How Sam Mendes’ WWI Film 1917 Was Made to Look Like One Long, Harrowing Shot

Film editing goes back to the late 1890s. The decades upon decades of technological improvement and artistic refinement of the craft since then have tempted certain filmmakers to see if they can do without it entirely, or at least to look as if they can. Alfred Hitchcock gave it a try in 1948 with Rope, a film typical of his work in that it fit into the genre of the psychological thriller, but quite atypical in that its main action played out as a single long shot. But as we’ve previously featured here on Open CultureRope actually contained ten artfully hidden cuts. Last year saw the release of Sam Mendes’ 1917, which did more or less the same thing, but at a much greater length — and across the battlefields and through the trenches of World War I.

As portrayed in the Insider video above, the shooting of 1917 must rank among the most formidable logistical achievements in film history. It also had the good fortune to be overseen by Roger Deakins, one of the most formidable cinematographers in film history. But even before capturing the first frame, Mendes, Deakins, and their many collaborators had to plan every detail of the harrowing journey taken by the picture’s protagonists, two British soldiers sent across the Western Front to deliver a message to another battalion.

This entailed first building and lighting models of every single set, and when constructing the real thing making sure to include paths (and strategically removable obstacles) for the constantly forward-moving camera and its crew as well as for the characters.

The war movie is among the oldest of film genres, but a “one-shot” war movie like 1917 entered the realm of possibility thanks to recent technological advances. These include cameras light enough to be detached from one crane, run across a field, and attached to another all while shooting; drones to capture moving aerial shots impossible by more traditional cinematographic means; and advanced digital effects to smooth — and indeed conceal — the transitions between one shot and the next. The Insider video shows an actor taking a running leap off a bridge and onto a mat below, followed by the seamless-looking final sequence in which he plunges into a river instead, and the camera unhesitatingly follows him right into the water. This sort of visual wizardry reminds even the most jaded viewer that movie magic is alive and well, but also makes one wonder: what could Hitchcock have done with it?

Related Content:

Hear the Sounds of World War I: A Gas Attack Recorded on the Front Line, and the Moment the Armistice Ended the War

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Features Incredible Digitally-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

The Great War: Video Series Will Document How WWI Unfolded, Week-by-Week, for the Next 4 Years

The First Color Photos From World War I: The German Front

The 10 Hidden Cuts in Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Famous “One-Shot” Feature Film

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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