“There’s Only One Way This War Ends”: New Ways of Telling a Familiar Story in Sam Mendes’s 1917

In the spring of 1917, the German Army was recouping from enormous losses suffered at the Somme, Verdun, and in the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front. Hoping to consolidate and reinforce their manpower, their army on the Western Front retreated to a series of well-planned, highly fortified trenches known as the Hindenburg Line. In the course of that retreat, German soldiers wasted the land by cutting telephone and telegraph lines, laying explosives on tripwire, and burying bombs that were connected to contact-fuses and detonated when a vehicle rode over them. They also flooded roads and polluted wells in the hopes of discouraging attacks or looting from the Allied armies. In attempting to clear the withdrawal area, British tunnellers removed approximately 22,000 pounds of explosives.1

It is in this historical moment, specifically April 6, that Sam Mendes’s film 1917 begins. Members of the British Army believe an immediate attack on the retreating German forces will change the course of the war. The reality, however, is that the Germans, in their highly fortified bunkers, are lying in wait for just such an attack. Any action by the British Army would result in inevitable carnage. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay) learn that two battalions of British soldiers (in one of which Blake’s older brother serves), will be attacking the Germans at dawn, falling into the German’s trap, and endangering the lives of some 1,600 men. In the hopes of avoiding a massacre, Blake and Schofield are ordered to bring a message to one Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), calling off the attack. The film itself is the odyssey of these two men across the alien world of the war-ravaged Ypres, desperately driven to save what lives they can.

There is a lot that 1917 does very well. From a technical perspective, cinematographer Roger Deakins creates the effect of a single, unbroken shot that follows Blake and Schofield on their quest through trenches, dugouts, fallow fields, bombed-out villages, and, eventually, through the chaos of battle. With such a visually stunning cinematic approach, the landscape becomes a character in its own right. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the fingers and faces partially buried within the trenches, a mute, terrible testament to the long years of fighting and dying within this space. Indeed, in a review for The Atlantic, David Sims notes the narrative power of “the camera, which itself becomes a character, probing the haunting, bombed-out towns and wasteland battlefields that Schofield and Blake tromp through…to produce the most stunning tableaux possible.”

Cover art of Vintage Classics edition of The Middle Parts of Fortune. (©Random House UK)

Additionally, the film acknowledges the diversity of the British Army far more consciously than many other films, including Peter Jackson’s 2019 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old and big-budget films like Dunkirk. The camera lingers on the faces of Black soldiers, emphasizing their role in the war and their humanity in the story as a whole. Schofield also shares a brief, empathetic conversation with a Sikh soldier that emphasizes the humanity of both men, even in the midst of the hell of war.

The film is full of literary references and reflections. Blake and Schofield seek out a lieutenant (played with tragic humor by Andrew Scott) to get directions across “No Man’s Land” between the British and German lines. Scott’s Lieutenant Leslie, with his bleak humor masking an increasing despair, reminded me of poet Frederic Manning, author of my favorite First World War memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune. Later, Blake slips and slides into a shell hole, plunging his hand into the belly of dead German soldier. The scene immediately recalls a report written by Dr. William H.R. Rivers about a patient who was “flung down by the explosion of a shell so that his face struck the distended abdomen of a German several days dead, the impact of his fall rupturing the swollen corpse.”2

The script provides some lovely symbols and metaphors. Blake and Schofield indulge in a conversation about a small orchard of cherry trees that the retreating Germans cut down during the march. Schofield asks Blake if this means the cherries will rot; Blake assures him they will not. Instead, they will fall to the earth and lead to even more trees in the future. The cherry trees themselves become a metaphor for the twentieth century, where the “war to end all wars” unleashed more than a century’s worth of violence, murder, genocide, and environmental destruction. Moreover, the cherry blossoms eventually become a symbol of Blake’s youthful innocence, falling at strategic times to recall the potential for peace that their message carries. The two heroes of the film, much like Bourne from The Middle Parts of Fortune or Paul Bäumer of All Quiet on the Western Front, have little past and seemingly little future. Schofield himself notes that he cannot bear going home on leave, even if he cannot stand the war.

Film poster. (©Universal Studios/DreamWorks Pictures)

Yet, the intensely self-conscious nature of the film, with its subsequently narrow focus, results in some significant failures. The panoramas of the hellscape of the Western Front are stunning, but they are also intensely alienating. The world through which these everymen walk are ones that we, as an audience a century later, cannot comprehend without context. But the premise of the film is so narrow that there is no room to explain how this world came to be, or why Blake, Schofield, and their comrades are trapped in these trenches at all. There is no reference to the nationalism, capitalistic imperialism, misogyny, hubris, and fanaticism that led to the moment when this mission begins. Neither is there any complexity in the film’s portrayal of the Germans, whether the army as a whole or the individual soldiers our heroes encounter. All are treacherous, vicious, and unintelligible — as we will see, Schofield converses miraculously well with a woman who speaks Belgian French, but is incapable of communicating with anyone whose first language is German. It also emphasizes that war is hell only for the men about whom we are supposed to care. Their enemies deserve everything that comes to them.

We never learn why Blake or Schofield enlisted. Even Borne and Bäumer recall the nationalistic hyperbole or familial devotion that led them to the trenches. As Matthew Rozsa wisely notes in Salon, while such a presentation seems to make Blake and Schofield “neutral” observers, “[e]ven a supposedly ‘neutral’ approach is, by default, taking a political stand about the morality and immorality of war itself.” This film debuted in a United States that locks children in cages and refuses them basic healthcare, and has turned its back on global policies on nuclear disarmament, diplomacy, and climate change in favor of self-interested, capitalistic, and jingoist rhetoric. To overlook the ways in which this film reflects the worst-case scenario of our own path seems nearsighted at best, and willfully blind at worst.

Finally, but most regrettably, this film reinforces the false narrative that the First World War only involved and affected enlisted men. There is no attempt whatsoever to overcome the deeply gendered narrative of the war that was also highlighted in They Shall Not Grow Old. Indeed, there are four women in the film, three of whom appear only in photographs in the film’s final moments. The one woman who makes a live appearance is the Belgian woman with whom Schofield converses. We see her living in the cellar of a bombed-out building with an infant child. In contrast to Schofield, this woman, who is apparently named “Lauri,” is stunningly clean, with a neat dress and brushed hair. She has enough fuel for both a fire and a lamp. During the course of their brief interaction, Lauri attempts to tend to Schofield’s wound, and we see the anguish and relief wash across his face at her touch; however, we are never allowed to know what Lauri’s feelings are at this moment, why she is living in this cellar, or the fate of the baby girl for whom she is caring.

In a film filled with moments of impressive verisimilitude, the omission of women, and the effect of war on their lives, was particularly notable and frustrating. Such a narrative emphasizes that women, and their social roles, didn’t change during the First World War, that their story is insignificant to the “bigger picture.” This war has allegedly changed Schofield and Blake so fundamentally that they are unable to find common ground, or even talk about their experiences, with anyone outside of the army. Women, however, remain clean, untouched, and unaffected by the war, safe in their cellars or their photo frames. Even in a film that revolutionizes the way we see the First World War, the story it tells — sadly, worryingly — is not evolved or nuanced enough to confront the real and ongoing xenophobia, misogynistic violence, and mass civilian trauma that continue to linger with us from the First World War.

Notes

  1. Peter Barton, Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas, Including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt (London: Constable, 2010), 55. Return to text.
  2. W.H.R. Rivers, Instinct and the Unconscious: A Contribution to a Biological Theory of the Psycho-Neurosis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924), 192. Return to text.

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