Film Review – 1917
Long, unbroken camera takes – where the frame follows on screen action without any edits or cuts – can immerse us into a film when done properly. It allows us to experience events as they happen in real time, going through the physical and emotional ups and downs of the characters. The “long take” is sometimes misconstrued with “good directing” because it is such a flashy technical achievement. Just because a director can orchestrate an unbroken shot does not automatically make a film better. But in the right hands, this style can transport us into the plot, having us live vicariously in the moment.
1917 (2019) is a great example of this. Director Sam Mendes – collaborating with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins – has created a WWI epic that has been shot and put together to look as though it were done in one single long take. Of course, knowing this immediately forces us to try and pinpoint instances where Lee Smith’s editing “disguises” the transitions (like when characters walk into shadow or the camera passes by an object up close). Thankfully, the ambitious nature of the cinematography doesn’t overburden the important elements of character and story. This is a suspenseful, character driven war drama that only intensifies the further along it goes.
The screenplay (by Mendes and Krsyty Wilson-Cairns) establishes the premise quickly. British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) have been ordered to undertake a dangerous mission: they have one day to deliver a message to a separate battalion warning them of an impending German ambush. If they are unsuccessful in delivering the message, 1600 British lives will be at risk. It is also revealed that Blake’s brother (Richard Madden) is among those men, adding to the urgency of the mission.
What follows is a long, arduous journey as Blake and Schofield traverse behind enemy lines, knowing full well that at any moment they could be met with a hail of gunfire. It’s at this point where 1917’s art direction and production design must be given applause. Yes, the long takes are impressive, but even more incredible is how northern France has been recreated to resemble a WWI battlefield. Blake and Schofield walk down endless trenches, wide open fields, destroyed cities, dense forests, enormous bomb craters, dark mine shafts, and barbed wire barricades. They pass countless background characters, from fellow soldiers to civilians, to the fallen strewn across the ground. The sheer scope of these environments is awe-inspiring. In an early sequence, we follow Blake and Schofield as they walk from a grassy hillside, through an endless run of trenches, right up to the front line. The coordination it took to lay these foundations, choreograph character movement and dialogue, and to successfully film it in one unbroken shot is mind numbing to say the least.
The meticulous attention to detail, as well as Mendes’ willingness to follow Blake and Schofield through long stretches, heightens the suspense. As they make their way through these blown out environments, we find ourselves leaning forward in our seats in anticipation, waiting to see if they will make it to the other side safely or if they will encounter danger. 1917 is made up of episodes of extreme anxiety, where every step the characters take can potentially lead to disaster. It’s an incredible feat of artistry for a production to keep adding on to the suspense in real time. Editing often works to help create tension, so without the ability to fully rely on cutting created a layer of difficulty that Mendes and his team overcome exceptionally well. At no point does the pacing slow down.
But the technical achievements wouldn’t have the same kind of effect if consideration was not paid to Blake and Schofield as fully formed characters. While their interaction mostly involves traveling, the writing has enough development to make them unique individuals. For Blake, the obvious motivation is for him to get to the other battalion and save his brother. The more interesting of the two, however, is Schofield, who goes through a complete emotional arc. At first, he comes off more reluctantly, questioning why he was chosen to perform this mission. But as they push further into enemy territory, we start to see his transformation. His investment grows as he gets more involved in the objective. Notice how his character changes from the beginning onward. He gets physically and psychologically stripped down to the point where all he has is the clothes on his back and his unwavering will to survive.
The only hiccup with 1917 is how the narrative plays with time. So much effort was put into making the edits invisible that the passage of time became distracting. The runtime is two full hours, but the amount of time that takes place within the story is 24 hours. Daylight changes to night back to light at such a rapid clip that it took me away from the believability of the story. We watch characters walk into a building while the sun is shining, only to step outside a few minutes later to pitch black darkness. For a movie that embraces immersion, having time be so condensed almost works against its intended goals.
Does the issue with time detract from the overall effect of 1917? No, it doesn’t. This is still an exceptionally made war film that places us right in the midst of the action with Blake and Schofield. It’s a gripping tale of a terrible war, but more importantly, it’s a captivatingly human story as well.