When Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (ten years after the events of the film in question here) he did not invent the close-up, he merely mastered the use of it as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Likewise, Sam Mendes did not invent the idea of filming a movie in one long continuous take, he merely mastered the use of it for 1917 (along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Like Dreyer’s film, 1917 is an absolute artistic masterpiece. It is the height of its craft.
While the technical artistry achieved with the continuous shot did not come as a surprise, what did for me was the emotional undercurrent of the film. At its core, it’s a classic riff on the timeless hero’s journey. Mendes and Deakins chose the one shot technique as a way to mirror the film’s central conflict. These poor soldiers only have one shot to deliver crucial orders. The attention to detail both in the script and what appears (or doesn’t appear) in the shot gives the film a gritty immersive pull. We’re constantly moving forward, our adrenaline racing along with the characters as they try to deliver time sensitive orders across enemy lines to stop a massacre at the shifting front of battle in France during WWI. The performances (especially from the young leads) cannot be dismissed and are currently underrated. The actors give the film and the classical story its heart, and the reverent sentimentality of the script and Mendes’ direction (that never romanticizes war, but instead reminds us of the humanity of those thrown into its chaos) pulls on our heartstrings as much as the suspense gives us a lump in our throat.
1917 borrows liberally the visual elements of horror, thrillers, 1st person video games and classic war films. The nighttime shelling of the ruins of a French village is some of the greatest cinematography ever captured. A hungry rat tripping a wire in an underground bunker. A shell-shocked soldier waking in the darkness. A soldier leaping from a stone wall into a river that sweeps him away into rapids. Cherry blossoms. A battalion waiting in the seemingly peaceful woods listening to one of their own sing a folk song before entering the trenches. Longing to be reunited with your family. Everyone will walk away with their own indelible image, feeling, and favorite scene. What’s even more astounding is that all of it was pulled together to seem like it was one shot. 1917 is mythic movie-making at its very best.