1917, the at-turns bloody and beautiful World War I film from American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes, achieves many things in its two-hour runtime.
A visceral impression of the horrors of war that takes viewers, quite literally, on an immersive journey. Arguably, however, the most impressive of the film’s numerous feats is how it takes cinema — a medium set to celebrate its 124th birthday later this month — and makes it feel, if not exactly new, then at least capable of new tricks.
Such is the power of 1917’s visual storytelling, which transports viewers to the trenches and no man’s lands of northern France with all the immersive, so-real-you-can-almost-touch-it detail of a virtual reality simulation. The plot follows two young lance corporals, Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), as they race against the clock to deliver a message that could save a British battalion from certain death. We follow the duo through rat-infested trenches, booby-trapped tunnels and crater-strewn fields; ultimately we don’t empathise with the characters so much as become them.
The trick is in the camerawork, a seemingly single, continuous shot which follows the protagonists from the film’s first frame until its last. This tight focus, deployed with skill by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, allows us to see everything Blake and Schofield see. The film’s continuous shot is in fact about a dozen scenes, each a piece of clockwork-like choreography threaded together to appear as one. But the threading is so seamless that the distinction feels moot: 1917 breezes along with the forward momentum of a ghost train ride, taking us from one scene to the next with no obvious stops or transitions.
Mendes isn’t the first to employ the one-shot technique; Alejandro González Iñárritu used the same approach in 2014’s Birdman, and was himself inspired by Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 epic Russian Ark — though, unlike Birdman and 1917, Russian Ark did actually completely take place all within a single shot. But with 1917, Mendes may well have found the ideal niche for this technique. Where the single take can sometimes feel like a gimmick, here the effect serves a higher purpose: to render a largely unfilmable war filmable.
There is a reason World War II films wildly outnumber World War I films: movies demand movement, and the trenches of the First World War were fundamentally static things. Battles ground to a halt around them as soldiers dug in and emerged just long enough to be picked off. By following two couriers in one unbroken set piece, Mendes imbues the Great War with a propulsive energy befitting the white-knuckle experiences of those who fought in it.
At times, 1917 can feel like a video game. Indeed, Mendes says he was inspired to experiment with this immersive approach to filmmaking after watching his children play first-person video games such as Red Dead Redemption. This could be cause for concern: video games aren’t exactly known for their nuanced storytelling, nor are they well-regarded for their tasteful treatment of real-life tragedies.
But in 1917 we see what kinds of narrative experiences the medium excels at, and wonder why cinema hasn’t managed to ape them so effectively before. Instead of painting a rich portrait of his protagonists, Mendes puts us in their combat boots and asks us to live their experience for ourselves.
1917 is in cinemas January 9.
This article was written in partnership with Universal Pictures.