Films designed to look like one uninterrupted take — whether they’re really one long shot, or just cleverly edited to appear that way — can be sweeping and engrossing or merely a novelty. At their worst, they inspire sentiments similar to what a friend of mine once wrote on social media: “Hey directors, I don’t buy a ticket to your movies so I can be your editor.”
The premise of crafting a feature that appears to be a single camera movement gets a boost from Sam Mendes’ “1917,” which follows two British soldiers during WWI on a life-or-death mission through No Man’s Land to the front lines. Under the guidance of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, that camerawork leads to moments of genuine suspense and wartime horror, with only occasional instances of gimmickry.
Bookended by sequences involving people running through crowded trenches of soldiers — the obvious lack of tracks for the moving camera adding to the physical burden of Deakins and his camera operators, who had to shoot these scenes handheld — “1917” gives its very linear plot a palpable sense of immediacy by almost never stopping its forward momentum.
We open in a tranquil field, in which napping Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”) are awakened and sent to report to their commanding officer (Colin Firth), who has a mission for them: A massive mobilization of British troops, including Blake’s brother, are unknowingly heading into a German trap. With telephone lines down, it’s up to the two young soldiers to traverse dangerous ground and physically deliver the order to stop the battle from happening.
And then they’re off and running, through barbed-wire and craters, bombed-out towns and elaborate tunnels. When our heroes are not directly under fire, every lull in the action is merely a prelude to the next catastrophe, which boosts the state of tension throughout. Between the unexpected bursts of violence in the script by Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) and the fact that most of the mission is being presented in what appears to be actual time, “1917” offers few opportunities for the audience to exhale.
As such, the movie is more successful as a thriller than as a thoughtful examination of war and its horrors; Mendes seems less interested in bigger ideas about the nightmare of battle and its effects on his characters than he is in Hitchcockian audience manipulation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it does differentiate the film from earlier WWI tales like “Paths of Glory” or “Gallipoli” or “La Grande Illusion,” which used the conflict as a way to discuss class or military injustice or the last gasp of the European aristocracy.
“1917” is certainly a technical marvel, not just for Deakins but also for the brilliant sound work, visual effects, and Lee Smith’s editing, which hides the cuts that would have broken the “one-take” spell. (If there’s one element that doesn’t work here, it’s Thomas Newman’s score, which tends to lay it on too thick, particularly during a third-act sequence in the ruins of a French village.) But the craft on display doesn’t take away from MacKay and Chapman’s performances; their exhibitions of bravery, terror, loyalty, determination and desperation are never overshadowed by the camerawork.
Mendes also works in a series of cameos for well-known actors to play officers; in addition to Firth, the chain of command also includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden and Mark Strong. Each of these pros knows how to make an impression with just a few lines of dialogue, and each becomes an important story checkpoint along the way.
“1917” will at some point make a great double feature with “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the 2018 documentary in which Peter Jackson took 100-year-old war footage and colorized it, corrected the frame rate, and bumped it up to 3D to make the conflict more immediate for contemporary audiences. Both films give 21st century viewers a very different way of looking at World War I, and the technical wizardry behind each film’s creation might be the tiniest bit more interesting than the actual content.