Blame Orson Welles.
In his 1958 film, Touch of Evil, he decided to kick proceedings off with a twelve minute continuous tracking shot and, in doing so, opened future filmmakers up to the idea of what might be done with the concept once technology had made it easier to accomplish such marvels.
In 2016, Sebastian Schipper finally took the idea to its logical conclusion with his low-budget thriller, Victoria, a nail biting two hours and 18 minutes filmed in one continuous take. Surely, there was nowhere else left to go?
Clearly, nobody told Sam Mendes. 1917, based on stories told to him by his grandfather, a World War 1 veteran, isn’t quite a single take movie – it really couldn’t be, not on the scale envisaged for this epic drama – but it is composed of several lengthy tracking shots, cunningly spliced together to make it look like a seamless sequence. There’s only one (intentionally) obvious cut in its entire run, which – given the story’s circumstances – seems entirely justified.
There’s no time wasted on needless exposition. We are quickly introduced to the two protagonists who will lead us through the story. They are Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), two young soldiers, who – within minutes of the film opening – have been charged with a monumental task: to travel miles across enemy-occupied territory to call off a planned attack by another division, set to occur the following morning. Aerial surveillance has exposed the endeavour as a carefully laid trap, the Germans forces giving the appearance that they are in retreat when, in fact, they are primed to exact a punishing slaughter. To add extra jeopardy to the situation, Blake’s older brother is serving with the battalion that is about to go over the top. If the message doesn’t get through in time, sixteen hundred men will be needlessly massacred…
And, in terms of plot, that’s all you need to know. With the clock ticking, the two men set off along the crowded trenches until they reach the final outpost and are obliged to walk across no-man’s land, weighed down by the awful knowledge that every moment of delay brings disaster a step closer.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. I soon forget the gimmick (because a gimmick; it most certainly is) and find myself caught up in the almost unbearable suspense of the situation.
This is a war movie that feels horribly immersive. The distance between the screen and my seat seems non-existent and I am in those trenches along with the protagonists, wading through mud and across rat-ravaged corpses. I am dodging bullets and bursts of shrapnel; I am shivering with cold and running frantically past blazing buildings, stranded amidst the architecture of a world gone mad. Yes, this is undoubtedly a technological marvel but, more importantly, it is a riveting, pummelling experience that drives home the horror and futility of war. Lest I make it all sound unbearable, let me add that there are a couple of instances of unexpected beauty in this film, scenes where elements of nature and the resilience of humanity shine like jewels amidst the smoke and devastation.
A whole host of top-flight actors put in cameos as commanding officers, but it’s the two young leads who carry this film and it’s easy to see why it has already earned itself a well deserved ‘best picture’ award at the Golden Globes.
For all the razzmatazz of its structure, it’s inevitably story that comes first and this delivers at every level, resulting in the first truly unmissable film of 2020.