1917 and the Futile Pilgrimage

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We all know about the classic Quest. It’s a literary staple from Homeric epic to contemporary fantasy. The hero must undertake a long and hazardous journey to rescue damsel/destroy artefact/carry message/save soul. From Odysseus to Aeneas, Mallory to Tolkien, Spielberg to Shrek, they’re all at it. These plots may or may not get advanced by a MacGuffin, a term popularised by Hitchcock for plot-driving objects such as rings, maps or antidotes. But whatever the ingredients, the reader/listener/viewer is gripped by the need to complete said quest in the face of great jeopardy. And if there’s no jeopardy, there’s no grip.

For three centuries of English readers, the definitive quest narrative has been John Bunyan’s. Second only to the Bible in importance for a person’s formation, everybody used to read The Pilgrim’s Progress. Dr. Johnson, no less, declared that “the great merit of the book [is] that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing.” What sets it apart, however, is this simple fact: rather than a plot to participate in vicariously, perhaps as a distraction or enchantment, Bunyan contended that his was truly a universal quest, designed to set up the primary contours of the saved life.

Inevitably, the book has nothing like its former influence today, but it still has a significant legacy. My sense is that this can be detected even in a hit movie like 1917.

A Quest: Into the Wild

1917 compresses its entire quest into just twenty-four hours but the ingredients are all there. Unlikely heroes, an absurd mission, lethal odds, and a binary outcome lead to mission accomplished…or not. Here, there is no “try.” Mendes’ film is further intensified by its celebrated full immersion-technique of appearing to use only one take. The cinematic experience is visceral, doing for World War I what Saving Private Ryan did for the D-Day  landings.

Two young, English soldiers, Blake and Schofield, are sent on a do-or-die mission by the jaded General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Communications are down so they must deliver a message to two battalions of the 2nd Devons (currently nine miles away) by hand. German forces had withdrawn but it was now clear they were by no means in the disarray that the Devons hoped to exploit. It was a trap, evidently weeks in the planning. They had retreated to heavily fortified lines—the Hindenburg Line. The Devons’ Col. MacKenzie simply has to call off their dawn attack. “If you fail,” says Erinmore to the two men, “it will be a massacre.”

Now, some artistic licence comes into play here. Historically speaking, the Germans did retreat (in Operation Alberich). They left the intervening territory scorched and studded with mines and booby-traps. Anything of potential use to the allies’ cause was systematically destroyed. It was a hell of Isengardian proportions. Furthermore, director/co-writer Sam Mendes pieced the story together from his grandfather Alfred’s tales from the trenches as well as the wider historical record. Alfred Mendes was indeed required to run through no-man’s-land with a message—for which he was later awarded the Military Medal in 1918. We discover early on that Schofield has already won his, and it is clear that success in the narrative’s mission would easily warrant the award. Finally, the weeks of Spring 1917 were undoubtedly a chaotic and terrifying phase of the war for Britain and France.

However, the likelihood that the fate of nearly 2,000 men depends on just a couple of squaddies (as in the film) is slim, although not unthinkable. Furthermore, how a large detachment found themselves so far ahead by the time the enemy’s ruse was rumbled is never clear; nor is the reason why others in the original British line (led by Andrew Scott’s character, Lt. Leslie) are still attacking the evacuated German trenches. Communications, even when lines got cut, were constantly attended to and supplemented by other methods (such as carrier pigeons).

It seems the greatest Quest narrative of them all is as relevant, and needed, as ever.

Mark Meynell

Still, these pedantic quibbles are small-fry. 1917 is all about the vivid and traumatic experience of war’s chaos, horror, and absurdity. With Blake and Schofield, we are thrust into the horror of trenches and no-man’s-land, and it all feels very real: the mud and gore, vermin and stench, tree stumps and bloating corpses. No one knows what is happening. One moment, the man standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you marches forward, the next he is face down in a blood-streamed puddle. It was just the luck of the draw.

Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Schofield must prevail over appalling obstacles. For both, the temptations to abandon the mission are legion. Schofield must persevere despite his stunned grief at Blake’s death, anxiety about infectious wounds, trauma of being buried alive, and the constant threat of snipers. Nor can he afford to recuperate in the sanctuary of the cellar where he finds a young woman and orphaned baby. The quest is all. On his life depend two thousand lives. He must continue. Like Pilgrim’s before him, this journey has value only if completed. Otherwise, it is futility.

But of course, Schofield succeeds. And we are with him all the way. So far, so archetypal, and the film is none the worse for that. It is a remarkable experience.

But then something weird happens.

A Cycle: There and Back Again

The film’s closing image is of Schofield leaning against a tree. He has been looking at photos of his family; it’s the first time we discover he even has one. And then, at last, he closes his eyes. He sleeps. Fade to black.

But the thing is, we have been here before. This is where the film began: Blake lying asleep under his helmet in a beautiful field full of spring flowers. The camera then pulls back to his companion, Schofield, also asleep but up against a tree. Schofield’s sleep thus brackets the entire film. It is an elegant device, common, in fact, in the Bible (termed inclusio by commentators). But its significance is quite profound.

Dial back a few scenes. How does Schofield first chance upon the 2nd Devons? He’s been propelled downriver by overwhelming torrents, having just escaped another sniper in Écoust. It is the one stage of his journey entirely beyond his control but it results in him being washed up in rocky shallows, defeated and despairing. He then glances up, catching intermittent billows of muffled singing. It’s ethereal, angelic almost. But the music has a strange familiarity and we soon realise that, of all things, they’re intoning that classic, lamenting African American spiritual, The Wayfaring Stranger. It is almost a minor-key lullaby. Schofield scrambles up the bank and into the forest where he finds hundreds of soldiers resting. We could almost be in Elysium, ancient Greece’s Underworld resting place for heroes. Schofield sits with them and relishes this scene of almost unimaginable balm and beauty:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I going 
I’m going there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home

I know dark clouds will gather ‘round me
I know my way is hard and steep
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep
I’m going there to see my Mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
So, I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home.

—”Wayfaring Stranger”

It is the perfect song choice. Schofield has just crossed over a river, for one thing. And he has been “travelling through this world below”, which of course originally refers to our world, even though Schofield’s experiences might more reasonably be associated with the world below ours. He is not a member of this battalion and so is unknown, a wayfaring stranger who is passing through. He too is spurred on by hope through both the hard and steep way and the beauteous fields. Yet despite his grief for the “loved ones who’ve gone on” (Blake is the primary example) we know by the end that it is a different hope that sustains him: reunion with his wife and children. And Blake’s last words?

“Will you write to my mum for me? Tell her I wasn’t scared.”

The film’s agony is that the river Schofield crossed is no Jordan River. It grants none of the finality that Bunyan’s Pilgrim receives when he crosses the River of Death into the Celestial City. For he does not enter a “bright land”; instead he is funnelled into another war zone. Even though he can rest against his tree after completing his mission, we know that this cycle will be repeated. This thought is made explicit by Col. MacKenzie’s response (played with searing economy and latent violence by Benedict Cumberbatch) once he accepted Gen. Erinmore’s command to stand down:

“I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.”

He goes on, “There’s only one way this war ends: last man standing.”

For Erinmore’s communiqué doesn’t actually protect soldiers from the fight; it merely postpones it. Schofield can rest from his heroics, but there is no knowing what tomorrow will bring.

This is what makes it all seem so futile. There is such little progression; it is more like an infernal hamster-wheel. Or consider the nightmarish Merry-Go-Round painted just the year before the film’s setting in 1916 by London artist Mark Gertler. What should be a source of innocent delight and joy, especially for the young, has mutated into an instrument of torture. The individuals depicted are dressed in stylised military uniforms, their faces suspended in rictus grins. This circus-favourite is in constant motion, so dismounting is impossible. There is no escape. To my mind, this is one of the most powerful images from the period.

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler (1916)

A nightmare is surely Mendes’ intended effect of the surreal and stunningly shot night scene in the blazing Écoust. Before the end of this war, countless thousands more will die. Bravery in such circumstances is absurdly unbearable. As Andrew Scott’s embittered Lt. Leslie comments on learning of Blake and Schofield’s task, “Nothing like a strip of ribbon to cheer up a widow.” We now better understand Schofield’s unexpected disposal of his medal early on. Just what on earth was the point? Who wouldn’t rather return home in person than have his family receive a medal in his place?

1917’s narrative inclusio is cinematically and emotionally satisfying. In the grand scheme of things, however, its vision of reality is anything but.

A Trajectory: From Here to Eternity

Now it should be said that Mendes does not leave his audience entirely adrift. There are glimmers, but that is probably the best that can be said of them. The film takes place on 6th April, two and a half years since the outbreak of World War I. But for American viewers, it should have special significance. That was the day on which the USA declared war on Germany. It was thus the war’s last significant turning point. But only history buffs could possibly know that! Nothing on screen even hints at it.

So we must conclude that, for all its individual cases of heroism and self-sacrifice, this war of attrition leaves little grounds for true hope. Of course, the spiritual sung in the forest holds out hope for life after life. And for the majority of those soldiers preparing to go over the top, they would have taken comfort from that, chiming as it did with the Christian worldview that permeated pre-World War I culture. They might never have given it any thought previously, but with their mortality brought to the forefront, many would have sought solace in precisely this reality.

Yet that is not the way most people today think, especially on this side of the Atlantic. They simply lack the intellectual substructure that makes the hope on offer seem even remotely plausible. This is because most in the West still live with the residue, if not the furniture and framework of Modernism. This has slyly appropriated the structure of a Christian worldview but shrunk it by removing the divine elements:

  • Where there was Divine Providence, there is now an arbitrary commitment to human progress.
  • Where there was sin to be rescued from, there is still a liberation required, but it is couched in terms of liberation from the so-called superstitions of religion and the mystical.
  • Where there was a rescue made possible by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, there is now the self-sacrifice of revolution (in which, as Stalin would say, eggs must be cracked in order to make the omelette). This is what will usher in that liberation.
  • Where there was a hold-out for a new society in an other-worldly kingdom (as articulated in the “Wayfaring Stranger” spiritual), now the best that can be offered is some heaven on earth, a utopia built on capitalist or communist foundations.

In these and many other ways, then, the Christian worldview has been contracted, shrink-wrapped and desiccated.

But here’s the horror. The “war to end all wars” blew any nineteenth century utopian aspirations to smithereens. For many, the possibility of a divine providence—as well as personality at the heart of reality—now seemed utterly implausible, obscene even.

Yet many others came to believe, not just despite the horrors of the trenches, but through them. Oxford’s Inklings were a case in point. Tolkien and the Lewises (both Jack and Warnie), Barfield and Dyson all endured and survived the trenches. Many of their dearest friends did not. But in their various ways, each grasped that despite the noxious evidence of their senses while on the fields of France and Belgium, this was not the totality of reality. They had come to see that Bunyan had articulated truth, that the Bible reveals a trajectory for life that transcends all these horrors. We really are wayfaring strangers in this world, just as Peter describes the Turkish recipients of his first letter (1 Peter 1:1). Or as Paul can say without any glib deprecation of the torments that life can subject people to—remember, he himself endured many of the worst of these—“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

A modernist living within a shrink-wrapped and reductionist reality can never say that. Certainly not with any confidence. Sam Mendes doesn’t seem to be offering the possibility. But, with the prominence of “Wayfaring Stranger” in the film (whose melody is in fact prefigured in the soundtrack from the start), it is nevertheless offering it.

So it seems the greatest Quest narrative of them all is as relevant, and needed, as ever.


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