Many directors have tried to take up the technological challenge of deploying the one-take shot, for one of two reasons. Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can, is the straightforward answer. And the second is to immerse the viewer in the action, and follow the story more closely, physically and emotionally. The trick is for them not to be distracted by the fancy camerawork and technicalities that a one-take shot involves. Mendes filmed the opening of the James Bond film Spectre with a 4-minute one-shot sequence, so he has dabbled with this before. Birdman was meant to look like a one-take shot right from the opening, but there are various wipes and clever cuts that make it appear that it is all one seamless take. Earlier, Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope with the same intention, but even though it was not one continuous shot, it all took place in the same Manhattan apartment. Orson Welles famously used a 3½-minute continuous take for the opening title tracking shot in
A Touch of Evil, and for another 12-minute shot within the film itself. All these examples helped to heighten the tension, and bring the viewer closer to the action.
In 1917, this works in spades. The two unlikely heroes are rarely out of shot, as they set out on an impossible mission, as opposed to a mission impossible, of crossing no-man’s land and enemy lines to deliver an important message to deter Colonel Mackenzie from sending his men over the top to their doom. The audience skid about behind them in their muddy footprints, scramble through bomb craters alongside them, scamper through trenches, woods and bombed-out towns in Northern France, streak across meadows and farmland, swim through a torrent, get shot at by snipers, with the action always moving forward, never back. It is quite baffling how the film-makers achieved one particular shot of a bi-plane crash-landing into a barn, but it all appears to be one continuous flowing and shocking event. The futility of the Great War is now seen with 20/20 hindsight, highlighted by the bellicose arrogance of the officers and politicians from both sides. The film is set one year before it ended, but the slaughter of young men went on unabated right to the end, and beyond, and twenty years later, they were at it again.