“Time is the enemy.” That’s the marketing tagline for Sam Mendes’s World War I epic 1917, this year’s Golden Globe winner for best drama. Not since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has time itself been so foregrounded as a war film’s scariest foe. In both Dunkirk and 1917, the ostensible enemy (the German army) is largely unseen. Sure, we see their bullets, bombs, and bunkers; but we (mostly) don’t see their faces. This is because Mendes, like Nolan, wants audiences to focus on a more universal and terrifying villain: time, and its close cousin mortality.
Every one of us confronts this villain—whose weapon is simply a ubiquitous presence that constantly reminds us our time is limited; our lives are like vapors. What will we spend this precious life doing? Will we seek to preserve ourselves and lengthen our lives as long as we can? Or will we give ourselves away to a cause bigger than ourselves, even if it costs us?
Mendes based 1917’s plot loosely around an amalgamation of stories told to him by his grandfather, Alfred, who fought in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917. Mendes remembers his grandfather telling one story about having to carry a message across No Man’s Land—a story that forms the core of 1917’s fictional plot. We follow two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they seek to take a message through enemy territory to another group of British soldiers about to be ambushed. Some 1,600 men—including Blake’s brother—will be lost if the message doesn’t reach them in time.
The task is seemingly impossible and probably a suicide mission, and the boys know it. Lesser men would still refuse to go, knowing they’d probably die. Yet when Schofield and Blake receive the grim orders from the general (Colin Firth plays a small but memorable role), they respond with a firm salute.
This resolute gesture, made with unmistakable dread in their eyes, captures the beauty of duty and simple obedience, of saying “yes” to something costly and hard, simply because an authority above you gives the order. In a “follow your heart” world where “do as you’re told” deference to authority is tantamount to blasphemy, the moment feels radical and refreshing—and the rest of the film only builds on it.
It’s been a long time since a film immersed me in its world as powerfully as 1917 did. Essentially filmed in one long, two-hour shot, the film—which features the masterful cinematography of living legend Roger Deakins—is a cinematic feat rarely attempted, though not without precedent (Birdman, Rope, and Russian Ark are other examples of one-shot films). It’s hard to imagine all the elaborate staging, choreography, set design, and timing required to make the real-time action flow seamlessly, but it does. Kudos to all the artists involved in this monumental undertaking.
In a ‘follow your heart’ world where ‘do as you’re told’ deference to authority is tantamount to blasphemy, the moment feels radical and refreshing—and the rest of the film only builds on it.
Some might call the film’s hyper-stylized “one take” conceit a gimmick, but I see it as filmmaking magic at its best. Mendes is a talented director (see especially Road to Perdition and Skyfall), and 1917 is his best film yet—certainly his most cinematic. But the film isn’t just immersive for its own sake; it serves the story well, putting viewers right there in the action. We squirm when gigantic rats scurry across the trenches in front of us. We jump when unexpected bullets whiz our way. We tense at every ominous sound, whether an artillery barrage or a plane engine in the sky. We are there with Schofield and Blake as they face one deathtrap after another; it’s a white-knuckle experience.
Few films had me more on the edge of my seat this year. The action is propulsive and unrelenting, greatly enhanced by the “time running out” motif of real-time plot. At times there are brief reprieves where we can catch our breath. One scene in particular stands out: a soldier in a forest singing the Gospel/folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” to hundreds of his fellow men as they prepare to lead a first-wave attack. The soldiers’ faces are sober and strangely peaceful as they listen to the lyrics, likely the last they’ll hear this side of eternity:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
Taking the Fight to Time
The song makes for a significant scene, because it helps us understand how these men cope with the nearness of death, and why they so willingly run out of the trenches and onto fields of bombs, barbed wire, bodies, and death. They have perspective. They understand that whether they die young or old, everyone is just “traveling through this world below.” The hope of a true home—the “bright land” over the Jordan—puts the toil and snares of life into perspective. It makes suffering endurable and painful tasks worth doing.
The hope of a true home puts the toil and snares of life into perspective. It makes suffering endurable and painful tasks worth doing.
It would have been understandable for Schofield and Blake to question the orders they were given, or even to run out of harm’s way rather than into it. Certainly for many soldiers the “why” of the war was never clear. Scores killed and maimed in gruesome ways, but for what? The “last man standing” war of attrition likely felt pointless to many in the trenches. Yet they marched on, many to their deaths.
Even more than the stunning technical merit and artistry of 1917, this is what makes it so beautiful and inspiring. As we watch Schofield and Blake so willingly do their duty, brave and yet certainly afraid, it gives us courage. It reminds us, as some of the other great 2019 films do as well (A Hidden Life, The Irishman, 63 Up), that life is fragile and death is inevitable. We don’t know the number of days we will have, nor can we choose how easy or hard our path. To quote the wisdom of Gandalf: “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
1917 captures the beauty of men taking the fight to the villain of time by giving everything they can in the few moments they have. Eternity is the prize anyway, so why not spend your life on something greater? It’s a movie about seizing the moment, recognizing the urgency of the mission, and choosing costly obedience over self-preserving comfort. In this way it’s also a reminder to Christians to stop wasting time squabbling about trifling things. God’s mission is greater, and his call is urgent. Let’s crawl out of the miry trenches and fight for what matters.