1917: One-Shot Through an Uncanny Valley
Analyzing Sam Mendes’s one-shot technique in 1917 and evaluating its narrative weaknesses (contains spoilers)
As it snowballs through award season, Sam Mendes’s 1917 looks poised to take home Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. Central to the film’s appeal is Roger Deakins’s cinematography and the usage of—you must have heard of it by now—the “one-shot.”
The creators crafted what appears to be a 119 minute-long single take, closely following Lance Corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield as they trek through enemy territory to deliver an all-important message. This film is, without a doubt, technically impressive.
But what exactly does the one-shot achieve?
At times, the technique effectively drowns you in wartime anxiety. While most films use a mix of shot compositions and depths of field to unveil the story, the camera in 1917 places you right next to Blake and Schofield. You are the third Lance Corporal, and you don’t get to see the bigger picture. You must freeze with fear in the moments before a rat triggers the tripwire, and you must watch helplessly as a German pilot stabs Blake just a dozen meters away. Up close and intimate, with no cuts to punctuate the madness, the camera forces you to see war as you would actually experience war. In this way, 1917 pulls you into its world.
At other times, I found myself staring at the screen in confusion. Moments after Blake dies, two soldiers seem to teleport into the scene as Schofield drags away his fallen friend’s body. Where did they come from? The benevolent Captain Smith then appears, offering his help. As they walk through the farmhouse, the camera pans across four additional soldiers urinating against the wall, another keeping watch, and…wait, there is an entire battalion of soldiers trying to lift a fallen tree off the road. An irritable officer shouts commands at them, while four trucks full of troops stand by. Swiftly and silently, this group of allies inexplicably arrived on the scene while Blake bled out and Schofield listened to his friend’s final words.
Consider for a moment, how a more traditional film might ease the audience into this coincidental meeting: from a couple miles down the road, a soldier spots the plane crash-landing at the farmhouse. Shots are fired; shouts are heard. With urgency, the commander orders his troops to drive to the scene. Cut to the farmhouse. Schofield acknowledges the sound of approaching trucks, reassuring his dying friend that help is on the way, if only he could hang on a bit longer.
Instead, without even crossing between two shots, Schofield seems to cross between two timelines. Ironically, by stretching the illusion of continuity to its extremes by eliminating visible cuts altogether, the filmmakers have dropped this film into an uncanny valley: the events so closely resemble reality that the inconsistencies feel especially jarring.
To understand this effect, let us examine the structure of the film. 1917 is comprised of discrete vignettes of war stitched together into a single, eventful day. In order to keep the audience engaged, the filmmakers alternated between what I will call “calm” and “intense” scenes, and it is in the transitions between such scenes that 1917’s realism falls apart.
Calm Scene 1: Blake and Schofield receive orders to deliver the message to Colonel Mackenzie.
Intense Scene 1: B and S cross No Man’s Land.
Calm Scene 2: B and S reach the German’s abandoned trenches.
We get a breather after an anticlimactic trek through No Man’s Land while Blake and Schofield exchange in casual banter. No issues so far.
Intense Scene 2: B and S enter German underground barracks. A rat triggers a tripwire and B barely pulls S out of the collapsing tunnels.
Calm Scene 3: B and S walk to the abandoned farmhouse.
Schofield miraculously survives being buried under rubble. After washing out his eyes, he appears completely unscathed, and the pair continue onward. The one-take cannot afford to wait for Schofield to have a proper recovery, so the film instead takes a video game-like approach: “Level 2: Tunnel” has been completed, Player 2 recovers magically, the game is saved, and both players continue on to “Level 3: Farmhouse” with full health.
Intense Scene 3: The German plane is shot down. B tries to help the pilot but is stabbed; S shoots the pilot, but B dies from his wound.
Calm Scene 4: S hitches a ride with the passing troops.
Enough has been said. Next.
Intense Scene 4: S crosses a destroyed canal bridge and engages in gunfire with a sniper. He kills the sniper but the sniper’s last shot also knocks out S.
Calm Scene 5: A number of hours pass before S wakes. Night has fallen, and he wanders around the abandoned city.
When Schofield passes out, we experience the only instance in which time in 1917 is noticeably skipped. The screen is black for about 15 seconds, but it is quickly apparent that many hours have passed when Schofield wakes up in the dark. This black-out effectively serves as the film’s only cut, which provides the important function of allowing the story to skip time.
Intense Scene 5: Enemy soldiers chase S throughout the abandoned city.
Calm Scene 6: S finds the hiding place of a French woman and an orphaned infant. She treats his wounds and he gives them food and milk.
Intense Scene 6: S continues on, strangling a sober soldier and escaping an inebriated one. To escape gunfire, he jumps into a fast-moving river that sweeps him over a waterfall.
One moment, Schofield is running for his life. Without even turning a corner, he jumps into a hole in his pursuer’s direct line of sight, but the enemy soldier blindly runs past his hiding spot. Notably, the sky is pitch black when he enters the hide-out. After sharing some intimate moments with the French woman, seemingly isolated from danger by magic, he returns to the real world and soon finds himself running from gunfire again. When he exits the flame-lit city, a pale blue sky signifies it is dawn. Since no cuts are used, we can only assume no more than 10 minutes have passed since Schofield entered the bunker. However, hours seem to have passed based on the inconsistency in lighting. The hideout seems to have sheltered Schofield not only from German soldiers but also from the laws of time.
Calm Scene 7: S surfaces, floats downstream, and climbs out. He wanders through the woods before coming across the D Company of the Second Devons, gathered around a singing soldier.
Approximately 20 minutes have passed since Schofield met the French woman, and he has already strangled one German soldier, escaped from at least a few more, drifted over a waterfall and down a river (at least he finally got to drink some water), and wandered through woods to luckily come across exactly the troops he has been searching for. I would easily believe this sequence of events if the creators had added some cuts to imply the passage of time off-screen. Instead, the one-take technique forces us to reconcile 20 minutes of uninterrupted screen time with what would probably take hours in real life.
In the next few scenes, Schofield searches the trenches for Mackenzie, ultimately running perpendicular to the British charge across No Man’s Land to deliver the message to the Colonel. Mackenzie reluctantly calls off the attack, and within five minutes, soldiers have made it back across No Man’s Land, the entire injuries tent is filled, and Schofield has miraculously found Blake’s older brother. The two men share some words about the fallen Blake, and the film ends as Blake looks at pictures of his wife and daughters after settling down beside a tree.
The diversity and density of scenes allows the film to capture more facets of war in a compact manner, and, individually, the scenes are powerful. Within the scenes, the intimacy and continuity of the one-shot technique make the heartfelt moments more authentic and the dangerous moments more dire.
Between scenes, however, the one-shot technique seems to teleport the protagonist(s) between different timelines, where Event A is forgotten as soon as Event B begins. Without cuts, there is no way for us confused viewers to justify sequences by reassuring ourselves that “X probably happened off screen between these two shots.” Cuts allow stories to transition between moods and skip through time. They give Schofield undocumented breaks during which he can drink water, catch his breath, and go to the bathroom. Without cuts, we are forced to conclude that all events that happened on screen—and only these events—occurred, making it paradoxically much harder for the filmmakers to maintain the illusion of continuity. Perhaps Mendes was better off using 1917 to represent two hours of wartime action. Here, an entire day is crammed into two hours of screen time, and while Schofield’s black-out explains how day became night, we are left to scratch our heads at how night became day over the course of 20 minutes.
Throughout 1917, I found myself fully absorbed in the world in individual moments and questioning its narrative logic in others. If the one-shot’s purpose was to make 1917 more immersive, the technique’s results show that it was, at times, self-defeating. By maximizing spatial continuity, Mendes and Deakins tampered too much with the laws of time. They wanted to show off, and they succeeded: the film is a stupendous technical achievement. But in highlighting their technical brilliance, Mendes and Deakins also overshadowed and overlooked the narrative backbone of the tale.
Maybe just add a few more cuts to ease the transitions. It’s been either two hours or an entire day since his last bathroom break (I can’t tell). Either way, our hero really can’t hold it much longer.