Author’s Note: If you haven’t seen the movie, this story will contain spoilers.
If you look at 1917 from a storytelling perspective, it’s a classic “Hero’s Journey”. Both men are torn from their regular lives to embark on a journey of great importance hastily. So important that 1600 lives are at stake.
Their journey takes them behind enemy lines, but they are not truly committed. Only Blake is committed right from the beginning — his brother’s life is at stake, too. But, when the German soldier stabs him instead of receiving help from him, and he subsequently dies of losing too much blood, Schofield is the one who becomes committed. His friend entrusts him with a dying wish to save his brother’s life.
The movie ends after Schofield successfully stops the attack. We go full circle when he tells Blake’s older brother about his death and gives him his belongings, and then walks over to a tree and sits at its base. This scene is reminiscent of the first scene, where we find Schofield seated in the same position.
We’ve seen these “Hero’s Journey” movies tons of times. Should I give you some quick examples? Here: Star Wars, Star Trek, Legend of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, etc.
What makes this movie different? What makes it qualified to win a Golden Globe award for Best Dramatic Motion Picture? Why this movie’s success could trigger a new age of film?
1917’s One Continuous Shot
One of the reasons this video works so well is its continuous one shot. Aside from a valid blackout when Schofield is shot at the helm and loses consciousness, the entire movie, the camera seems to follow the characters without stopping.
Of course, in real life, this would never work, so it’s a testament to the post-production team’s talent to make these transitions so seamless.
The power of a continuous shot is that we’re always in. There is no “context switch”. In regular movies, we would cut over to different characters and learn about what they have been doing to progress the story.
In 1917, the ‘storyteller’ is the 3rd-person view without divine powers. We know what happens around our heroes, nothing more. We never cut away to view other characters.
One example of such storytelling I found in my fantasy readings (definitely not the only one but just the one from the top of my head) is The Chronicles of Amber. We never know what is happening in the rest of the world(s); we only follow our main character, Corwin.
That example is a good one because we’re talking about a kingdom, and those have court intrigue. In the Amber books, it happens utterly off-screen unless Corwin participates in it.
In 1917, what happens off-screen is World War I.
Steady Escalation of Events
The first main point of escalating the story was crossing into the German trenches and then triggering the bomb in the barracks.
The explosion hit Schofield the worst, and Blake saved his life. Once they leave the trenches and into enemy territory, the tension lowers, but we still follow them.
Then it escalates even further when Blake dies.
Then even further, as Schofield penetrates a destroyed city and confronts a guard in a tower and almost dies as well.
The climax is, of course, when Schofield tries to outrun the emerging soldiers in a bid to get to their commander’s booth to stop the attack.
During that entire time, we remain captivated by the string of events.
1917 is based on a true story by Sam Mendez’s grandfather.
Stories that are based on actual events usually have it easier in the character design and decisions department. We only need to rely on the motivations of these real people. In Fiction movies, we invent new characters and need to work hard on breathing life and roundness into them.
They are already alive and round. We just need to record their actions.
Coupled with one-shot filming, this movie brought something new and creative to the cinema theater. There’s a stronger emotional connection to a character when their limited viewpoint binds us. It feels more human.
The one thing that directors and producers need to take away with them if they’re going to try this type of movie filming with fictional characters is this:
If we’re going to follow your characters for the entire movie — they better be believable.
Not only do I contribute my time and money to watch this movie, but these characters trap me with them for the entirety of it. What happens when they’re not well-written? I would probably leave the theater.
A Direction That Prioritizes Story Over Setting
One thing I loved about Sam Mendez’s direction of this film is that the setting was changed multiple times to serve the story better.
He and the crew talk about it in an IMDB Originals video, and they claim that they wanted to tell the best story. Anything that didn’t fit had to be changed.
That’s dedication, folks.
It fits in perfectly with one of the most basic rules of storytelling:
The story always comes first.
It doesn’t matter if the world is beautiful and you want to share it with everyone. If sharing it doesn’t advance the story in some way, it shouldn’t be there.
The Future of Film
I think that the combination of storytelling elements in 1917 with the one-shot approach has created a new type of movie.
This technique could apply to any genre. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Drama, you name it! By creating well-written characters experiencing a Hero’s Journey, and using a one-shot type of filming to make this movie a reality, you could craft a more personal experience for the viewer.
The directors of these movies should always make sure that the storytelling is up to par. A one-shot film will not work if the writing is terrible, and the characters are not believable or straight-up annoying. Here’s hoping that future executions of this filming method are at least as good as 1917.
I’m excited to see the movies that follow in 1917’s wake in 2020.
I have a feeling it’s going to be an excellent year for the movies.