There’s nothing new about movies drawing in viewers by kicking off with gimmicky opening sequences. Like, say, shots using one camera, that go on and on without an edit. Orson Welles did it in 1958 with “Touch of Evil” (a length of 3:19). As did Robert Altman in 1992 with “The Player” (8:05), and Alfonso Cuarón in 2013 with “Gravity” (12:30). Cinema history also has a few films that seemingly have gone the distance: no edits at all, just one long take for their entirety. A couple of them have been examples of trickery. Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) had clever “unseen” cuts, Alejandro G. Iñárritu was even shrewder with his approach in “Birdman” (2014). The lone marginally successful film - and that was only on the art house circuit - to pull off the feat for real, one shot from beginning to end, was Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” (2002).
Now British filmmaker Sam Mendes, who won an Oscar for “American Beauty” and directed the Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” has taken a stab at it. Going the “fake” route, and popping in smooth, impossible-to-see edits either at key moments in dark spots or via brilliant digital trickery, his WWI film “1917” looks like a single two-hour shot.
And it works! Set in France in April 1917, and commencing with two British soldiers, enjoying a moment of peace, relaxing in a pastoral field, the camera pulls back as they stand and walk toward it and soon receive orders from their commanding officer. It stays with and circles around them and is soon following close behind them, or tracking along next to them as they keep moving.
Yes, this goes on for the length of the film, and even though it feels like a gimmick at first, it’s soon forgotten. Maybe because viewers are going to feel not that they’re simply watching the movie, but that they’re in it, right there with these two men - Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). Then the intense story begins, further diverting attention away from the remarkable visual achievements attained by Mendes and his superb cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The soldiers are ordered to cross No Man’s Land, locate another commanding officer, and convince him to stop a planned attack against a supposedly retreating German army because intelligence has discovered that the Germans are actually setting a trap for them.
The bulk of the film traces their arduous, mostly on-foot nine-mile journey, starting in their own cramped trenches, passing by weary soldiers and dead soldiers, going up and over into battle-pocked fields strewn with more dead soldiers as well as dead horses and accompanying flies and rats.
It’s a war is hell movie, and that’s only from seeing the after-effects of battle. There isn’t any onscreen gunfire for the first hour. But there are plenty of terrifying moments, some of them in the German trenches that they explore, some of them in buildings they find, but aren’t sure if they’re abandoned. Yet it’s equally as much a film about friendship and looking out for one another, most of which is accomplished with very little dialogue, mostly just between these two men.
There are other characters at the beginning, and more near the end, some played, in very brief cameos, by familiar actors: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong among them. But the film sticks with being about Blake and Schofield and their mission - and what continually, but subtly comes across is that it appears to be done with one camera following their every move.
The idea of the whole thing taking place in real time is temporarily abandoned when a plot development involves a quick fade to black, then fades back in for a nighttime scene. And it’s soon back to the effective one-shot technique that keeps it rolling, and helps to make the mission look and feel all the more perilous and harrowing. The film ends on a peaceful note that bookends the opening scene, but as the credits come up, two things will be clear: You’ve received a message on the futility of war, and you’ve seen an epic.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns; directed by Sam Mendes
With Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay