It isn’t often that you get to spend your Christmas Day on a journey over the top, through No Man’s Land, on a perilous mission, against all odds. In fact, it’s been precisely sixteen years since I’ve followed two young men on a mission into the mouth of Hell. But this wasn’t ‘Return of the King’, it was the First World War–a war that deeply influenced JRR Tolkien. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t help but think of hobbits.
In Sam Mendes’ 1917, we meet Corporals Blake and Schofield, resting behind the lines somewhere in France on April 6, 1917. This date is meant to mean nothing, but yet it means everything, and its significance only emerges when a history nerd such as me decides to Google the date after the movie–it’s the date that the US formally entered WWI. This clever trick completely floods the Google results, so much so that I could not find a scrap of information regarding what actual fighting might have taken place that day. (I had to go to the synopsis of the movie to find that the events seem to be part of Operation Alberich, which actually wrapped up a couple of weeks earlier.) This fog of war, as it were, underscores the fact that this is not that kind of movie. It might be based on historical fact. It might not be. But it’s true in a much deeper sense. And it’s significant that these two young corporals are nobodies. They’re played by relative nobody actors (Dean-Charles Chapman, who plays Blake, played Tommen in Game of Thrones; George McKay, who plays Schofield, has a string of smaller acting credits to his name; both came from theatre backgrounds)–you’re not going to recognize them as Famous Actors. There are Famous Actors in the movie, but only in fleeting supporting parts–blink and you’ll miss ’em.
Corporal Blake is tapped by a messenger and asked to pick a man. He picks Schofield, who is resting against a tree nearby, his eyes closed. Schofield follows reluctantly, raising questions along the way. Their mission, as explained by a general (played by Colin Firth) is straightforward: travel through No Man’s Land and right up to the German lines–or what were recently the German lines, as aerial reconnaissance proves they have been abandoned. It seems the Germans are retreating, and another British unit has been ordered to try to capitalize on this retreat by attacking. Except aerial reconnaissance has also revealed this is a trap. Blake, whose brother is a lieutenant with this forward unit, and Schofield are to get a message–a direct order, from a general–to this forward unit to call off the attack. Otherwise, they will be lured into a trap, and likely a massacre.
Blake, when hearing this is his brother’s unit, burns with immediate fervor for the mission. Schofield (who we hear shortly is a decorated veteran of the Somme, although he traded the medal to a French soldier for a bottle of wine) is wary. He wants to wait until dark, but Blake is adamant that they must leave immediately.
The movie is shot to feel as if it were filmed in one long take, always from the standpoint of the soldiers on the mission. This microscopic focus means that we see what they see. We have no idea, other than the fact the movie lasts for two hours, whether they will be successful in their mission, and that suspense is held up right through the very end. At the same time, one cannot help be struck by the imagery around these soldiers. No Man’s Land is a muddy, blasted hell of tree trunks and barbed wire, dotted by bomb craters, dead horses, and human remains literally everywhere, casually abandoned, the amount of carnage absolutely numbing. The trenches are overcrowded, rat-infested mazes. Yet beyond the lines, we see the beauty of encroaching spring–cherry blossoms, rushing rivers, greening fields. We watch a dogfight from afar, until suddenly it is right in our laps. We see a town in ruins, burning at night, the light and shadow playing in fantastical, otherworldly patterns, and we meet a young woman hiding an a cellar, caring for a baby whose name she does not know. In a clearing, we hear a soldier singing before battle. It’s all beautiful and terrible at the same time.
It’s in a way a fantastic companion piece to last year’s They Shall Not Grow Old, in which director Peter Jackson (yes, he of the hobbits) brought old footage of the war to life. Jackson, given the limited amount of footage he had to work with, chose to portray a generic version of military life during the war, the experiences so many of the soldiers had in common. Mendes’ focus on just two soldiers in some ways is diametrically opposed to Jackson’s, but it has more similarities, in that their near anonymity and experiences to me made them Great War Everymen, in a way. As I mentioned, by conscious choice this movie does not depict a turning point battle, or a mission that resulted in a Victoria Cross. No one is famous. These are just two soldiers, encountering other such soldiers (on both sides), caught up in what is shown to be an increasingly pointless conflict, fighting over a few yards of land. The counterpoint of natural beauty immediately adjacent to horror and devastation brings this message quietly home. In one pivotal scene, Blake and Schofield, emerging from deserted German trenches, encounter a ruined farm, its small cherry orchard in bloom despite the fact that all of the trees have been cut down. “They’ll grow back,” says Blake, who knows his cherries, “and you’ll have more of them.” There’s a deserted farm and a ruined barn where, incongruously, the soldiers hear a moo and spot a cow out in the field. Nearby is a fresh bucket of milk. Somehow life is struggling on in the midst of all of this.
Another effective device is the use of silence or muted sound. Schofield and Blake’s journey through a devastated, deserted No Man’s Land is accompanied by near silence in the soundtrack, which underscores and augments the stark horrors there. At one point, while Schofield crosses a bridge that has been destroyed (literally walking along the downed girders, as a gymnast might walk a beam), a nearly silent sustained note holds our attention, conveying a sense of danger that suddenly materializes with gunfire from a sniper. The sudden intrusion of sound contrasts with the near silence before. Similarly, while at the farm mentioned above, Blake and Schofield witness a nearly silent dogfight between two British planes and a German one over the next hill. The German plane is shot down–and suddenly, it is coming right at them, hitting the ruined barn and bursting into violent flame. And sometimes sound becomes a guiding light, as when, nearing the end of the film, the beautiful voice of a lone soldier singing in the midst of the forest as the rest of his company wait to move out becomes a kind of aural beacon.
Historians point to WWI as the end of the idea of warfare as a noble adventure. This point is made twice when Blake and/or Schofield encounter German soldiers face-to-face. In the first, a German fighter pilot is pulled from the burning wreckage of his plane, and while Schofield goes to fetch water, the pilot turns on Blake. In the second, Schofield finds a handsome young German soldier while attempting to escape through the burning and ruined town, and claps his hand over his mouth to silence him. He seems to reach an accord with the soldier and the viewer rejoices in the humanity of the two young foes–only to hear the German cry out the moment Schofield’s hand is removed, resulting in Schofield strangling him. This war has left no room for solidarity across battle lines.
One point it does make in a subtle way is that the faces of the British forces were not uniformly white. Black men are seen among the ranks at least twice–not in great numbers, but clearly there. And in one memorable scene, when Schofield is picked up by a convoy of soldiers headed in the direction he wants to go, he finds a seat in the back of a lorry near an East Indian soldier in a turban. Several other soldiers are telling stories and prod him to join in, joking that he “doesn’t even know the language,” to which the soldier responds by doing an imitation of someone he had met, in an impeccable British accent–turning an episode of what initially looked like racism into one of camaraderie.
In the end, the mission portrayed in the movie does mean something, but at the same time it’s meaningless. At the micro level, it is partly successful. (I’ll discuss that below, for those who wish to avoid spoilers). But the viewer knows that we still have a year and a half of war still to come. This skirmish will be no turning point–even though this date–April 6–will be, in hindsight, far away from the battlefields, be a hugely significant day (maybe even the final turning point) with the American entry into the war. But in the fields of France in 1917, that date means nothing to the soldiers on the ground. The ring has not yet been thrown into Mt. Doom, saving the world, and many more will die before the conflict sputters to an end.
(Plot details/spoilers follow)
The first significant plot twist is that Blake is killed by the German fighter pilot he has just saved, and dies in Schofield’s arms after charging him to continue the mission and to find his brother when he has delivered the message. Schofield removes Blake’s rings and leaves him with a photograph of his family on his chest. He’s almost immediately found by a passing convoy of soldiers attempting to get around a tree that the retreating Germans have placed in the road. He is able to ride with this troop of soldiers for awhile, at one point leading them in pushing their truck out of the mud, and meeting an officer (played by Mark Strong) who advises him to make sure to have witnesses present when delivering the message to Col. Mackenzie, since some men, in his words, “just want the fight.”
The soldiers are stopped just short of the town when a bridge is found to be out, so Schofield continues on foot. He manages to mostly cross on the remnants of the bridge until a sniper’s shots ring out and he has to jump down. He manages to get up into the building where the sniper is located and shoots him dead, but at the same time he is blown back down a set of stairs and knocked unconscious. When he awakens, it is strangely dark and light at the same time. The town is nothing but ruins, and an enormous building is afire. Schofield plays cat and mouse through the ruins (at one point killing the soldier mentioned above), ducking into a cellar to escape. There, he finds the young French woman and a baby she is caring for (not hers). He gives her all his food, but she needs milk. He remembers his canteen. She is able to tell him, in broken English, that he should follow the river to the trees. Conscious that time is passing, he escapes the town, pursued by several Germans, and jumps into the river, which is running fast. Surviving a trip through the rapids and over a waterfall, he finds himself at what seems to be a logjam (but which turns out to be a body jam). Pulling himself out, he hears singing in the distance, and finds that this is D company of the Devon regiment that he has been looking for; they’re in the woods because they’re the reserves–the last that will go in in the planned attack.
Moving forward into the nearby trenches, Schofield finds that the attack is ready to launch, with troops waiting expectantly along the walls and officers shouting out commands. He desperately looks for Col. Mackenzie. It is too late, and the attack commences. He keeps going, running along the British lines as the attacking soldiers pass him. Finally finding Mackenzie, he delivers the message, telling the assembled officers that reconnaissance photos had revealed the German trap . Mackenzie refuses to read it, insists that the enemy is on its heels, and tries to dismiss Schofield–but there are witnesses, and one of his officers reads the message instead. He then insists that Mackenzie (who I realized only afterwards was played by Benedict Cummerbatch) read it as well. There is a huge moment of tension as Mackenzie looks it over…and calls off the attack. What he says next is telling: He knows that in the long run, this will not matter. The war will not end until surrender is complete, and that end is not in sight.
Schofield learns that Blake’s brother would have been in the first wave that attacked before the action was called off, leading his men. He searches the tents full of casualties in vain, fearing the worst, until he finds Lt. Blake not only alive, but uninjured, and is able to tell him of his brother’s death, giving him his brother’s rings and asking for permission to write Blake’s mother, as he had promised. The movie ends with Schofield walking behind the lines to a single tree, where he sits down to rest, thus bringing the movie full circle. Everything has changed–but nothing has changed.