1917 Turns History’s Most Pointless War Into a Tale of Individual Heroism

This is our Best Picture front-runner?

One man charges heroically across an open battlefield as bombs and bullets whiz by
George MacKay in 1917. Universal Pictures

On Saturday night, 1917 won the Producers Guild’s equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Picture, finally establishing its place—after a rise that has also seen the movie earn 10 Oscar nominations and wins at the Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Drama—as this year’s Oscar front-runner. Accepting the award, producer Pippa Harris said, “In these times of division and conflict around the world, I really hope [1917] is just a reminder to never take for granted the peace that we all inherited.”

To which I say: How, exactly, do you figure? Writer-director Sam Mendes’ movie draws from a century’s worth of popular culture that has correctly represented World War I as an ill-begotten, bloody slog, then turns that material into set dressing for a simple story that’s really about a reluctant hero who overcomes a series of obstacles to save the day. Lensed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and staged to appear as one nearly unbroken take, the movie is a technical marvel, but all its style is in the service of making thrilling and beautiful a war that was anything but. It draws exactly the wrong lessons from World War I, transforming a travesty that squandered the lives of more than 20 million men into the backdrop for the triumph of one of them.

The movie—about two British soldiers ordered to cross enemy territory to warn a colonel that he’s about to lead hundreds of troops, including the brother of one of our two protagonists, into a trap—features many familiar touchstones, especially for those who remember their Remarque and Sassoon. There’s the cynicism of the soldier: Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) seems to have done something heroic at the Somme but doesn’t wear the medal he got for it. Schofield tells his friend Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), also a lance corporal: “Look, it’s just a bit of bloody tin! It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.” There’s shell shock: When Schofield is trying to move through a trench that’s being bombarded, he comes upon a captain who’s in full panic mode, screaming too loud to speak. And there are even one or two moments of surreal gallows humor. Stumbling through no man’s land, Schofield accidentally sinks his whole forearm—including a hand we just saw him rip open on barbed wire—into a dead German’s torso.

That grim joke, worthy of an Otto Dix painting, happened early on in the film. I looked for a lot more of that—and was left wanting. Mostly, the story is about Schofield reaching inside himself to find his own courage. From the beginning of this quest, when Blake insists on setting off during the day to get to his brother sooner instead of waiting for cover of night, the younger and more impetuous Blake—a classic early-20th-century British Boy Scout, filled to the brim with belief in the system that birthed him—lends Schofield his bravery. When an exploded booby trap left in an abandoned German trench leaves the two at risk of being buried underground, Blake carries the injured Schofield along and saves his life. Blake even dies in a perfectly upstanding way, trying to save a downed German pilot, who stabs him for his troubles.

Although there are moments where the movie hints that war might have revealed qualities in some men—even British men!—that were not wholly positive, in the end the story confirms and reconfirms the inherent goodness of the British military. A group of fellow soldiers that’s picked Schofield up is initially slow to help him push the soldiers’ truck out of the mud, but soon they come together to help him surmount this latest difficulty. When they drop him off outside the village of Ecoust, Capt. Smith (Mark Strong), who has helped Schofield on his way, gives him a warning: “If you do manage to get to Col. MacKenzie, make sure that there are witnesses.” “They are direct orders, Sir,” Schofield points out. Smith replies: “I know. But some men just want the fight.” Never fear! Even this bit of foreshadowing—a hint at a darker side—will come to naught.

Gradually, Schofield acquires his dead friend’s gallantry. In a cellar in Ecoust, where Schofield encounters a French woman hiding with a baby she has saved, Schofield recites a bit of Edward Lear’s 1871 poem “The Jumblies” to soothe the child: “They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,/ In a sieve, they went to sea:/ In spite of all their friends could say,/ On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,/ In a Sieve they went to sea!” This inclusion of this poem may at first appear to be about the folly of Blake and Schofield’s mission. Surely, like the sailors in the story, they are doomed. But, in an ending as improbable as 1917’s, the full poem culminates in success for the band of believing fools. The moment is about the power of Blake’s faith in their mission—a faith so strong that it carries Schofield past his own reluctance and, eventually, to a result that’s nothing short of miraculous.

The climax—the moment that reveals Schofield as the true heir to Blake’s valor and confirms the movie’s conviction that heroism is possible even in a big mess of a war—is the movie’s most ridiculous scene. Unarmed and protected only by plot armor, Schofield runs across an open battlefield, dodging bombs, bullets, and his fellow British soldiers as they go over the top. When he reaches MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and tries to deliver the general’s new orders, the perfectly turned-out officer is momentarily irritated. I thought for a minute, “Oh my God, what if he really won’t do it?” That might have been an ending true to this conflict, but 1917 is not that movie. MacKenzie calls his soldiers back. “Well done, lad,” a major who has observed the scene tells Schofield.

The fact that Schofield didn’t stop the entire tragedy from unfolding—only a portion of it—feels almost beside the point. He did it! As Noah Berlatsky wrote for Slate in 2017 when Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, that movie, while not wholly “anti-war,” was exceptional in its depiction of a failure: the evacuation of British troops from territory they had hoped to hold. “For all its gunfire and heavy artillery,” Berlatsky wrote, “Dunkirk shows that war can also mean impotence.” 1917 offers a fantasy along opposite lines: that a war, even a senseless one, offers men camaraderie far beyond what’s available to civilians—along with the chance to make a real difference.

Some of the best evidence supporting François Truffaut’s famous observation that “Every film about war ends up being pro-war” is the way U.S. troops a generation removed from the Vietnam War have repurposed “Ride of the Valkyries,” the Wagner theme that soundtracks a massacre in Apocalypse Now, as pump-up music. In a scene from the 2005 Persian Gulf War movie Jarhead, based on a memoir by Anthony Swofford, Marines watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene, singing along raucously, cheering for the helicopters that attack a Vietnamese village from the air. It was Sam Mendes who directed Jarhead—a fact that confuses me. Maybe 1917’s story, which Mendes based on an account his grandfather told him about his own service in the war, was just too close to his heart for him to keep the kind of critical distance he would have needed to prevent this war story from turning into a grand old adventure.

Swofford has more recently written about the way that the boot-camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s brutal, nihilistic Vietnam movie, thrilled him and made him want to join the military. This dark vision of the making of soldiers out of boys seemed “beautiful and profane and dangerous,” Swofford recalled. “It was funny and effective in the darkest parts of me. It’s funny and effective in the darkest parts of us all.” 1917 wants to pay tribute to the best in us, but it also speaks to the parts of us that want to see a hero emerge from a pointless war, thereby giving that war a point.

The film’s legacy may be the same as that of those seafarers in “The Jumblies.” At the end of Lear’s nonsense poem, the sailors return safely home, “grown tall” and bursting with stories, and are welcomed with a feast. The onlookers, inspired, draw the all-too-obvious conclusion:  “We too will go to sea in a Sieve.”