Director/co-writer Sam Mendes used stories hisgrandfather told about World War I, plus others’ stories from the Imperial WarMuseum archives, for the foundation of 1917. It is the story of friendship,loyalty, determination, and courage. But it also touches at times on the futilitythat is inherent in war.
You are watching: Down to gehenna or up to the throne
The film opens with Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-CharlesChapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) relaxing during what has become a lullin the fighting. Blake is summoned to report to the General and to bringsomeone with him. The two report and Blake is tasked with delivering a message.The Germans seem to have withdrawn. Another battalion, thinking the Germans areon the run is planning a dawn attack to try to finish them off. However, it’s atrap. If the attack happens it will cost the lives of 1600 men. Blake waschosen because his brother is in that group, and so Blake will have greatmotivation. The difficulty is that to get there they must navigate through NoMan’s Land, and then a few miles through enemy territory that may or may notstill have enemy soldiers waiting to kill them.
Mendes, working with lauded cinematographer RogerDeakins, strives to let us see the journey step by step. The film is seeminglyone continuous tracking shot of the two soldiers and the landscapes they travelthrough. This is truly a technical challenge to accomplish, and it is worth notingthat it is achieved. Personally, I findthat a bit distracting because I start looking for the seams of where differenttakes have been blended to each other.
This method creates an atmosphere of constant tension.From the first steps into No Man’s Land they are targets. They must work theirway through barbed wire, the various craters and rotting corpses (both equineand human), never knowing when something might happen. When they reach theenemy’s abandoned trench, there is still no safety. There could be other threatsto deal with. There is little time to relax. Even in open country, any buildingcould be dangerous.
While there are other characters they encounter (thecast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and a number of others in whatare essentially bit parts), this is really the story of Blake and Schofield andtheir mission. They are comrades, but not especially close. They have differentoutlooks on the mission. Blake, with the motivation of saving his brother,wants to start immediately; Schofield is more cautious. Schofield is a bit moreexperienced, having been awarded a medal from an earlier battle; Blake looksforward to doing something that will get a medal. Blake is open about talkingabout his family; Schofield is more compartmentalized, knowing he may never seehis family again. Their relationshipgrows through this mission, but that is not the real focus. Instead, as we seethese two soldiers risking their lives to complete the mission, we note the wartimevirtues that they embody.
I have to admit that I’m nearly always conflicted aboutwar movies. I view war as evil. Even a just war (if such a thing exists) isinherently evil, even if it must be entered into to stop greater evil. Yet, inthe midst of that evil, we are able to find examples of people acting valiantly.This can often lead to an idealized and romanticized view of war and those whofight. That is a danger that 1917 flirts with at times. Yet, Mendes alsoincludes bits and pieces that point to a more balanced understanding. Forinstance, when Blake asks Schofield why he doesn’t wear the medal he earned,Schofield tells him he traded it to a French soldier for a bottle of wine. Hewas thirsty. The practicalities of life sometimes are of more value than thetrimmings of glory.
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An interesting, seemingly throwaway line, struck mewhen I heard it. I think it gives some insight into how to understand the film.When the two are about to set off, they ask the general why they aren’t takingmore men with them. He quotes a line from a Kipling poem: “Down to Gehenna orup to the Throne,/He travels fastest who travels alone.” (How very British to answerin such a way!) But this journey is one that is indeed a walk through Hell. Perhapsit also is an ascent of the spirit as the soldiers find within themselves qualitiesthey had not known they possess.