When it comes to 20th-century military conflicts, there’s no question which one Hollywood prefers. Cinematically, World War II has everything: dramatic battles, dastardly villains, a pivotal role played by the United States, and ultimately, a resounding victory for the good guys. Its predecessor has proven a tougher subject for movies to crack, especially American ones. (For the British, it occupies a more prominent place in the collective historical memory.) We remember World War I as a military stalemate that exemplified the utter meaninglessness of war, and while the day-to-day drudgery and existential despair of life in the trenches inspired plenty of lasting poetry and literature, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to blockbusters.
What grabs modern audiences about the conflict is either the gross stuff — Dan Carlin’s Hardcore Histories podcast dives deep into the disgusting sights, smells, and sensations of the Western Front — or the sense of grand tragedy. When they do show up onscreen, World War I battles traditionally share a similar pattern: Our heroes climb out a trench, run a pitifully short distance, then get machine-gunned to death. Think of the famous ending of the BBC’s Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Rowan Atkinson and company go over the top, their grim fates elided with a dissolve to a field of poppies:
Or the heartbreaking conclusion to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, which follows Australian troops in the war’s Middle Eastern theater:
More recently, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse gave us both a doomed cavalry charge and a doomed infantry charge. Even Wonder Woman barely makes it five feet before being struck by a German bullet that would have been fatal for a non-superhero:
In other words, if you’re making a World War I movie that doesn’t end with your heroes dead or grievously wounded, you’d better have a good explanation. These depressing depictions are in keeping with what became the dominant historical narrative of the First World War in Britain and the U.S., which painted the troops on the ground as victims of their own generals, idiots who senselessly sent their men into a meat grinder. However, this view has come in for reappraisal as military historians like Brian Bond argue that, contrary to popular belief, the war as a whole was “necessary and successful” (though that wider lens in turn has been critiqued for erasing the experience of those who actually served). With the Great War recently celebrating its centenary, projects like Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old have attempted to sidestep these historical debates by concentrating solely on the day-to-day experiences of the men in the trenches, avoiding making any wider claims about what, if anything, the war itself meant.
Into this fraught landscape steps Sam Mendes’s 1917, which is trying to accomplish that rarest of feats: telling a feel-good World War I story. The director based his film on the memories of his grandfather, who served as a messenger on the Western Front, and that family connection seems to have left him determined to present a version of the war where an individual soldier could still act heroically, rather than simply be a lamb for the slaughter. “Other people have made that movie, the blood and guts,” the movie’s Oscar-nominated production designer Dennis Gassner told me earlier this month. “This wasn’t that. This is a story about integrity, the willingness to do anything even in the harshest conditions.” Mendes has spoken of the film as a tribute to those who made it back home, which requires him to pull off the tonal balancing act of reclaiming the war as an arena for nobility and sacrifice, while not glorifying the conflict itself. Never is that tension more clear than in the film’s conclusive action setpiece, which is tasked with giving viewers a happy ending in a conflict that offered few uncomplicated victories.
1917 follows two British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are handed the perilous task of traversing no-man’s-land to deliver a message to another regiment calling off their attack. (Though the plot is fiction, the German withdrawal that acts as the inciting incident actually happened.) The film’s first act supplies many of the genre tropes we’ve come to associate with the First World War. Blake is a cheerful naif who still hopes to be “home by Christmas,” while Schofield has the thousand-yard stare of a shell-shocked Somme veteran. They navigate trench networks that have evolved into a microcosm of society, and the dialogue covers familiar territory: unclear orders, no supplies, thousands of men dying to gain a single inch. An officer on the front line (played by Fleabag’s Andrew Scott, in the film’s best performance) has been so numbed by constant fire that he no longer knows what day it is. Once Blake and Schofield go over the top, the no-man’s-land sequence is a horror show, as the men must trace a path past a dead horse, plentiful corpses, and massive craters that scar the landscape. In 1917’s purest gross-out moment, Schofield accidentally plunges his bloody hand into the open stomach of a dead soldier.
After they cross through the German trenches — a sequence that starts with the men staring at bags of shit and only gets more harrowing from there — Blake and Schofield arrive in the open countryside. It’s a view not often seen in World War I movies, which rarely venture beyond the trenches, and it provides an opportunity for the film to slow down and relax. The soldiers get into a debate about whether there’s any meaning to be found in the war. Blake, who, true to his name, is the romantic of the pair, has learned that Schofield traded his Somme medal for a bottle of wine, and berates him. “You should have taken it home,” Blake says. “You should have given it to your family. Men have died for that. If I’d got a medal I’d take it back home. Why didn’t you take it home?”
Schofield disagrees, with the bitterness of a war poet: “Look, it’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.”
Subsequent events seem to prove Schofield correct: Blake is stabbed by a German pilot whose life he’d just saved, and his prolonged, pitiful death carries no meaning and no glory. But as Schofield continues on alone, the sheer difficulty of the obstacles he faces spurs him to carry on. He’s shot by an enemy sniper, and only narrowly survives. He stumbles upon a German sentry, and kills the lad in close combat. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, he evades his pursuers by jumping into a river, at which point he goes over a waterfall and nearly drowns. Mendes gives Schofield plentiful opportunities to give up — including one slightly eye-rolling sequence with a young woman and a baby — but he never does. It’s an abstract, existential view of the Great War: The struggle itself is what gives the experience meaning.
Then, in the film’s closing sequence, Mendes takes the tropes of trench warfare and twists them 90 degrees. Schofield has finally made it to the regiment he needs to find, only to discover that their attack has already begun. He tries to push his way through a crowded trench — while Dunkirk was a movie about standing in line, 1917 is a movie about cutting in line — but it’s no use. He won’t be able to deliver the message, and hundreds of men will die as a result. Unless … he takes a shortcut. As the music swells, Schofield decides to go over the top a second time, a sequence that encapsulates both Mendes’s creative revisionism, as well as the sheer scale of his technical undertaking. (The scene features 50 stuntmen and 450 extras.) Unlike most onscreen World War I battles, Schofield is not charging out toward the German lines; he’s sprinting across, parallel to the trench. Thematically, too, the final run flips what we’re used to seeing. Our hero is not heading toward the enemy and certain death; he’s going back to his own men, to redemption. In a sequence that has traditionally been cinematic shorthand for futility, Mendes goes for hope.
But the film is also careful not to turn this individual triumph into a wider victory. Having defied death by going over the top, Schofield gains his reward: an audience with the officer in charge of the advance (Benedict Cumberbatch). We’ve been set up to see this character as a villain, but the movie gives us something more complicated. This one is just as worn down as his men; the folly of his attack was born out of the hope that this time, things would be different. (With one notable exception, the much-maligned officer class gets a sympathetic treatment in 1917.) Zoom out, and the movie’s happy ending is not very happy at all. Yes, a massacre has been averted, but the bloody stasis endures. Viewers know the war will continue for another year and a half.
1917 begins with Schofield dozing under a tree, before he’s awoken by Blake, and the two men go to meet the general who gives them their mission. The film’s conclusion offers a mirror of this structure — possibly one reason the film scored that surprise Screenplay nod. Next, Schofield’s arc with Blake comes full circle, as well. Having completed his perilous journey, Schofield searches the casualty tent for Blake’s older brother. After informing the brother of Blake’s death, Schofield hands over his effects to be returned to his family. These mementos are not meaningless, after all. The magnitude of his efforts has brought Schofield around to Blake’s way of thinking.
(The bookend effect of these closing scenes is also enhanced by the film’s casting. The two commanders are played by Cumberbatch and Colin Firth, British heartthrobs of two different generations; Blake’s brother is played by Richard Madden, who acted with Dean-Charles Chapman on Game of Thrones.)
Finally, the film ends just as it began, with Schofield enjoying a moment of rest under a tree. This time, he’s alone, but not really: He pulls out a photograph, revealing for the first time that he’s been carrying around a memento of the wife and children waiting at home. There’s an inscription on the back: “Come back to us.” Finally, the sun rises, and the film fades to black with a dedication to Mendes’s grandfather, “who told us the stories.”
This closing moment of catharsis encapsulates all that’s proven divisive about 1917. While the film has received generally positive reviews, it’s also received a few high-profile dissents from the likes of Richard Brody, Manohla Dargis, and our own Alison Willmore, all of whom have taken issue with the film turning the industrial bloodbath of the Western Front into a celebration of individual perseverance. Of course, sending viewers out on such an emotional high note is also what’s made 1917 our presumptive Oscars front-runner, as the film been hitting voters’ hearts in a way that its predecessors haven’t. And if the film takes home Best Picture over Parasite in two weeks’ time, you can bet that this debate will only intensify. After all, there’s no such thing as an uncomplicated victory.