The conceit behind ‘1917’ is that the entirety of the movie, with its 119-minute running time, is meant to appear like one long shot. The story itself happens in the span of one day with one narrative moment when a blackout occurs, but what this intended one long take creates is a sense of realness and urgency for the film.
Set in World War I, two British soldiers are given the mission to cross through enemy lines to deliver a message to the second division. The message is to hold position as the troops composed of 1,600 British soldiers are running into a trap. As added incentive, the general (played by Colin Firth) tells the soldier that his brother is in the second division. If he fails to deliver the message, his brother will die in the German trap.
With the set up clear and well-defined, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) must race against time into enemy territory and save 1600 soldiers from certain death.
The one continuous take creates an atmosphere of dread and urgency. The camera surveys the area around Blake and Schofield and never leaves their side, which means we can only see as much as they can. There is no establishing shots to help us determine whether they are safe or in danger. No cuts and shifts of angle to tell us if they are watched or if the enemy is nearby. It seems that Sam Mendes’ vision is to make us as vulnerable and as exposed as his two leads.
Often enough, the film has Blake and Schofield journeying through labyrinthine trenches that seems to span for miles. It’s a production design wonder that is only exceeded by the incredible camera operation by the team of Director of Photography Roger Deakins (who just won an Oscar award for his work in this movie). The one continuous take reveals a choreography of actors set in place and moving through their blocking but ensuring that the camera moves effortlessly through the scene and has Blake and Schofield always in focus.
But while the soldiers are in focus, something else manages to rise to the foreground. Another thematic element takes center stage. As both soldiers embark on their journey, we bear witness to the atrocities of war; the death and destruction of the French countryside and the loss of life both of soldiers and the natural world.
Despite the two soldier’s rescue mission — for essentially that is what it is — the film exposes all the horrors and tragedies of war. There is nothing beautiful or heroic about any of this. There is nothing romantic or even heroic. It’s just death and destruction. Even as the younger Blake feels thrilled that he might come out of this with a medal, the older and more experienced Schofield tells it as it is. He has a medal himself but he has lost it and doesn’t care for it.
“It’s just a piece of tin,” he says.
Mendes is careful to mine each moment for all its profundity. It’s not one long battle after another. There are quiet moments; time for these characters to reflect on what is happening around them. These moments are polar opposites for when the action does happen, it is fast and brutal and without grace or elegance. All the way, Roger Deakins’ camera is capturing the moment with all the emotions that Chapman and MacKay can deliver to create a stirring understanding at how ugly this all is.
And no matter how beautiful Mendes and Deakins manages to set up certain scenes (watch out for a wonderfully photographed sequence in a village that’s literally a tower of fire), what pushes through are the anti-war sentiments that the imagery of the film portrays.