In our culture where superheroes are idolized and the fight between good and evil is forged through light sabers, here is a film that shows the true heroes who do their duty with guts, fierce determination, and hope that there is a purpose to all the pain, suffering, and destruction that war perpetrates. Sam Mendes’ World War I film is a cinematic masterpiece, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins whose long takes involves the viewer in the war experience almost like a video game going along side the characters through the trenches and across the battlefield.
Based in part on accounts given by Sam Mendes’ paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a Caribbean novelist who was awarded a military medal for his bravery in World War I, 1917 tells the story of two young British solders who are called on to be the message carriers that could mean life or death for the entire 2nd Infantry Division. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) receives the assignment from General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a letter to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to hold off the planned attack of the German forces, believing them to be walking into a trap. Blake asks his friend Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) to come with him to meet the General unknowing of the task at hand. They discover that they must cross no man’s land, the waste land between armies riddled with barbed wire, mines, dead soldiers and animals, and the former German front in order to reach the 2nd Infantry in time before they begin their attack at dawn the next day. Blake’s brother is among the Division about to be slaughtered, unless they can get to them on time. It’s a race against time.
Dean-Charles Chapman as Tom Blake and George MacKay as Will Schofield in 1917. © 2020 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Considering modern communications, it’s difficult to understand that delivering a written letter was the only way to communicate between divisions and companies during a war. Curriers risked their lives to transport messages that could change the course of the war. So much depended on that letter actually making it into the right hands at the right time. When Blake and Schofield reach the former German trenches they discover that they are booby-trapped and Blake saves Schofield when he is buried by debris from a blast. After reaching an abandoned farmhouse they are almost struck by a shot down German plane only to suffer tragedy soon after. Schofield is more determined than ever to make it to Mackenzie at the front line.
Symbolism is important throughout the film. When the two set off a lieutenant feigns a blessing with liquor knowing they are going into an apparent suicide mission. Yet the gesture provides a powerful visual of what is important when death is imminent. Then when they enter the farmhouse they come across an orchard of cut down blooming cherry trees whose white delicate petals are a sharp contrast to the destruction and devastation all around. Later cherry tree blossoms provide hope to a worn Schofield running from German snipers in the bombed out village of Ecoust-Saint-Mein. As fires rage his lone silhouette stands with the only remaining structure in tact, a sculpture of a cross in the main plaza of the town, a testament to the hope that he will make it to complete his task.
Arriving at the front line as the attack was beginning to take place, Schofield had to find the commanding officer before too many of his men are destroyed. The only way through the crowded trenches was to go up on the battlefield running parallel to the attacking line to reach Mackenzie. When he does, officers prevent him from seeing the Colonel. Pushing his way through Schofield begs the crusty, war-hardened Colonel to hold off the attack, but he refuses until Schofield presents the letter of the General. He orders his men to stand down, thus saving the division of 1600 men from the German trap. He tells Schofield, “I was hoping this was to be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing. There’s only one way this war ends and that’s with the last man standing.”
George MacKay as Will Schofield in 1917. © 2020 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film is an experience not only of the heroism of soldiers who believe in their duty but also of the reality of war. This is not a video game. This is not a superhero movie where everyone comes back to life. This is the real effects of violence. This is what war looks like. Heroism lies in the call to keep going even when everything seems hopeless, to give of oneself so that others may live. War brings out the worst and the best of people. This story shows that the human spirit, when strong with conviction, determination, and hope one can accomplish seemingly super-human tasks—a real superhero story. This is a story for our youth today to see, experience, and admire.