The True Meaning of "1917"
Or, How the Critics Were Wrong About Sam Mendes
In January 2020, I watched the film 1917. Coming from big-box director Sam Mendes, a good many critics liked the movie. But a strong minority (including several writing for the most high-brow publications) dismissed the film as a piece of popcorn. To give you just a sampling, Richard Brody of the New Yorker said that 1917 is the product of a “suburban horndog” (I have no idea what this means relative to 1917); Nick Pinkerton of Film Comment labeled it “callow and crass”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times charged that it is “an exercise in preening showmanship”; Alison Willmore of New York rendered it a “bombastic filmmaking stunt”; A. A. Dowd of The A. V. Club sniffed that it is a “monument to itself.”
No shy words, these. For my part, I watched Mendes’s film with real interest. This was because he has directed other films that subterraneously addressed more weighty matters than critics recognized they did. Then and now, I don’t think 1917 is unflawed; it does have a video-game feel in a few places, and the town of Eccoust feels surprisingly set-like, not real. (It has some foul language, by the way, and as a conscionable Christian film-watcher I would only recommend it for teenagers and up, seeing it with a father, ideally.) The film does not rise to the level of mastery of Tree of Life, as one comparison. But aside from some small criticisms, in watching 1917 initially, I came away feeling like I had seen a different film than the aforementioned elite critics.
There Is More to Mendes Than We’ve Heard
This is not because I am accomplished in film criticism; I am not. When watching a movie, I am sure I generally miss more than I catch. But 1917 grabbed me in almost a startling way. Viewing the film in the IMAX theater, the theme of trees immediately stood out to me. So too the conversations over trees and life, and various other scenes, seemed to be pointing to greater realities than just martial service and wartime hardships. This film, in sum, seemed to be up to something, much as several big-time reviewers said otherwise, and with no small amount of scorn and even outright distaste.
I wrote an early piece trying to make sense of what I saw, but had to wait several months in spring 2020 for 1917 to hit Amazon Prime. When it did, I watched it again right away. In tracking the dialogue through closed captions, I found that Schofield says to Blake at just over the 34-minute mark, “Keep your eyes on the trees.” Sitting on my couch in my home, I bolted upright. Like the critics, I missed this line in my first viewing—missed it entirely.
In retrospect, this is not surprising because Mendes often seems to tuck important lines into unsuspecting places. I do not know him nor his psyche, but from what I can discern from afar, he seems happy to be read as a maker of spectacles. Unlike some filmmakers, he does not seem to go out of his way to flaunt his artistry or his depth. His films often make huge sums, and many people like them, and they are generally well-reviewed. That’s no mean feat, collectively, and there may be no small amount of satisfaction in it, one could suppose.
But having noted this, I differ—sharply—from the “Mendes is strictly middlebrow” thesis. I think Mendes is, with Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan, one of the most profound cinematic artists of our age. I tried to capture why I believe this in a second longer review for Providence in May 2020. That review struck a chord with a few folks, and I have heard from numerous viewers about it, which has been great fun. But though I tried to track 1917 more deeply there, something nagged at me this last 15 months. I did not rewatch 1917 save once, but I have never been able to shake this sense: there was more to this film than I captured in my earlier writing on it.
An Unsettling Discovery: I Didn’t Discover Enough
Flash ahead to the present. A lot has happened. The world changed, for starters. In addition, I took time away from my self-appointed (and wholly un-compensated) role as a movie reviewer to write a book on the prevailing gospel threat of our time, wokeness. I took a new vocational role at a thriving seminary in a lovely college town in Arkansas, and along the way also refreshed my humble podcast (now called The Antithesis).
Back to the matter at hand. In returning to this movie recently, I made a fresh—and unsettling—discovery: my earlier work missed, underplayed, or failed to do justice to numerous dimensions of the film’s story and especially its broader message. At least, this is my own suspicion. All that follows is—I stress this at pains—supposition. I do not know Mendes or screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, I have no point of contact with them, and my musings below, filtered through my own distinctly Reformed theology, are my own.
I may have over-played some elements of 1917; I may have underplayed or missed others. However, my working thesis is that there is a trail of meaning in 1917, and few have found it. This trail is hidden in plain sight in 1917, but it is there. Without knowing the worldview of the creative team, I can say as a theologian that the consideration of higher reality in 1917 is at the very least richly consonant with many themes of Christian doctrine. We find in this film an enchanted view of creation, a bracingly honest grappling with pervasive depravity, and a soaring exploration of redemption. We also receive a brief if powerful answer to the problem of evil, no glancing matter.
I won’t delay things any further. We are already at a review essay (not really a review, but an aesthetic and philosophical inquiry) of 6,500 words. This is preposterous, and very nearly out of hand. But I persist in my stubborn inquiry nonetheless. The estimable word count is despite all appearances not by accident, nor is it regretted. The material that follows is not a plot summation or overview. It is a consideration of the film’s overall message sketched through analysis of twelve distinct scenes (or parts thereof). Without further ado, we dive back into 1917, a world of honor, death, hope, and especially trees.
Scene One: Resting on a Tree
The movie begins with a shot of a single lush tree, branches heavy with green. At the outset, knowing what comes later, we cannot help but wonder if we are looking at Mendes’s conception of the paradisical tree of life. The tree is far off, a little fuzzy, but somehow seems alive, a living thing. I surmise that this not a mere staging shot. This tree matters. As I put things together as best I can, I believe that this tree is in fact the heart of the entire film. At the risk of sounding silly, I don’t think the tree is just a tree. At minimum, trees in 1917 symbolize rest and peace. But I wonder if this is too weak. Perhaps the tree signals a world beyond our own. Even greater still, perhaps trees stand in for God himself. It is not easy to say, for Mendes does not tell us directly. He leaves things undefined, teasing us, or more accurately, beckoning us to keep our eyes on the trees, striving to understand them.
This is just the first shot of the film. Seconds later, we see Schofield resting against a tree. Immediately Mendes connects trees to rest and peace. But the soldier’s rest is all too brief. Without warning or exposition, Blake and Schofield are summoned to a meeting for an urgent mission. As they go, Blake jokes about being called to the priesthood. Our ears perked, we wonder if Mendes is whispering to us; he may be signaling at this early point, however elusively and swiftly, that what Blake and Schofield do has a higher meaning. In some form, these are men on a priestly mission.
This is cemented in two ways in the moments that follow. First, the soldiers walk down into a bunker to receive their orders. They hear a poem quoted to them about going down “to Gehenna,” and indeed they will walk into the foulest territory imaginable in coming moments. They were resting, and undisturbed, but now they are in humility seeking to save men who do not even know they are coming, and who are helpless to save themselves.
Second, they meet Lieutenant Leslie, played by Andrew Scott, and are shown the best path forward through the killing fields. He walks them over to a ladder, and then flicks his liquor on them, saying to them, “Through this holy unction, may the Lord pardon you your faults and whatever sins thou hast committed.” Though a fake absolution, I suspect Mendes features it to once again communicate the metaphysical overtones of this mission. This is no mere battle film; these two young soldiers are on a spiritual quest. This sense of otherworldliness only deepens in the moments to come.
Scene Two: Death and Resurrection in a Bunker
The two soldiers make their way through a nightmarish landscape with splintered trees appearing on occasion. As they walk through, Schofield has his hand pierced by barbed wire, a possible allusion to a cruciform fate. He and Blake make their way to the German lines and end up walking through the German barracks. Here we come to one of the most important moments in the film.
Following a freak explosion, Schofield is buried in rubble. Blake pulls him by his bare hands, rescuing his comrade. Blake is the agent of Schofield’s physical resurrection. His kind and heroic action saves his friend and brings him back to life. We must mark this point, for 1917 is telling us something profound about the relationship between these two friends that will reach its peak at the film’s end. This notable detail, however, is easy to miss.
The two stumble out of the collapsing barracks, narrowly escaping death. Here Mendes stages a second major act in Schofield’s development: he pours waters on his dust-caked eyes in order to see. This is not a mere character action, I would argue. This is symbolic. Schofield has been hardened to this point, and will continue to react to the world in hardened ways for a good long while to come. But it is at this moment that he begins waking up to meaning. In the moments that follow, Blake will guide him into seeing much more.
Scene Three: Keep Your Eyes on the Trees
Just minutes after the preceding scene, Schofield verbalizes the line that sums up 1917. Walking through the German gunfield right after the 38-minute mark, he says to Blake, “Keep your eyes on the trees.” Mendes is speaking to us directly, and as noted is giving us the central imperative of his film.
I do not know exactly what worldview Mendes holds. Coupled with the work of screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, it seems some parts Romantic and some parts Christian. (Blake seems to stand in at some level for the Romantic poet William Blake, who had a strange encounter in his life with a man named Schofield.) Whatever the case, this directive about trees is as covered earlier a tell. Trees stand in for greater reality in 1917. War is devastating this beautiful place, the French countryside that Blake and Schofield traverse. It is ruining existence, despoiling beauty, and sapping life. But trees—at least some trees—endure.
In 1917, trees are a signpost to greater reality of some indeterminate kind. They speak to the need for care and stewardship of creation. This seems incontrovertible. But they bear greater significance as well, I surmise. At the least, they communicate the importance of truth, beauty, and goodness in a wartorn world. In other places in the film, they verge on signifying God, or at the least the presence of enchanted reality. (In suggesting this, I do not in any way endorse pantheism or panentheism; it is possible that the film’s creative team do have such convictions. I do not know that, however, and would lean strongly toward assuming that 1917 does not traffic in such aberrant theology, but rather is employing trees symbolically.)
So, just as Schofield’s eyes are opened, so our eyes are opened. We must keep our eyes on the trees.
Scene Four: Just a Bit of Tin
As the two soldiers next travel through a peaceful glade, Blake tells Schofield a humorous anecdote. It’s about a rat that ate a fellow soldier’s hair oil. Rats figure heavily in this story and are a kind of living counterpart to trees; in fact, they are very nearly the only living thing the camera finds for much of the movie. Horses are dead; cows are dead (all but one); certainly many men are dead. But rats persist. It seems that Mendes and his screenwriter are reminding us of the persistence of evil and suffering. I wager that rats may represent both the capriciousness of evil—a rat triggers the explosion that almost kills Schofield—at the same time that rats represent the unrelenting assault of evil. They are everywhere eating into good things that remain, whether in the story of Blake’s friend, or in the rotting bones of the dead.
But it is not rats that Blake and Schofield next discuss. In one of 1917’s key moments, they move on to talk about medals. Blake highly values them, while Schofield values them not at all. Schofield, it turns out, sold a medal he won through bravery for wine. This gets Blake’s blood up: “You should have taken it home,” he protests. “You should have given it to your family. Men have died for that. If I got a medal, I’d take it back home.” For his part, Schofield spits back at Blake. “It’s just a bit of tin,” he says. “It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.” Blake rises again to the challenge: “Yet it does. And it’s not just a bit of tin. And it’s got a ribbon on it.”
This conversation does not resolve in this scene. Like numerous threads of the film’s greater message, it only comes to fruition at the close. But it tells us a great deal about the characters, and about the vision Mendes is sketching of the good life in 1917. Schofield is as mentioned largely closed to the beauty of the world at this point. War has taken seemingly everything from him, and as a result, he has closed down to greater meaning and higher reality. He is existing, and he is in fact a brave and skilled warrior. But he finds no value even in his real contributions.
Blake is not as accomplished or martial as Schofield naturally is. But though in desperate circumstances, he is still alive. He still values family. Blake values the richness and depth of family, and his death will ironically vivify his friend’s understanding of the value of loved ones—those who, in the good life, the Godward life, are a crucial part of the greater reality that blesses, challenges, and enriches us.
In the end, because of Schofield’s single-minded dedication to honor his friend by reaching his family member, the “bit of tin” discussed in this scene will have vastly more importance than what Schofield says here. “Tin” and small personal effects will come to represent not just a friendship, but an entire life. It will stand in for a life fully lived, a life worthy of honor and celebration and remembrance, a life whose meaning extends well beyond the days when Blake draws breath.
Scene Five: The Trees Will Grow Back
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns build on these themes as Blake and Schofield next walk through a crop of lifeless cherry trees. Family is again essential to this scene, but the vision of greater reality beyond the self at war enlarges to consider the problem of evil, however briefly. The answer given is powerful.
Just after their disagreement over the meaning of medals, Schofield happens upon a grove of trees surrounded by a destroyed stone fence. Clearly disturbed, he says, “They’ve chopped them all down.” Catching up, Blake notes what kind of trees they are: “Cherries. Lamberts.” He goes on to note that people think “there’s only one type” of cherry tree, “but there’s lots of them,” listing “Cuthberts, Queen Annes, Montmorencys, sweet ones, sour ones.”
Where we like Schofield see a tree, Blake sees a cherry tree; but more than this, he knows that there are many kinds of cherry trees, and that their variations yield many colors and textures and tastes. Listening to his friend, Schofield expresses sadness about the desecration of this grove. In his optimistic way, Blake responds: “They’ll grow again when the stones rot. You’ll end up with more trees than before.”
There is much death in 1917. But death is not the true point of this film. Life is. The wicked manifestations and machinations of death grieve us to our core—like the scene coming up next—but they ultimately do not triumph. Life is not meaningless. Suffering is not for nothing. The savage deflowering of a gorgeous grove will ironically lead to more trees, not fewer.
Here again I sense we’re being gently pointed to a deeper truth. Through Blake, Mendes is framing everything we are seeing in a redemptive light. Evil is not ultimate. The life-destroyers will not win in the end. Much as evil succeeds now, for a season, its work is not only countered, but in the end is employed for the advancement of good. What the enemy intended for evil will only culminate in good (see Genesis 50:20). Trees will flourish. Whatever precisely they represent, the trees will come back stronger, and rest and peace and beauty will again dwell in the despoiled land.
I do not know, as addressed, the exact worldview of Mendes and Wilson-Cairns. But I would suggest that this is the very heart of the nature of biblical atonement, and in Trinitarian terms, of the eternal appointment of Christ the Mediator by God the Father (Ephesians 1:10-14). Only Christianity offers us this tremendously ironic and redemptive vision of evil: through the death of Jesus on the cross, evil is ultimately employed to serve the interests of good. Pushing as far to the line of understanding as we can, in the Father’s perfectly wise plan, evil accomplishes what good could not in moral terms.
This comes at a terrible cost, the highest cost. But look at the result. The work of the Messiah catapults us beyond Eden—lovely as it is—into a world that is not only unfallen, but a world that cannot be fallen. It is a world beyond all worlds where evil cannot come; the gate is locked, the door is barred, and the people of God are brought safely home, to perfect rest.
I do not speak of the restoration of Eden. That would be glorious of itself. No, I speak of something greater. Like John with his visions of the third heaven, we see through Scripture the new heavens and new earth; we glimpse the new creation. But it is too wonderful for us. We can see the place where the tree of life is planted (more to come on this count). We are drawing nearer and nearer to it. But we are not yet home.
We could say much more here, volumes more. But we will leave the mark with this: though we cannot grasp the answer to the problem of evil as God does, we know that—in Blake’s words, just a single line of dialogue—the workings of evil do not succeed. Yes, the devil can despoil and ruin and kill. We see his kind of work all throughout 1917. Just as heaven pushes into our world, so does hell. But hell will not win; heaven does. Going further, heaven, in the strangest terms, uses the very levers of hell to produce more good than one can imagine.
Or, to put it simply, as Blake did: we’ll end up with more trees than before.
Scene Six: The Price of Mercy
The cherry grove scene is all too brief. Taking us as high we can go, into the very wisdom of the counsel of God, it gives way to one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve witnessed in decades of watching films. Having sampled the hope of beauty, now we confront the specter of death.
Blake dies because he is merciful. Though warring against the Germans, he tries to rescue the pilot who would have perished in an instant if left to himself. Schofield is alert to this. He is practical, pragmatic, and a warrior through and through: “We should put him out of his misery,” he says to his friend. In terms of the threat the two men face, Schofield is right. But in terms of the imperative of mercy, Blake is right. Blake persuades Schofield to try and save the German fighter-pilot: “No, get him some water. He needs water.” As Blake demands this, we catch a glimpse of the pilot’s long blade. The knife is ready at hand, all too close.
As the camera follows Schofield, Blake tries to help the pilot: “It’s all right. Stay still.” The pilot’s one-word answer chills the blood: “Nein (no)!” Indeed he does not stay still. Resisting the man trying to help him, he stabs Blake. Schofield then kills the pilot, but it is too late. Blake is mortally wounded. As his life slips painfully away, Blake again thinks only of his family, asking Schofield to write to his mother and find his brother.
It is at this point that Blake says an ear-catching word: “Tell me you know the way,” Blake suddenly says, looking desperately into his friend’s face. Stunned, Schofield tells his dying friend where he will travel to prevent the doomed attack (the driving plot engine of 1917). I would wonder, though, if Blake’s line is intended to function on a higher plane. The way he seeks is the way of eternal rest.
After Blake dies, Schofield’s action extends this theme. As Schofield drags Blake’s lifeless body to care for it, he does so heading in the direction of the cherry grove. We see it behind him. Perhaps Mendes is telling us that Blake has gone to eternal rest. Schofield takes him in this direction, even as he himself is heading in the direction of the trees, and will eventually come to rest with his back to a tree. There seem to be eschatological overtones here; we need to know the way.
He can only do so by following the orders of a noble and compassionate captain, Captain Smith. Played by Mark Strong, a terrific actor, Schofield is gently directed by this man. As Schofield joins a convoy, though, ruined trees lie in the way of his vehicle. We can theorize here that the trees placed in the road by the Germans represent the misuse of worldly good and worldly pleasure. The Germans take the best things and ruin them—but not only this, they put them to evil ends.
Whatever the precise intent of the creative team, this too interfaces with biblical truth. In 1917, the trees, as with everything created good and life-giving in this world, are turned around for evil ends in the service of a mission of death. In the history of our world, Satan attempts to do what God does: he tries to use his opponent’s material for his own purposes, and to some degree he succeeds. But because Satan is a creature (though a very, very powerful spiritual being), he cannot succeed in an ultimate way. He is not sovereign; he is not in control. Thus he cannot execute the ironic reversals that the Almighty can. He can misuse created things, to be sure, and does. But he cannot redeem, as it were, good things for evil. His (mis)usage is limited, and unlike God’s saving power, can be overturned and overcome.
So too are the trees moved out of the road, and the quest continues.
Scene Seven: The Church on Fire
Schofield now sets out alone. Dropped off by Eccoust, assisted with a gracious and wise word by Captain Smith, Schofield survives a sniper’s bullets. He pays a great price, nearly dying as he goes into a lone house to kill the sniper. After waking up, he runs through a ghost town and eventually makes his way to the center of the town. Here we encounter the single most arresting image of 1917—besides, that is, the initial vision of the verdant tree. Schofield walks carefully toward the town, enrobed in darkness, alone. But now cometh the fire.
Specifically, Schofield faces a church set ablaze. No one fights the fire; no one opposes it. The church burns without reprieve. In my previous writing on 1917, I missed the significance of this scene. I wonder, though, if it is not a meaningful (if brief) part of the overall message of the film. Alongside the family, in Christian theology the church is the center of society. It is the free institution that guarantees all the others. It is the witness to the other-world, the true world, the world where God dwells. To fire-bomb it, and to let it burn without relief, is to attack the very heart of the good, true, and beautiful in this place.
Our picture of the desolation unfolding in 1917 is expanded in this scene, I think. All creation is fallen, and the central institutions of civilization—of the God-made order, more precisely—are overwhelmed and seemingly overrun. There is no longer a church in Eccoust. The attack on innocence and life has struck at the core. When practiced, atheism, the denial of God, results in an anti-world. This is not a place of thriving and flourishing; like Eccoust in battle, creation groans under the curse. The realm made by God for his glory becomes a place of destruction. The wheat fields become the shadowlands.
Read through my own lens, the attack on the church from many angles today is a sign of the restless wildness of darkness. Think of the contrast between fire and trees (Mendes’s chosen motif in 1917). It is not easy to plant and nurture a grove of fruit-bearing trees. It takes much care, and long decades of persistence. But it is easy to put a church to the torch. Fires, once started, do not quickly die out. Ruination travels fast; cultivation takes time. The society that destroys the church—physically or ideologically—is the society that destroys itself.
Scene Eight: The Family Rebuilt
Following a harrowing chase that nearly leads to his death, Schofield crashes into a basement dwelling. There he encounters a young woman who is keeping a baby alive. He talks to the young woman, asking her where he is, and signaling where he is going: “I need to be somewhere. I need to find a wood to the southeast. Uh, trees. Les arbes.” If we are paying attention, we note that the destination of Cosilly, spoken of earlier, has morphed: now Schofield is looking quite simply for “trees.”
The young woman moves gracefully toward him and treats his head wound with a gentle feminine touch. For his part, Schofield emerges from his shock and sacrificially gives his canteen of milk to the woman, who gives it to the child. He then warms up further still, engaging the baby and making her laugh. The young woman senses perceptively that he is a father (as indeed he is, we learn later). From all appearances, Mendes is once more communicating something meaningful in this scene. In the ruins, in surprising circumstances, the family is brought back together.
Schofield and this young woman are not married, but they act out, haltingly, the renewal that the world truly needs. It is not just a planting of trees, but the recovery of marriage, the union of one man and one woman, and the welcoming of children as a gift, not a curse. It seems that the motif of trees forms the beginning and end motif of 1917, and this family scene represents the inclusio (the main point bracketed by complementary ideas). The family scene is, in other words, the human expression of the cherry tree scene.
The replanting that the world needs is found here. We need men and women, husbands and wives, children loved and cared for, the family restored amidst much attack. Mendes seems to be communicating that this creation order has suffered violence, but that renewal is within reach. Even in the treacherous conditions of ferocious battle, the (makeshift) family endures.
The trees in 1917 have been chopped down, and so has the family. But there is hope. Every marriage formed is an act of protest. Every birth of a boy or girl is a registered revolt against the darkness. But not only a protest: building a family is a successful counter-action against this evil order. Though carried out under the effects of the fall, family-building through covenantal marriage is a human planting of a new grove, one that did not exist before. Through it, you’ll have more trees than before.
Scene Nine: A Dying Man Revived
Schofield cannot tarry with this woman and child, however. The ringing of the church bell startles him; it seems that the church, though nearly demolished, yet summons men to the imperatives of time and watchfulness. In a hurry, Schofield leaves, once again landing in a one-sided firefight. He jumps off a bridge into a rushing river, and crashes down the stream, nearly dead after running a waterfall. His quest finally seems to be too much for him. He has gone past his limits, and the waters reach out to him to enclose him in eternal sleep.
It is at just this time, with his strength at an absolute ebb and the light nearly gone from his eyes, that cherry blossoms from a single nearby tree land on him and around him. The tree—shedding blossoms like snow as Blake said—brings him back from the grave. Without drawing the lines too tight, this beautiful moment reminds me of one of my favorite texts in Scripture, Revelation 22:1-2. In the New Jerusalem, John tells us he saw the following:
 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
On the side of the river rests the tree of life. The tree of life has twelve variations of fruit, and it bursts without fail with its product, a living product. But not only this: its leaves, in an unexplained and unexposited way, heal the nations. Here is food for the starving, and healing for the dying. Here is rest for the weary traveler—rest in the presence of a tree. In the film, the leaves of the cherry tree awaken Schofield, and thus seem to heal him in that sense.
After Schofield is slowly awakened by the blossoms, he weeps. The weight upon him is terrible. His burden is great. But driven by his mission, he forges on, as the camera of Roger Deakins, the spellbinding cinematographer of this film, lingers on the cherry tree in the background. (Deakins does this throughout the film with numerous trees.) The leaves of the cherry trees have revived Schofield, a detail of no small import, I sense.
Scene Ten: God in the Forest
Schofield next makes his way to a wooded glade. There, a company of soldiers rests, listening to a song from a lone singer. Schofield stops his mission cold and listens along. This scene is symbolic, I think, but exactly what is symbolized here I cannot say. It may be general rest and peace; it may be church; it may be a drawing near to God himself in heaven. On this last supposition, the singer sings lyrics quite close to this possible interpretation: “I’m only going over Jordan,” a reference to crossing into eternity, and also this: “But golden fields lie just before me / Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep.” This is yet another explicit spiritual reference in 1917.
As in the pre-quest absolution by alcohol, so here: the film uses theological language, and more specifically, redemption language. Though very few reviews picked up the theology trail of 1917—consider me shocked by this in 2021, just shocked—it seems evident to me that whatever the precise symbolism of these details, this is a film that is unmistakably trafficking in spiritual reality. In my limited estimation, these motifs are part of a second story, almost a second plot, in 1917. There is the stirring and exciting war film, worth many viewings in its own right, resurfacing the value of manhood, self-sacrifice, courage, and extra-self commitment. But there is a higher layer as well, and it is communicated in an unmistakably Christian idiom. I genuinely wonder, but can in no way confirm, if Mendes has actually produced a wartime Pilgrim’s Progress for us.
With such a supposition, I may be over-shooting, or I may be close to the mark. I cannot decisively know. One thing I do know that is that this scene in the trees links to the earlier connections outlined above. Namely, there is rest and beauty in the presence of trees—if only for a few minutes’ time.
Scene Eleven: A Bit of Tin Handed On
1917 brings its celebration of life to a muted peak in its penultimate scene. Schofield, having lost Blake to an unjust death some hours back, meets Blake’s brother. Schofield and Lieutenant Blake struggle to speak to one another, but even as he delivers terrible news, Schofield performs a precious service. He hands over some small effects of Blake’s.
This quick action, easily overlooked in a cursory watching of 1917, is actually a crucial development of Schofield’s character. Earlier, “tin” did not matter to him. He disdained it. But here, the material elements of Blake’s life matter greatly, both to him and to Blake’s brother. As with other points of their prior debate, Blake’s view has won Schofield over. Personal effects matter. This is because they point to the life of the person who owned them.
In the end, tin is all that is left in earthly terms. But these small possession, though of little value in themselves, speak to the value of an entire existence. In passing them on, Schofield honors his friend. This is not an afterthought on his part. He ran and scraped and fought to stop the mission that would doom 1,600 men, yes. But he risked everything as well to find Blake’s brother, and pass on what remained to memorialize his friend. He did so because life—even just one human life—matters tremendously.
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’s development of Schofield’s character is complete. At film’s end, he is now open to the world, invested fully in the life of his dead friend, and sees the world for its value, not its desolation. All this is communicated in his short but poignant conversation with Blake’s brother, and as a theme, it rises to its peak in the film’s final scene.
Scene Twelve: Resting on a Tree
Just as it began, the film closes with Schofield resting against a tree. For the first time, he lets himself look at pictures of his beautiful young wife and children. He alluded to his family in the “bit of tin” scene, but got choked up before he could say more. “I hated going home… when I knew I had to leave and they might never see…” At the end of this line, Schofield’s voice trailed off. The pain was too great for him, so he fell silent. Here is his mentality early in 1917: better to survive than despair.
But at the film’s end, as he finally rests, Schofield has not only survived. He has rediscovered meaning, the meaning of life. His back against a tall tree, Schofield finally allows himself to look at two pictures of his family. On the back of one reads a note from his wife: “Come back to us.” The film closes with this, leaving us with the hope that Schofield will indeed return home. The world, though twice-shaken and nearly overrun, will hold. Light has come into the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. A great disease has spread across the land, but healthy trees still grow, and cherry blossoms still land gently on the ground.
Once nearly dehumanized by war, barely living at all except to go through the martial motions, Schofield now discovers afresh—or lets himself discover afresh—that the world is not an ordeal to survive. The survivor of almost impossible difficulty, Schofield is effectively brought back to full-fledged humanity. Once Blake saved him from physical death; now, with all he has endured, he is rescued for spiritual or philosophical death. He is awakened. He is reenchanted. He is a resurrected man.
Schofield has learned what I think 1917 wants us to see. Existence is not merely a test of attrition. Evil is everywhere, but the trees are not all gone. They are bearing fruit. There is light in the shadowlands. There is a family waiting for Schofield, a family who loves him and whom he clearly loves back. Evil is pervasive and ever-present, gnawing into the good things of this realm like sleepless rats. But evil is not dominant nor ultimately triumphant. We cannot let it define us or enclose us. Even if we do not join it directly, we must go further, and resist it, and find our own meaning and identity in something greater—Someone greater, more accurately still.
If we will keep our eyes on the trees, we will see that even in this present darkness, goodness, truth, and beauty are all around us. The enemy has felled much of the forest. But though we walk through a cut-flower civilization now, even that which has been sacrificed to dread schemes will bear fruit. Read through the theological story of Scripture, God is so powerful that he may overturn the most wicked effort of the devil. His power is not the power to destroy alone; his power is the power to reverse and redeem. Satan has no capacity for irony, but the cross of Christ is very irony itself—salvific irony.
We remember what Blake said: the trees may be cut down now, but they will come back. No, more than this: in the age to come, they will grow back in greater number than ever before.
A few limited portions of this review ran in the earlier Providence review I wrote and are used with permission of Providence.