– By Matthew Sawczyn –
Among the gorgeous visuals and bombastic explosions, there’s one brief moment in director Sam Mendes’ 1917 that truly encapsulates this tale’s theme of brotherhood and sacrifice. It’s a “blink and you miss it” line, an offhand act, subtle but powerful. The movie begins with two soldiers resting underneath a tree: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his friend, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). Young men, no more than boys. A voice wakes them; Blake has been summoned by no less than General Erinmore (Colin Firth). He is told to pick one other man to aid him in whatever assignment the General has for him. Blake asks Schofield, thinking nothing of it.
The two are then told by the General of their mission: they are to deliver a direct letter to a Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the 2nd battalion, miles away. The order? To abandon an attack planned for the next day, as newly acquired intelligence suggests the 2nd battalion is walking into a trap. The story is simple, and satisfyingly so. On the shoulders of our two young shoulders rest the lives of almost 1,600 fellow countrymen, Blake’s brother among them.
And it is when the two first start out that this moment happens. As the two prepare to ascend a rickety ladder and poke their heads from their protected trench, the muddy maze that has served as home for so many months, Schofield pulls Blake back. “Age before beauty,” he quips, and climbs out first. A small gesture, and in typical soldier fashion, paired with a joke, but one of complete self-giving. By sticking his head out first, Schofield risked being shot. Schofield instinctively put himself in danger first, before his brother-in-arms, and doesn’t think twice about it.
Over the next one hundred minutes, this theme of brotherly sacrifice appears again and again, as the two cross the desolate terrain, in constant danger and with no rest. The disguised one-take serves to immerse us in the relentless mindset of our two boys: never resting, never “cutting away”. Because in real life, of course, one cannot simply cut to the next scene. Blake and Schofield have a harrowing journey ahead of them, a grueling mission to carry out, and we are going to feel every minute of it.
All of this gives the movie an immediacy, a “realness” rarely experienced in cinema. It is a stressful experience, to say the least. The film mercifully dips into quieter moments, such as an encounter with a stranded woman and her baby, or the brief peace of a soldier’s song. True to war, our soldiers go from danger, to quiet, to danger again. And, at the film’s climax, even when ridiculed or written off, our heroes fight with all desperation to save their soldier brethren. They fight out of love for their brothers.
In conclusion, this film absolutely deserves a trip to the theater, while it still plays on the big screen. The sheer technical feat of 1917 is mind-blowing. The cinematography is stunning, the acting superb, the story simple and grounded. It is a testament to heroic deeds done by ordinary people, unrecognized and unsung. It is (along with this season’s A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick) a reminder that what we do ultimately does make a difference, in our lives and the lives of our brothers. Darkness passes, and we do at last find rest under the shade of the tree, in this life or the next.
About the Author
Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and an alumnus of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.
For more articles by Matthew, click here.