War movies are quite an ethical quandary. On the one hand, we’re meant to sympathize with the brutal realities of battle, wherein lives from opposing sides are either lost or drastically damaged. On the other hand, many of the genre’s greatest films (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now) put forth stunning cinematography, special effects, and stunt work as key selling points of their film. War films go for a melancholy depiction of violence, but they’re also celebratory of violence.
That ethical quandary will not get any easier to navigate with the arrival of 1917, Sam Mendes’ exercise in visual evolution. The key selling point of the film is that it is shot as if the filmmakers filmed it all in one take, and is photographed entirely from the perspective of our main character. This is not the first film or even first action film, to utilize this technique, but you do get the sense that we’re pushing the visual boundaries in a way that no prior film of its kind has.
The premise is simple. During World War I, two British soldiers are given a mission to warn a battalion of soldiers to call off an attack on German troops at the Hindenburg Line. The battalion in question believes they have the German brigade cornered, but this is all part of a trap that has been set by the Germans. The two protagonists, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) head off on their journey unbeknownst to the unique obstacles they’ll have to face along the way.
Early on, the film’s tracking shot style doesn’t quite work. In the first 20 minutes, we’re met with a lot of exposition and plenty of conversations between our two main characters, but the film’s visual style does more to distract in these moments than elevate them. The dialogue-heavy scenes are most effective when the camera calms down a bit and we can just focus on our characters. Thankfully, the film does employ those techniques in later scenes. But early on, the beautiful scenery and hectic pacing, while our protagonists travel through the army ranks, prove to take away from the characters and situations we’re meant to learn from.
But once the journey gets in motion, the movie soars. The film has a very unique sense of space and movement that is not all that different from a video game cut scene; there are even similarities to be drawn with how the characters have to maintain stealth in order to avoid detection, or how new characters appear out of nowhere due to the protagonists’ limited field of vision. But while it can be boring to watch someone else explore a virtual world while playing a video game, 1917 is arresting because of how quick and deliberate the camera is while also giving the viewer all the visual information they need. In addition, the CGI isn’t at all noticeable except for a few green screen shots, and one huge rat.
But with all the visual splendor, Mendes doesn’t avoid the nasty and ugly. There are decomposed bodies and exposed wounds, and we have to deal with the unpleasantness of it all just like the characters. The visual techniques employed successfully put us in the characters’ shoes, which makes the action more impressive for how precise it has to be. There’s none of that shaky-cam garbage that pretends to strive for immersion but is really just hiding sloppy choreography. This is true immersion, where we can see everything the characters see and some of what they don’t, without sacrificing the ability to surprise.
You have to imagine how arduous it was to nail some of these scenes, as many sequences truly are one long tracking shot which means that one mistake could be costly for scheduling and the production budget. We’re basically taking the risk at play on the explosive scene in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and extrapolating that for an entire movie. Speaking of bridges, there’s one such scene on a dilapidated bridge that comes up during the film that feels like Mendes is just calling his shot; it’s a tightrope act that also doesn’t go exactly how you might think, and maybe the high point of the movie.
Where the film excels in visual language, it comes up a little short in characterization. While our main character, Schofield, proves to be persistent and resilient, all while displaying a good heart (including a tender scene involving an unlikely mother), there’s not much more to him than that. There’s even less to any of the other supporting players, but we understand the film’s main objective is to dazzle and hone new visual techniques rather than telling the most well-rounded story. In that sense, 1917 needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s a step forward in what we do best – blowing up the world and each other. Take that for what you will.