1917 stars George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman and was directed by Sam Mendes. Using a simulated single take style, it tells the story of two British World War I soldiers, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, respectively. They’re tasked with delivering a message that’ll save the lives of 1600 men, including Blake’s brother, but they face nearly impossible odds in doing so. 1917 isn’t a movie. I know that might sound like an absurd statement to make, but hear me out. It’s not something you passively watch. It’s not just a series of events occurring on a screen in front of you. And it’s not just some unbelievable spectacle intended to keep you entertained while you eat popcorn. 1917 isn’t a movie, it’s an experience. Between the impressive technical aspects and the story and character elements, this film is wholly immersive. Despite all the praise and hype surrounding this film, that immersiveness is something you can’t fully prepare for or appreciate until you actually experience it. 1917 is truly unlike any war film I’ve ever seen before.
The first thing I have to talk about regarding this movie is its cinematography and editing style. The film is shot as a simulated single take. In other words, this movie looks like somebody turned a camera on and filmed these events, as they unfolded in one long shot. And this is definitely gonna be the primary thing that 1917 is remembered for, deservedly so. It is absolutely a technical feat. Now, obviously the film wasn’t actually shot in one single take, but the cuts are so seamless that you really couldn’t blame somebody for thinking it was. The average moviegoer isn’t gonna notice the cuts and even if they do, they’re so well-done that it adds to the cinematic artistry of it all. Simulated single take films are very rare, but they aren’t anything new. Alfred Hitchcock first employed the style in 1948 for his movie Rope to give the story a heightened sense of real-time tension. More recently, we had Birdman in 2014 which also used the single take style with hidden cuts.
The scene transitions were a little more obvious in that movie than in this one and while it was still an impressive technical achievement, the style didn’t really feel like it served the story. It felt gimmicky; a cool, unique thing to set the movie apart, but ultimately unnecessary to tell the story. 1917 isn’t like that. The single take style isn’t a gimmick here, but rather a necessary tool to tell this story. The film still would’ve been good if it had been edited in a normal fashion, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact. The core story of 1917 is actually very simple. Two soldiers have to travel through enemy territory to get a message from Point A to Point B in a short period of time in order to save the lives of 1600 men. There isn’t some extravagant or convoluted plan. There’s no deception or spectacle of a battle sequence. Instead, there’s a lot of tension. And a lot of running.
These characters have an end goal, but how they go about trying to achieve that goal feels incredibly natural and spontaneous cause they’re going into the unknown and have no way of anticipating the things that are gonna happen. And so the single take style works perfectly for this type of story. Even though it was obviously meticulously planned and blocked, it provides us with this sense of unpredictability cause we’re just following these characters on this equally unpredictable journey. And so it almost becomes this sequence of individual events that we witness during this broader mission, but the continuous filming prevents it from feeling episodic. Instead, we’re left in awe of the whole, while having so many individual moments stick in our head long after seeing the film. For a movie with such a broad scope and so many huge filming locations, 1917 is a surprisingly small, personal story. Like I said before, this is a war film unlike any I’ve seen before. We’re thrown into the story without any real introduction to the characters. There’s no major exposition scenes or elongated backstories for the characters.
This might seem a bit weird and impersonal at first, but I think it really works for the story and the filming style. Rather than being told who these people are or shown in flashback scenes, we’re left to get a sense of them through their conversations as they travel. Discussions of medals gives us insight into how each of them feels about war and the glory of recognition. Cherry trees might seem like an odd topic, but it gives us a sense of one of the characters’ upbringing and adds this personal touch to the story that gets recalled more than once during the film. Even though the individual bits of conversation don’t necessarily tell us a whole lot about the characters, by the end of the movie, you really have a sense of who they are. As the audience, we kinda feel like a third soldier on the mission, tagging along with these two existing friends. We don’t know the town they grew up in or the name of their sweetheart, but we know who these people are because of their actions and their responses in certain situations. And so you end up really caring about these people cause they feel real.
The hesitancy, the fear, the determination ñ it all hits on a surprisingly deep level despite the nontraditional character development. 1917 is an experience. A tense one, an exhilarating one, and a frequently frustrating one. It moves in unexpected directions and is both personal and impersonal at the same time. With its single take style, it puts you right into the story with the characters and that’s something that’s both emotionally impactful and powerful. Alright let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is definitely the single take filming and editing style. It’s visually fantastic and extremely effective when it comes to actually telling the story. It gives this sense of real-time urgency, but also of unpredictability cause it has this incredibly cinematic documentary, kinda guerilla filmmaking feel to it. Most of the actual takes are incredibly long which is impressive enough given the size of the production, but when combined with the incredible and seamless editing, it’s a breathtaking and breath-holding experience. Like I said before, the single take style is what this movie’s gonna be remembered for.
There’s obviously a lot more to the film, but this style is the glue that holds everything together and without it, the film would’ve been something altogether different. Pro number two is the acting, especially from our two leads. Neither Dean-Charles Chapman or George MacKay are currently very well-known actors, but they truly carry this. Acting and especially acting well isn’t an easy feat in any context, but it’s certainly easier when there are more frequent cuts. And even though this film isn’t actually one big long take, individual scenes are still incredibly long and required a certain level of endurance, both physically and mentally from these actors. And through all of that, they had to come across as believable, real people from that time period and I think they both did a great job.
The third pro has gotta be the story. It’s fairly simple and straight-forward, but sometimes that can actually be the most effective. It’s a war film that avoids the spectacle, while still showing the horrors of trench warfare and the thanklessness of something as impersonal as war. It’s a very real-feeling story, which makes sense cause it’s based ñ in part ñ on director Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s account of World War I. And so, all of these things combined really help to set this movie apart from other war films, even if you don’t take the filmmaking style into account. On the con side, it’s just minor nitpicks for me and really nothing substantial. There were a handful of moments of frustration for me when it came to time wasting within the story. You know, moments where you just want to yell and the screen and tell them to get going.
There’s one scene in particular that involved singing that felt especially out of place and weird in the context of the rest of the movie, but again, even that wasn’t bad. It involved a really awesome shot and was a nice scene to catch our breath during, but it just went a little too long for me. I’m gonna give 1917 4.5 out of 5 paws. I have to say, I was really blown away by this movie. I expected it to be good, but I didn’t anticipate it connecting with me as much as it did. It’s got a compelling story, the cinematography is phenomenal, and that simulated single take style is absolutely enveloping. I would recommend 1917 to just about anybody. If you like war movies, this has got some fantastically tense scenes and seems to be a very realistic depiction of a side of war we don’t usually see in film. If war movies aren’t your thing, I think you’ll still really enjoy this cause it’s a little atypical for a war movie.
There aren’t any big battle scenes, it’s not overly gory or gruesome in the normal war film way. It’s much more of a journey story than a war story. If you’re a big cinephile, you’ll be blown away by the technical aspects and if you just like going to the movies and don’t really think about that side of filmmaking, you’re still gonna enjoy it cause it’s a great film. If you liked 1917, I would recommend The Revenant. It’s not a war movie, though it does involve some very intense battle scenes, but it’s more a story about one character’s journey and his ability to face and overcome impossible odds.
This one also has some very impressive and involved long-take scenes that are reminiscent of the style of 1917. Speaking of that style, if you were a fan of the simulated single take, I would definitely suggest Rope. It was essentially the movie that started the style and although it’s a film that’s much smaller in scale and scope, it’s still impressive. If you want another war movie that uses a unique storytelling style, you should check out Dunkirk. It’s about World War II, rather than World War I, but it goes about telling its story from three different perspectives and through three different lengths of time, until everything eventually converges.