The idea of doing a film in all one shot is nothing new in 2020. Many films have been made to appear to look like one continuous shot, some famous examples include Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and then there are films that truly are filmed in one shot, such as Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Mike Figgis’ Timecode and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria. So the possibility of making films or longer sequences in longer takes is obviously possible, although it certainly requires an insane amount of preparation and rehearsal. And long takes are obviously impressive, especially when done well. But in the end, the long take is simply another cinematic technique, and like most cinematic techniques, when it’s overdone it starts to lose its power and you’re left with nothing in the end. This is where Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 comes in, an otherwise technically impressive yet unfortunately shallow film.
The strangest thing about 1917 I can think of is that almost everything people have said about it is accurate, both the good and the bad. Is it technically impressive? Absolutely. Does it feel like a videogame? Yeah, kinda. Is the production design realistic and believable? Of course. Is it in some way a clone of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk? In certain respects it is. Is it a bit distracting to see so many famous British actors in what is essentially cameo roles? Yes it is. But is it also wonderful to see any of these actors whenever they’re on screen? Yes it is. But let’s get into detail so I can explain why certain things work and why certain other things don’t work, because let’s face it that’s what we’re here for.
So first of all, if one could give away awards simply for a films technical prowess, then the production team behind 1917 deserves every award they can get. From Roger Deakins and his camera crew, Dennis Gassner’s production design and set decoration to the special effects crew, it really is a technical marvel and the fact that they pulled all of this off is nothing short of astounding. Although I fancy myself someone who has a fairly certain idea of what the filmmaking process is like, I still can’t fathom the insane amounts of preparation and precision for every department involved, and they all pulled through. And one shouldn’t exclude the actors since they also have to learn their marks and be incredibly prepared, and our two lead actors are convincingly portrayed by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, although McKay is clearly the standout of the two. There is also one moment towards the end of the film that involves a soldier singing to the rest of his platoon in a forest, and it is almost Tarkovskian in its beauty. I also want to commend Sam Mendes for taking this risk and for trying a new approach to a pretty well-worn genre by this point by, but that unfortunately leads into the biggest problem with the movie.
Like I said in my introduction, plenty of films have been shot in several long takes and made it to appear it’s been shot in one take, like Rope and Birdman. But I feel like those films earned the use more than 1917 ever does. The question one should ask when using any cinematic technique is “what’s the purpose of this or what are we trying to get across here?” In Rope, Hitchcock was adapting a stage play and since plays are played out in real time, he wanted to make a film that would play out in real time. On a somewhat similar note, Birdman used the long takes to emphasize the fact that the characters are working in a theatrical environment and that theatrical plays are, once again, played out in real time. In 1917, it felt more like Mendes and the filmmakers shot it in one take because they had the means to do so. I’m sure they had other intentions in mind, but whatever they were they weren’t properly translated on screen.
But the biggest problem with the long take approach is that it made the film ultimately feel more stagy than cinematic. The lack of different camera angles and lack of cuts made it feels as if I was watching a stage play as opposed to a film, which doesn’t mean I propose the film to have been shot through traditional and boring coverage. In the words of Andrei Tarkovsky: “film is a mosaic made up of time”, so films are several different elements put together to create a singular whole, not necessarily a literal whole, but a cohesive emotional or thematic whole. Perhaps we’re simply not used to the idea of movies being made to look like they’re all one takes and perhaps in the future this will be regarded as some sort of classic, but I can’t lie about my honest opinion as of now, and only time will prove me wrong.
So, in the end I guess my thoughts on it are mixed. Like I said, technically impressive, but the one-take gimmick outstayed its welcome real fast and feels more stagy than cinematic. But despite these reservations, I could see myself buying this film on blu-ray and rewatching it in the future, or perhaps even revisit it when it’s still in theatres. I doubt it’s one of those films that will grow on me upon rewatches. Maybe it’s simply because I’m a war movie and overall history nut and there are sadly few major films on World War I, so this is perhaps my way of coping.