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1917 Explained: How and Why They Did One Shot

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is made to look like one continuous shot—without being gimmicky. How did they do it, and why did they choose to do it? The one-shot exercise is a showcase of technical excellence, but more importantly, it creates a sense of immersiveness, a potent emotional effect that brings us back to the trenches, allowing us to imagine the reality of being in that horrific war.

TRANSCRIPT

No doubt the first thing you heard about Sam Mendes’ 1917 is that it looks like it’s all one shot. These days, shooting a movie in all one take (or in a number of long takes stitched together to look like one, as 1917 is) can sound like a gimmick. The One-Take Wonder has been done before… very well and to great acclaim. So at first, you might wonder, why do we need another one?

As you watch, though, 1917‘s continuous-shot exercise feels earned, illuminating, and even (in some ways) unprecedented. First, because Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the logistical acrobatics Mendes’ team pulls off are a showcase of technical filmmaking excellence. Second, and more importantly, because there’s a potent emotional effect that results from pairing a World War I tale with the immersiveness of the long take. It’s hard to point to another war movie that so effectively allows you to imagine the reality of being on the ground… in a conflict that’s now passed out of living memory.

We still speak to this day of being “in the trenches,” but what film has shown in such thorough detail what a trench really looks like, what it would feel like to camp in one or rush through it, how fat the rats would be?

Lance Corporal Thomas Blake: “The rat bites clean through his ear and runs off with it!” - 1917

Thanks to how viscerally 1917 carries us back into the past, we can think in a more probing way about the meaning of this experience, which invented modern warfare as we know it.

Here’s our Take on the storytelling of 1917, why it matters, and how they did it.

Feel the Memory

As 1917‘s title reminds us, the events of this movie are now over a century gone. Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather, Alfred, a runner in the war, who told him the stories. With this dedication, the director reinforces the importance of remembering, of passing down knowledge and learning from history. But through making the film itself, he also underlines that it’s not enough just to retain distant facts and statistics; we have to feel the memory. And then, to take these active memories into our modern world and reflect on how much of this past we can recognize in our present. Mendes told Associated Press, “The winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again… The danger is that war is being gradually forgotten. Those that lived through it and fought in it are dead. These men were fighting for a free and unified Europe, which right now would be worth remembering…”

So often war movies are sweeping and epic, or cerebral or abstract — or they did feel immersive when first released, but their black-and-white film, shooting style, or older effects aren’t in a language that’s likely to transport younger mainstream viewers today. 1917 makes possible that form of time-traveling that cinema exists for.

George MacKay: “The film in itself is a slice of time.” - One Continuous Shot: 1917 Featurette

And it might make you realize that your ideas about the Great War are ultimately rather shallow and removed. There’s a lot of value in bringing World War I specifically to life in such vivid, horrifying, contemporary detail. The First World War set the precedent for all that we take for granted about violent conflicts that have followed it.

It had the first large-scale use of tanks, flamethrowers, and chemical weapons in the form of poison gas. It was the start of strategic bombing and targeting of civilians and infrastructure — harbingers of what would become much worse during WWII.

It was the first war to be fought on three planes: air, land, and sea. And because this giant-scale, hugely deadly war left its soldiers so psychologically disturbed, it led to the first recognition of what was termed “shell shock” — a poorly defined precursor to PTSD.

The story of 1917 is unusually simple. Two young British soldiers are sent on an impossible mission to race across no man’s land and deliver a message that could save thousands of other young men from becoming cannon fodder.

General Erinmore: If you fail, it will be a massacre.” - 1917

That’s pretty much it — the drama lies mainly in whether they (or one of them) will make it in time. But the narrative’s simplicity is an asset to this film… because it allows us to focus purely on the experience of this maddening, soul-destroying conflict and having to look death literally in the face.

Mendes pulls off something here that should be the goal of more stories: the impression of universality. As Mendes told Vox: “Part of the reason we cast young and relatively unknown actors [as the main characters] was to give the feeling that these are two young men among 2 million, and that they’re — this is a weird thing to say — not particularly special. There’s an ordinariness to them.”

And the anonymity of this character who turns out to be unbelievably heroic sends the message that there were countless others like him — unsung heroes now forgotten, if anyone ever knew their names. Lance Corporal Blake takes this task personally because his brother is part of the attack that’s doomed to fail, but Lance Corporal Schofield just gets chosen by his friend to come along, with no idea that this will be the hardest day of his life.

Lance Corporal William Schofield: “Why in God’s name did you have to choose me?” - 1917

Meanwhile, Mendes casts some of Britain’s most recognizable male actors — like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott — as Officers. Their fame compared to the leads subtly reinforces that their characters are higher-status superiors. Still, even these important men are powerless to stop or escape the never-ending battle.

The fact that Colin Firth’s General Erinmore sends these two guys with no real support or plan B betrays that he expects them to fail. This is just a shot in the dark to prevent a massacre that’s almost certainly going to take place.

Colonel MacKenzie: “I hoped today might be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.” - 1917

The result of its style and story is that 1917 is not truly a war movie at all — it’s a decidedly anti-war movie. And that’s fitting given how widespread disillusionment that came out of the Great War changed the collective psyche forever.

Paul Bäumer:You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you?... When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!” - All Quiet on the Western Front

While early poetry written about the war was romantic and patriotic, later writing tried to process the brutality and shock. The post-WWI period gave birth to modernism, a movement that rejected past traditions and dug into the inner psyches of people reeling from the madness they’d all just endured. To better get inside people’s heads, writers experimented with new forms like “real-time” techniques; like when Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway follows the title character for one day of her life. And we can see a descendent to this kind of writing in Mendes’ 1917.

How They Did It

So how did Mendes and Deakins pull off this impression that this epic, cinematic war tale is happening all in one shot?

There are a few spots where it’s obvious they’ve changed shots — like the moment when Schofield blacks out and the screen goes black, or the moment when he jumps into the water (he actually landed on a mat). Any time they go through a doorway or the screen is covered in shadow, this is a good opportunity for a possible edit.

ScreenRant pointed out 34 possible spots where hidden cuts appear to have taken place. (Mendes says he wouldn’t even call these joins “cuts,” but more like “blends, stitches… morphs.”) But according to the director, most of the shots actually last five or six minutes and can be as long as eight and a half.

In some ways, the process for 1917 resembled theater (which is fitting given that Mendes himself is a highly accomplished theater director). The film required many months of rehearsals with the lead actors — unlike in a typical film, the actors took part right from the start of the pre-production process.

Sam Mendes: “And so you have to rehearse every line of dialogue on location. And that’s where it overlaps with doing theater. Because the world has to be crafted around the rhythm of the script.” - 1917 Behind-The-Scenes Extended Featurette on One Long Shot

First of all, Deakins and Mendes had to decide the journey of the camera. After they’d determined the big picture, Deakins said, “it was just a technical challenge to figure out how to break our one shot down into sections so it was manageable.”

Sam Mendes: “You have a camera being carried by an operator hooked onto a wire, and the wire carries it across more land, and it’s unhooked again, that operator runs with it then steps onto a small jeep, which carries him another 400 yards.” - 1917 Behind-The-Scenes Extended Featurette on One Long Shot

In part, the Bond Director felt motivated to make this movie after he pulled off the super long take at the beginning of Spectre: On another level, Mendes’ film is an implicit critique of the conventions of film grammar as we know them today. As Mendes told Vox, “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot.” He told AP, “It’s editing that’s the gimmick. Editing is a wonderful tool if you want to jump time, jump space, jump from one story to another. But editing is so overused in just a basic scene.” Noting that a simple scene of two people talking would frequently use five or six different set-ups, he said, “You have to ask yourself: Why is that now our default?”

In older movies, the camera usually stays a lot longer in a given shot than it does in most movies today. Cornell Psychologist James Cutting found that (in English language films) the average shot in 1930 was about 12 seconds long; by 2010, it was just 2.5 seconds. Longer takes require consistent performances from the actors; they focus audiences on the action happening before the camera, and can’t create superficial intrigue through a lot of distracting cutting around.

Sam Mendes: “There’s always that sort of get out of jail card that you have with a movie — you know, well, we may be able to cut around this, or we might take that scene out.” - 1917 Behind-The-Scenes Extended Featurette on One Long Shot

So you might say 1917 is urging us to take something from the past when it comes to how we watch and appreciate film technique, too. The one-shot feel of 1917 is all about grounding us in time. Mendes has said that the film “operates…like a ticking-clock thriller.” And this thriller feel is a big part of what turns 1917 into something different than all the other “war movies” you’ve seen before. It also reminds us that the long take (like any film technique) can be used for a wide variety of emotional effects and narrative results.

While Mendes said he’d seen a number of the long-take-filled films that 1917 has inevitably been compared to, he noted that, quote, “even the movies that are most similar to it are quite dissimilar. ‘Birdman,’ for example, which is a movie I loved, is a very surreal film. It’s not asking you to experience time. It’s asking you to forget about it, in a way. ‘Son of Saul,’ which is an absolute masterpiece, is very subjective. It’s very shallow depth of field, everything drops out of focus.”

Conclusion

For all the work that the team put into this One-Shot business, the camera isn’t performing flamboyant tricks to draw your attention. Mendes said, “We decided we never wanted the camera to go through a keyhole or follow the path of a moving bullet or pass through a wall or fly 2,000 feet in the air.” The director stated his ultimate goal is that the viewer isn’t thinking about the shot during 1917. So while part of the pleasure of 1917 is showcasing excellence in technical filmmaking, ultimately it reinforces that even the most masterful cinematography is only as good as the story it tells, the truth it uncovers, and the feeling it inspires.

Lance Corporal Thomas Blake [Screaming]: “You need to trust me. Jump!” - 1917

Works Cited

Coyle, Jake. “Q&A: Sam Mendes on making ‘1917’ in one long take.” Associated Press, 20 Dec. 2019.

https://apnews.com/c9d23fa0dbbb2eac6a60d9f323fea371

Wilkinson, Alissa. “Why Sam Mendes made 1917 look like it was shot in a single, continuous take.” Vox, 10 Jan. 2020.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/21021190/1917-movie-sam-mendes-interview-one-shot

Onion, Amanda. “How World War I Changed Literature.” History, 26 Apr. 2018.

https://www.history.com/news/how-world-war-i-changed-literature

Curran, Brad. “All 34 Hidden Cuts We Spotted In 1917.” ScreenRant, 31 Jan. 2020.

https://screenrant.com/1917-movie-secret-cuts-one-shot-trick-scenes-where/

Fretts, Bruce. “‘1917’ and the Challenge of Making a Film Look Like a Single Shot.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2020.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/movies/1917-roger-deakins.html

Miller, Greg. “Data From a Century of Cinema Reveals How Movies Have Evolved.” Wired, 8 Sept. 2014.

https://www.wired.com/2014/09/cinema-is-evolving/

Rottenberg, Josh. “Hollywood doesn’t often make films about World War I. Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ is a rare exception.” The Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2019.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-12-23/1917-sam-mendes-single-take-wwi