War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Well, except good war films… 1917 is the latest in a line of award contenders, with the major selling point here being the one-shot method filmmakers use to captivate audiences.
The film follows Lance Corporals, Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) on their extensive journey to stop an attack on the German forces that would lead to disaster. On the way, they experience various horrors of the WWI battlefield and the dangers they entail. Can they deliver the message in time or will all their efforts be left in vain?
While the one-shot method isn’t a new technique to cinema, with notable examples including Hitchcock’s Rope and the Oscar Best Picture winner Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the technique is elevated here due to the amount of travel and difficult shots needed. Essentially a way of making a film appear to be documented and shot in one take there obviously are cuts needed in order to effectively edit the film, but the execution is so seamless it’s easy to get immersed in the feel of the film.
1917 feels like a complete journey due to the shooting style, giving us more time to experience the characters’ interactions, the vivid and striking scenery, and a satisfying sense of completion once the ending arrives.
The final shot of the film is one of our lead simply sitting down and contemplating everything that’s happened. It’s a perfect resolution to the film that’s only made more effective due to the one-shot filming style. Normal editing wouldn’t leave the viewer feeling as emotionally exhausted as the character if they hadn't experienced literally everything that they have.
There is a beautiful sense of tension throughout the film. Partly created by the fact we experience everything, but the film includes a lot of technical elements that heighten the stakes. One is the score. Early on in the film, the music playing over the more mundane scenes of walking to the office build suspense, and once the mission is cast, the beat becomes fierce and determined. This complements the crowded shots of the trenches well, ensuring that you’re already on the edge of your seat once they leave and the real drama begins.
The second element is the visuals. Such attention to detail is spent in making the fields, the destroyed town, and the river scenes come to life. The scattering of corpses and rats are all genuinely uncomfortable for all the right reasons, especially when Mendes decides to focus on them in moments of silence.
The early scenes have a notable absence within them which only adds to the suspense. The German forces are constantly mentioned, with destroyed imagery and small numbers of enemies cleverly adding to their menace. It allows Director Sam Mendes to really play around with how much drama can be gained purely by fear in their appearance rather than their appearance outright.
One scene that needs to be highlighted is the scene set at night. By far, this is the most gorgeous and breath-taking shot of the film. The dark contrasts against the explosions, flares, and burning buildings are beautiful and also tragic as it shows the conflict escalating and getting worse for our main character. It’s also the shot most use to demonstrate the quality of the cinematography that this film has, with such vivid clarity and expression in every shot.
Performance-wise, due to the constant travelling nature of the film, everything is driven by Mackey and Charles-Chapman. George Mackay is definitely the stronger lead, but there is strong chemistry between the both of them. Charles-Chapman’s more idealistic and positive performance clashes against the realist perspective and much grittier and anxiety-filled performance from Mackay. You really get the sense both young men are terrified and trying to put on a brave face. This impacts on the scenes where they talk about home, soldiers in the war, and general stories. All come off as fairly natural conversations, even if there is a tense element to them, removing the idea of being relaxed.
It’s hard to fully discuss the supporting cast. While all the performances are good, they are short-lived. Cast in the positions of authority are extremely notable actors such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, but they all get one scene each where they perform fine. Probably the exception to that is Richard Madden who brings a fairly reserved but also heartbreaking performance.
As for action, for a war film, there is very little of it. There are a couple of shooting scenes between low numbers of characters, a plane crash, a mine explosion, and the much-used shot in the trailer; running across the field as soldiers attack. Frankly, it’s a refreshing change to have a war film focus more on exploring a lot of the consequences of various battles and a strategic journey rather than a climactic battle to decide an outcome. Even with the dramatic end, with all the explosions and soldiers running around, the fact that the ending doesn’t rely on all this is powerful.
Generally, the film represents war well. The tense set pieces of the film happen randomly and constantly (a common theme of war and its complete uncertainty when exploring enemy lines). There are really nice scenes that help break up those set pieces where the soldiers just talk or listen to singing which are really refreshing and develop the world in realistic ways.
1917 may be one of the most intense cinema experiences you have in a while. Not many films take the time to personally walk you through a series of tense moments, striking visuals, and powerful emotional moments like this one does. The film is more than just a one-shot masterpiece, but an absolute WWI retelling masterpiece and a war film that could easily become a classic.