'1917' Is A World War I Epic Crafted To Look Like A Single Continuous Camera Shot

Dec 24, 2019
Originally published on December 24, 2019 4:24 pm
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It's been 20 years since Sam Mendes took home best director and best picture Oscars with his debut feature film "American Beauty." Since then, he has had to settle for just box office success, like with the James Bond film "Skyfall," for instance. His latest movie is a World War I epic that's been crafted to look like a single continuous camera shot. It's called "1917," and critic Bob Mondello says it might just get Mendes back in the awards game.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Wildflowers blooming in a field in northern France. War may be raging elsewhere, but here all is peaceful. As the camera backs up, we see a British soldier sleeping under a tree. Another soldier wakes him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

DANIEL MAYS: (As Sergeant Sanders) Blake. Blake.

DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Sorry, Sarge.

MAYS: (As Sergeant Sanders) Pick a man. Bring your kit.

CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Yes, Sarge.

MONDELLO: Blake grabs his buddy Schofield, and they follow the messenger - and the camera - across a camp they'd been on the far edge of, past soldiers who are sitting around or washing uniforms, down into a sandbag-walled trench that twists this way and that...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

MAYS: (As Sergeant Sanders) On your own time, gentlemen.

MONDELLO: ...Then into an underground headquarters dark enough that it takes a moment for their eyes - and our eyes - to adjust. And Blake learns why he's been summoned.

COLIN FIRTH: (As General Erinmore) You have a brother in the 2nd Battalion.

CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Yes, sir.

FIRTH: (As General Erinmore) They're walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning's attack. If you don't, we will lose 1,600 men, your brother among them. Do you think you can get there in time?

CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Yes, sir.

MONDELLO: Back to the trenches, then up and over the sandbags into no man's land, from which the Germans have theoretically retreated - lifeless, barren, corpses tangled in barbed wire, rotting horses - and in the German bunkers on the other side...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: ...Booby traps.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We need to keep moving. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I can't see. I can't see.

MONDELLO: There will be other perils. On the far side of the German trenches, they find chopped-down cherry trees, blossoms still fresh, ominously enough - and dead cattle, evidence of a scorched earth retreat. But by now, the film's tension has as much to do with camera work as with carnage. In all of this time, there have been no visible edits - no dissolves, no cuts to a close up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

GEORGE MACKAY: (As Lance Corporal Schofield) Dogfight.

CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Who's winning?

MACKAY: (As Lance Corporal Schofield) Us, I think.

MONDELLO: Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have contrived to make the film look like a single uninterrupted shot, the camera gliding along just in front of the men, just behind them, pivoting sometimes to catch an expression or a flare or a plane falling out of the sky headed straight for them - and for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

MONDELLO: The effect is that we're there in real time, almost as a third character standing side by side with these guys, staring awestruck at a burning church just long enough to miss the guy who's pointing his rifle at us.

Every once in a while the men will plunge into a dark space or nearly get blasted to smithereens in a blinding flash. And if you're thinking about cinematic process, you know that's where the crew got a chance to reset. But the effect is still seamless. You can maybe figure out where some of the cuts are. But after a while, got to say, I just got caught up in the action, immersed in the onward rush of a story culled from incidents director Mendes heard about from his grandfather - misery and mud, nightmarish shadows flickering on the ruins of a flare-lit, bombed-out city, a soldier's sprint across a field aswarm with comrades dodging bombs. The filmmakers don't shy from set pieces that would be astonishing even without their central gimmick. They set themselves a challenge for "1917", and met it in ways sure to be talked about by lovers of cinema for quite a while.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.