dwarfing of the human condition in the face of sheer decay is fitting and produces one of the most accurate depictions of the war ever set to screen.
In a way, 1917 is basically a road trip picture, though a better descriptor might be a wartime version of an epic quest. The environments that Blake and Schofield face are ever-changing, and are punctuated with interactions with a variety of soldiers, both British and German, as well as a French civilian or two. And those meetings are made up of a who’s who of UK acting talent from Mark Strong, to Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and more. It’s rather surprising to see how these famous faces vanish as quickly as they appear, but to a degree that is also a testament to the fleeting bonds that large-scale conflict brings about. Moments are shared so briefly, at various tenors, and faces are put into clear view that are never seen again.
To zero in a bit more on the oppressive nature that Mendes and company have subsumed the film in, no quarter is given. Even when the two Lance Corporals begin their journey, walking through and climbing out of a seemingly endless, and surely rank with human filth, trench of their fellow soldiers. They’re soon greeted by a battlezone filled with corpses. It’s a gruesome sight, particularly in one moment where Schofield falls and his hand lands straight into the guts of a fallen comrade (or is it an enemy? With all the mud and blood, it gets pretty hard to tell). I’d safely argue it’s closely reminiscent to the comics work of Jacques Tardi, particularly his seminal It Was The War Of The Trenches and its unflinching view of the horrors and toll taken by the first World War.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of it all is just how impersonal this staggering loss of life becomes. When one of our protagonists enters a camp, searching for a particular soldier, no one has any idea who he’s talking about. Any one of these young men could fall at a moment’s notice and it would barely register. More grist for the mill, and Mendes makes you stare that reality in the face.
He doesn’t do it alone, though. MacKay in particular is a bonafide moviestar in the making, with delicate features that quickly grow hardened through the most trying of possible experiences. MacKay has potentially barreled his way into the Best Actor race with a performance decked in grief, traumatic experience and self-determination. Though its Mendes’ ongoing collaborator Roger Deakins that paints this dour, yet riveting, picture in various shades of grey, fiery orange, and green. Almost every frame of 1917 is something you could blow-up and put on your wall, it’s such a beautifully lit and lensed picture. In a career that includes vividly conceived cinematography like Blade Runner 2049, The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, Skyfall, and No Country For Old Men, it’s arguable that this might actually be some of his most sumptuous work yet. And taken in tandem with the mood setting, utterly essential score of Thomas Newman (his seventh and best collaboration with Mendes), 1917 becomes an experience that must hold court on the biggest screen possible.