“Pick a man, grab your kit.”
Lance Cpl. Blake obeyed, just like a soldier should. He struggled to his feet and grabbed Lance Cpl. Schofield by the shoulder.
A dangerous mission? Perhaps. But as soldiers in the Great War, sitting was dangerous, too. As was sleeping. Eating. Breathing. Millions had already died in the war by then—by that warm, April day in 1917. Millions more might die before it ended. Blake and Schofield had seen their share of friends fall in this “war to end all wars.” But a mission involving just the two of them couldn’t be that bad, could it? Maybe they’d just be sent to find food, or to take a message through the labyrinthine maze of trenches. “Something fun,” Blake would say later.
But when Blake saw the general, he knew this was no mere food run. Generals, when they come to the trenches, don’t bring “fun.” They bring blood.
General Erinmore announces that the Germans, for now, are gone. They’ve pulled out of their own formidible trenches and retreated about nine miles back. Two battallions of British soldiers, led by the battle-hardened Col. Mackenzie, have pursued the enemy and are now preparing to attack. The German retreat, Mackenzie believes, means the enemy is just about out of fight. One last push might break the German lines and bring the interminable conflagration to, finally, a close.
But Mackenzie is wrong.
Erinmore has seen the reconnaisance photos. He’s seen what the Germans are retreating to: the massive web of trenches and fortifications known to the Germans as the Hindenburg Line, the strongest series of entrenchments the world has ever seen. The trenches themselves are lined three deep, with bends and angles forming murderous approaches. Artillery bristles in back, able to literally tear apart anything that’s in range.
To throw 1,600 men against this—it isn’t war. It’s butchery.
And Blake’s older brother is part of the planned attack, set for tomorrow morning.
Erinmore gives Blake and Schofield a grave assignment: Cover the nine miles between here and Mackenzie—through no-man’s land and scorched earth and still-held German territory. And they’ll need to do it alone.
Pick a man, the sergeant said. Grab a kit. For Blake, it’s all well and good. This mission is personal: He has to save his brother. But for Schofield … well, why couldn’t Blake have picked another man?
Schofield is not pleased about being sent on this near-suicide mission. But when Blake tells Schofield that he can go back to the relative safety of the trenches if he wants, Schofield literally soldiers on.
They both push through unimaginably horrific circumstances as they go. Both men sacrifice a great deal on their adventure—and sacrifice for each other, too. Blake seems particularly kind-hearted. He saves Schofield’s life, for one thing—pulling him free of rubble caused by an explosion. The blast nearly blinds Schofield with dust, and when Schofield uses most of his water to clear his eyes, Blake volunteers his water, too. Blake tells funny stories to lighten the mood and tries to do what he can to encourage Schofield. And Blake isn’t just kind to Schofield: He does his best to save even an enemy pilot, too.
They help others along the way, too, and those others sometimes return the favor. One of our main soldiers gives food and sustenance to a young woman and a little baby hiding in the ruins of a French town. She treats his wounds briefly and begs him to stay, but he insists he must go on.
General Erinmore quotes Rudyard Kipling in explaining why he’s sending just Blake and Schofield on this dangerous mission: “Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne/He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
We see signs of devotion amongst the British soldiers: Some of the names they’ve given various trench “streets” have spiritual names (one is labeled “Church Avenue”, for instance), and a soldier sings the classic folk/gospel song “The Wayfaring Stranger”. The lyrics speak of the singer’s pain-salving journey to heaven, returning to loved ones long dead and God’s redeemed. “I’m only going over Jordan,” the singer intones. “I’m only going over home.” We see war-torn churches and hear church bells. One town fountain is seen in silhouette, aping the shape of a cross.
Less piously, a British lieutenant gives Blake and Schofield sardonic last rites as they prepare to sprint across the battle-scarred no-man’s land—sprinkling and splashing liquor over them in imitation of holy water.
Blake and Schofield make a joking reference to masturbation. When one of them is tended to by a kindhearted young woman, she touches his face tenderly: While certainly not sexual, there’s a certain sensuality in the gesture—a longing that perhaps both of them have for not just love, but home and safety. We see pictures of soldiers’ loved ones.
World War II claimed more casualties, but World War I is perhaps unequaled in its horrific brutality. 1917 takes us into that horror and doesn’t let us out of it for two hours.
Blake and Schofield’s trip across no-man’s land—the space between the original British and German trenches—is only a precursor, but a telling one. They sprint past dead, decaying horses (a lieutenant advises them to just follow the “stench” to navigate their way if it gets dark). Dead bodies lie everywhere, too—sometimes half-submerged in water-logged shell craters, sometimes hanging from the ever-present barbed wire. That same wire tears up Schofield’s hand—an injury made significantly more horrific when Blake later bumps into him and sends Schofield’s hand into a rotting corpse, well past the wrist.
We see plenty of other signs of war throughout. Dead, unburied bodies are found everywhere in various stages of decay, it seems. Dozens form some of the flotsam naturally damming up a river, their faces white and bodies bloated. (Viewers see dead dogs and rats, too.)
We don’t just see dead people, though. We see people die. One man is apparently choked to death (though in the shadows). Another is stabbed and bleeds out. Several others are shot or fall victim to explosions. Shots are fired repeatedly at fleeing men. One man nearly drowns. A guy nearly dies after a tripwire is triggered: He’s pulled from the rubble, not breathing at all. (He does recover, though.) A man is dragged from a burning aircraft, legs on fire. Several soldiers—perhaps dozens—lie mangled in a frontline medic center. Some have arms or legs torn off, leaving bloody stumps with bones clearly visible. One has a section of his calf blown away, it seems. Blood is everywhere, and bandages are sometimes alarmingly scarce.
One combatant suggests that the war will not end until there’s just one last man standing, and sometimes that seems to hit uncomfortably close to the mark.
Blake relates a story about how one of his and Schofield’s trench-mates lost an ear to a rat.
The f-word is used more than a dozen times, and the British profanity “bloody” is used more than 20. We also hear lots of uses of the word “b–tard,” along with other profanities, including the s-word (at least three times), “b–ch,” “h—,” “b–ger,” “p-ss” and “b–locks.” We hear God’s name misused at least four times, and abuses of Jesus’ name about eight times.
When Blake asks Schofield what happened to a medal that he’d won for an earlier engagement, Schofield admits that he traded it for a bottle of wine. “I was thirsty,” he explains. Several others drink liquor: Schofield is given a flask by some soldiers. Several smoke cigarettes, too, and someone puffs a pipe.
We see an apparently drunken soldier from a distance vomit in what’s left of a town street, and later he blearily staggers about a building ruin.
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
So said Britain’s great Winston Churchill, who experienced his own political hades during World War I. He presided over a couple of catastrophic disasters in what was to be one of history’s most catastrophic wars. Anywhere from 9 to 11 million military personnel died in the conflict. Tack on civilian deaths, and the count just about doubles.
We don’t see all those dead bodies in 1917. But we see enough. More than enough.
1917 is filmed through one apparent camera in one apparent take (cuts are artfully hidden here and there, making the film appear almost seamless). The camera follows Blake and Schofield through trenches, war-torn landscapes, skeletonized towns and scenes that seemed ripped right from medieval depictions of hell. Director Sam Mendes wants us to be fellow travelers, not just observers. He wants us to see the carnage in a way that feels urgent and raw and real. He almost forces us to feel the viscous blood on our fingers.
It’s a terrible, awful trek that our two soldiers make—one that we appreciate (and loathe) all the more for making it with them. This story, indeed, feels like hell sometimes.
But they keep going.
Sam Mendes’ camerawork and storytelling both magnify the horrors of war and humanize those in it. While Blake and Schofield dominate the story, their sparse interactions with their fellow soldiers and civilians are illuminating and sometimes even encouraging—with people offering kindness and care in the middle of the worst possible conditions.
The world Schofield and Blake find themselves in is a cruel one, and hungry. But in its face, they show courage and sacrifice. By living so vicariously through them, we find just a hint of beauty in all that brutality—a touch of inspiration to go with the tang of all that blood.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.