Cinema is no stranger to one take shots. Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick created indelible sequences that made Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory part of our cinematic dreamscape. Alfred Hitchcock impressively tried to make his one location murder mystery (Rope) appear as though it was a continuous sequence. Even in Spectre, director Sam Mendes attempted to meld the typical James Bond opening sequence with the technique. 1917 represents the most ambitious use of the technique in the war genre, (namely the film appearing to be one continuous take). The result is a breathtaking and beautiful filmic experience that suffers from not being about anything interesting.
Partially based of an account from Sam Mendes’ paternal grandfather, (Alfred Mendes) 1917 is about two British world war one soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). They must deliver a message to the distant Devonshire Battalion, who are planning to attack a seemingly retreating German army. However, their message makes it clear that the attack needs to be called off because the enemy forces have gathered a large amount of artillery.
At first, Mendes’ attempt to make the film a continuous take, can’t escape the ghost of Kubrick’s unhurried trench tour in Paths of Glory (albeit with a little more frantic activity). But once, the two soldiers have their mission, the film opens its canvas with some stunning landscape shots.
In these moments, 1917 resembles the films of Werner Herzog, in which humankind were both dwarfed and challenged by nature. Some of the film’s best moments depict the degrading effect of war on the land as much as the British and German troops. In fact, in one scene, a solider says when surveying the passing by countryside- “Look at it. Three bloody years, we’ve been fighting over this. I mean who machine guns cows?” There’s a sense throughout the film of the Germans leaving the environment spoilt to make their mark and lessen their enemies, (whether it’s shooting cows or leaving trip wire bombs in abandoned trenches).
Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins break the suspension of the one take by having the main character wake up at night after being knocked out. During this stretch of the film, the character’s experiences become akin to an intense dream, depicting war as a hellish experience. One memorable scene has Lance Corporal Schofield coming into a room and encountering a French woman. Through a use of deep focus and fade out, the woman appears to us as though she’s a still image painting on a wall, illustrating the undiscerning nature of the conflict.
Despite its technical brilliance, the haunting Thomas Newman score, Deakins’ Oscar winning cinematography and Mendes’ tense direction: 1917 is superficial in what it’s trying to convey about war. Part of this comes from the main character appearing like a cipher. Other then seeing little value in a medal and finding it hard to settle back into life at home, Lance Corporal Schofield appears like a representative of the heroism of one individual. This results in him feeling one note and his encounters somewhat meaningless. The film does not give us enough of an impression of Schofield for the events to matter to him on a personal level, (other then keep moving and survive).
In this regard, 1917 has more in common with vintage genre pictures insofar as it delivers in spades on its base thrills. However, with the high calibre behind the scenes talent, I was expecting something a little more transcendent. The film may have the striking visual imagery to rival Apocalypse Now and Dunkirk. But its subtext (for what there is) seems shallow compared to those movies. As it stands, 1917 is as pure cinema as you’re going to get this year. But don’t expect it to linger in your mind for very long after.