1917 : A New Perspective on WWI

February 20, 2020 | Written by Audrey Wang, Illustrations by Aryan Jain

A one-shot film is a film that appears to be, or actually is, taken in one continuous shot. No cuts, no breaks, no anything. Before watching the film 1917, I had to ask myself “Do we really need another one-shot film, much less another World War I film?”

And “why” is exactly what Director of Photography Roger Deakins asked when Director and long-time friend Sam Mendes first approached him with this proposal. One-shot films are usually seen as “Oscar-bait” (and bait it did) or a technical gimmick that looks cool but is ultimately hollow in meaning. However, in 1917, it’s neither a gimmick nor hollow, but instead done with care and intention.

1917 guns image .png

Illustrations by Aryan Jain

1917 centers around two young British soldiers, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), in the midst of World War I. They are racing against time to deliver a message that could possibly stop a deadly attack and save hundreds of lives. It seems like a simple story, but it is technically phenomenal and emotionally well-executed.

Mendes stated in an interview with Vox that his purpose for the one-shot is to use the real-time feel of zero cuts to immerse the audience within the soldiers’ points of view on the battlefield. Because of the traditional usage of tracking and over-the-shoulder shots, the film has all the tension of both a horror movie and a video game. The atmosphere is so anxiety-inducing because the full scale situation is never shown. Battles are depicted over the shoulders of soldiers or in the background of close-ups, restricting the audience’s view to that of another soldier. 

It’s an incredible and fresh way to tell a story of a war that has been on the big screen so many times. It’s personal, intimate, and horrifying as the viewpoint tumbles with soldiers through the air and hits the water, or runs with them through a field of detonating bombs. It contains all the visceral senses of war, yet the emotional tangents still work. Since the camera doesn’t cut, it becomes patient and lingers when it needs to. Because of the personal and almost constantly moving camera, the weight of the situation the soldiers are in feels real — all the losses that outnumber the wins, and the piles of bodies that seem to just casually stack up.

Aside from a hilarious and incredible cameo by Andrew Scott, this film is devastatingly heavy. Mackay and Chapman give great performances as young boys who have no idea about the realities of the war that they’ve signed up for, and as they sprint through dangerous battlefields and dodge cannons and bullets, the viewer is right there with them.

It’s breathless and horrifying and tragic — and it’s the cost of war that Mendes has shown at its terrible forefront.