Keep your eyes on the trees.
—Schofield to Blake, 1917
The movie 1917 is a success by any measure. On a budget of about $100 million, it has grossed $368 million worldwide, and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (winning one for cinematography). Director Sam Mendes set out to tell a story heard from his grandfather of a daring suicide mission in World War I, and that story in its cinematic form clearly resonated with viewers (some spoilers to come).
Not so much with critics, at least a good number of the highbrow kind. A few characteristic examples to follow. The Verge called 1917 a “brag trick,” summarizing the views of many reviewers who focused almost exclusively on its “one-shot” cinematography. The New Yorker characterized the film as one of “patriotic bombast.” The Atlantic spoke more plainly still: 1917 is “a bad movie” and a “soulless film.” No mincing of words, these (numerous other reviews argue much the same).
But is it a trick, bombast, bad, and soulless? Alfred Hitchcock once said that his films were like “a slice of cake,” a delicious treat without any real nutrients in them. Is 1917 mere frosting and butter as many critics have it? Mendes has certainly made his mark as a big-budget director. He is an accomplished craftsman of the Hitchcockian kind, adept at entertainment. But again, is that all 1917 is—a cute ode to now-outmoded hero quests?
Here is my own view: 1917 is the most profound major-market film to release in a very long time. The movie is at base a stirring philosophical meditation on the meaning of life; it is an aesthetic inquiry into the good, beautiful, and true. Yes, that sounds like the cake has been baked at a high temperature, I admit. In what follows, I (who earn no money doing film criticism, and justly so) will lay out my case for this view of Mendes’ film (featuring a screenplay of compressed eloquence by Krysty Wilson-Cairns). My thesis can be boiled down to three simple words:
The Importance of Trees
1917 is a film about trees. It begins with Schofield resting against a tree, and it ends with him resting against a tree. As quoted above, Mendes gives us the clue to his film over 30 minutes in, embedding it in dialogue that we might well miss after the shattering bunker scene. “Keep your eyes on the trees” is not a throwaway line, however (as Schofield says it, a lone tree stands tall in the background). We’re not learning through this eminently missable clue—I read many reviews of 1917 and found none that cited this dialogue—that trees are abstractly interesting. No, there is a much deeper philosophical point at work in 1917.
This quick sentence is in fact the very message of the film. Throughout the movie, where trees flourish, there is rest; conversely, where trees have been hacked and hewn to evil ends, there is ruin and pain. In a manner consistent with the lush arboreality represented by Frederick Law Olmsted in design, J.R.R. Tolkien in literature, and Terrence Malick in auteur cinema, Mendes (and Wilson-Cairns) are telling us something vital. I mean “vital” in the deep sense, not the cursory. Bearing fruit, trees “manifest life” (from the Latin vitalis, fourteenth-century origin). Trees show us something of the created order as designed by God: it was not fashioned for death, but for life.
To celebrate and enjoy trees is thus to partake deeply of what we Christians call common grace in this world, even a fallen world like ours. But using trees as implements of war (as the Germans do in 1917 in numerous places) speaks to a worldview that desacralizes the created order and the goodness it bears (Genesis 1:31). Nature stewarded in celebration of life yields still more goodness, while nature sublimated to purposes of needless destruction makes creation nothing less than a witness to hell.
Nowhere is this tension brought out in greater nuance than in the cherry tree scene. About 38 minutes in, Schofield happens upon a grove of them and says, “They’ve chopped them all down.” In the midst of a ferocious war, he stops cold to observe this act of savagery (the Germans have also shot cows and a dog, innocent creatures unjustly handled). Blake then notes what kind of trees they are: “Cherries. Lamberts.”
This next bit of dialogue is necessary to understanding the thesis of the film. Schofield doesn’t know anything about trees; like we all do, he beholds spectacular and intricately detailed beauty on a regular basis but takes no notice of it. Blake, a sensitive soul, notes that people think “there’s only one type” of cherry tree, “but there’s lots of them,” listing “Cuthberts, Queen Annes, Montmorencys, sweet ones, sour ones.” Blake is a witness here to the aforementioned limitless variety of creation. (As a quick aside that deserves more substantiation, I think that Blake may represent the Romantic poet William Blake, a figure who had a strange interaction with a soldier named Schofield in 1803. Blake the character is certainly Romantic in nature—he has a full-orbed emotional life and is aesthetically inclined.)
Blake is the character who opens not only Schofield’s eyes, but ours. Where we like Schofield see a tree, Blake sees a cherry tree; but more than this, he knows that there are many kinds of cherry trees, and that their variations yield myriad colors and textures and tastes. It is at this point that we arrive at Mendes’ major philosophical idea. Enlightened by Blake’s knowledge of trees, knowledge gleaned not from textbooks but from the rhythms of a happy family, Schofield expresses sadness about the desecration of this holy grove. In his optimistic way, Blake responds: “They’ll grow again when the stones rot. You’ll end up with more trees than before.”
Forgive me once more, but I saw nary a critic mention these sentences in numerous snarky “Mendes is a trick-shot director” reviews. I believe this particular comment from Blake spells out the case that 1917 quietly but persuasively makes. Man does terrible things to man, and to creation besides. But even with evil loose in the world, bringing desperate suffering to living things, beauty will win in the end. The glade is a cut-flower civilization in miniature, but the trees have lived and will grow again. This is too weak, actually: the cherry seeds—”stones”—will rot, but will grow back as trees in greater number than before, Blake says. The death of the grove means the flowering of a much greater forest. Transposed in theological terms, evil is not only overcome; evil’s purposes are turned on its head, and goodness expands in ironic fashion because of evil’s destructive schemes.
We shall return to this soaring (and deeply biblical) theme in due course, just as the film does.
The Rebuilding of the Family
I want to move ahead in the narrative, skipping much I could cover. Mendes returns to the theme of rebuilding in the ruins in the fiery French town occupied by German soldiers. After being shot and narrowly escaping death several times, and after one of the most stunning visual images I’ve yet seen in a film (a town enwreathed in flame that is both horrifying and transfixing), Schofield crashes into a basement dwelling. There he encounters a young woman who is keeping a baby alive. Schofield initially is barely able to respond to this pair as he is badly hurt. The young woman moves gracefully toward him and treats his head wound with a gentle feminine touch. She cares for him, the warrior come home to a patchwork family.
For his part, Schofield emerges from his shock and sacrificially gives his canteen of milk to the woman, who gives it to the child. He then warms up further still, engaging the baby and making her laugh. The young woman senses perceptively that he is a father (as indeed he is, we learn later). I wager that Mendes is communicating something meaningful in this scene. In the ruins, in surprising circumstances, the family is rebuilt. Here is the renewal that the world truly needs: not just a planting of trees, but the recovery of marriage, the union of one man and one woman, and the welcoming of children as a gift, not a curse.
It seems that the motif of trees forms the beginning and end motif of 1917, and this family scene represents the inclusio (the main point bracketed by complementary ideas). The family scene is, in other words, the human expression of the cherry tree scene. Here is the replanting that the world truly needs. It needs men and women, husbands and wives, children loved and cared for, the family restored amidst much attack. Mendes seems to be communicating that this creation order has suffered violence, but that civilization can know healing. It will come through a renewal of the family.
To whatever degree they believe in the natural family (a far better term than our dreaded “nuclear family”), Mendes and Wilson-Cairns have landed on the foundational element of society. We are not born into isolation; we are born into families, at least in God’s design. The family is the first institution, grounded in covenantal marriage that is a picture of the Gospel love of Christ for his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Even in the treacherous conditions of ferocious battle, the family endures. This short scene, generally mentioned as an oddity by many reviewers, speaks to a profound truth: civilization begins with the family.
Here the trees, so to speak, grow once more.
The Value of a Life
1917 brings its celebration of life to a muted peak in its final scene. Schofield, having lost Blake to an unjust death some hours back, meets Blake’s brother. Schofield and Lieutenant Blake struggle to speak to one another, but even as he delivers terrible news, Schofield performs a precious service. Schofield hands over some small effects of Blake’s. This quick action, easily overlooked, is actually a crucial development of Schofield’s character. Earlier in the movie, Schofield derided a medal he earned in a prior conflict for heroism. Just before the cherry tree scene, he tells Blake that he traded his medal for a bottle of wine. This got Blake’s blood up: “You should have taken it home,” he protests. “You should have given it to your family. Men have died for that. If I got a medal, I’d take it back home.”
Schofield spits back at Blake. “It’s just a bit of tin,” he says. “It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.” But Blake (just before his death) rises again to the challenge: “Yet it does. And it’s not just a bit of tin. And it’s got a ribbon on it.” This early scene anticipates the film’s last scene. At that point, walking into the cut-flower grove, Schofield is battle-hardened. He has lost touch with the good, true, and beautiful. He is by no means evil as the enemy is, but he is no longer able to be a witness to the deep value of life; he is simply surviving. But Blake is still alive, fully alive. He sees that the medal is not just tin; it speaks to the ideals that drive one to risk everything for the sake of the innocent and the threatened.
Notably, in this earlier scene Blake sees the medal as valuable in relation to family. (He adores his family, making it all the more poignant that we meet his brother in closing.) Valor in battle confers meaning on all the sacrifices made by both soldiers and loved ones. War is terrible, but men give everything they have in order to love and protect those who are also sacrificing much at home (who will be justly proud of warrior heroism). The “tin” itself is not worth anything great. But the medal symbolically captures all the hardship, courage, and sacrifice made by soldiers (and civilizations) for a greater good. It simultaneously has no real value and more value than words can convey.
In the end, tin is all that is left in earthly terms. But these effects, though small and insignificant, speak to the value of an entire existence. They tell us who this man was: Blake, a valiant soldier, one so merciful that he died trying to help a foe, a young man whose days on earth mattered. Every life matters. Every person has value, dignity, and worth. Here, I think, we behold a glimpse of the doctrine of the image of God in cinematic expression.
An Odyssey, But a Spiritual Odyssey More Than a Physical One
As mentioned above, the film closes with Schofield resting against a tree. For the first time, he lets himself look at pictures of his beautiful young wife and children. He alluded to his family in the “bit of tin” scene, but got choked up before he could say more. “I hated going home… when I knew I had to leave and they might never see…” At the end of this line, Schofield’s voice trails off. The pain is too great for him, so he goes silent. Here is his mentality early in 1917: better to survive than despair.
In light of this resolution, we discover that 1917 is not only a “quest” in the classic sense, a man going on a grand adventure. It is that, but it is much more. Schofield himself has gone on a personal quest, yes, but has been changed by his personal odyssey. He is not the same man. He understands afresh just how much life matters. He felt this in a terrible way when Blake bled out on the ground; he felt this like an electric current as he ran to stop the doomed assault; he felt it when he handed over all that was left of a noble life; he feels it as he leans against a tree at the film’s end, looking over his pictures of his family. He has awakened once more to the goodness of the world. The survivor of almost impossible difficulty, Schofield is effectively brought back to full-fledged humanity by Blake. He is, you could say, reenchanted.
Mendes has signaled such a trajectory already. Recall what happened in the German barracks scene: after a terrific explosion (that nearly knocked me out of my IMAX seat), Schofield would certainly have died had Blake not pulled him out of the rubble. In the end, Blake—with the young woman and baby and the singer in the wooded glade—has pulled Schofield out of spiritual ruin as well. Though dead, Blake’s spirited and virtuous example has helped bring Schofield back from a kind of living death. Nearly dehumanized by war, Schofield’s epic quest has revealed that the world is not a machine. Existence is not merely a test of survival. The created order is not intended for consumption, least of all for mindless destruction. Evil is everywhere, but the cherry trees—representing civilization—will grow back, and in greater number. Goodness, truth, and beauty are all around us, and will be found in greater measure in the age to come.
It may well be that these commitments reflect for Mendes not a Christian worldview but a Romantic worldview. Yet as I surface this possibility, I cannot help but think of two intertwined concluding events. First, after surviving a terrible assault and a rushing river, Schofield is nearly dead. As Dan Phillips pointed out to me, cherry blossoms then fall on him and seem to revive him, enabling him to crawl over corpses and survive (a fulfillment of Blake’s words on regenerative cherry trees). Second, as Schofield staggers toward the battlefield, we hear these words from the “Wayfaring Stranger” song sung in the forest glade: “But golden fields lie just before me / Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep.” Perhaps this is a sign that Mendes’ vision is not only Romantic, and that this is not simply a war movie, or a “quest” movie. It certainly is not a “one trick” movie, nor is it “soulless” or “bad” or “bombast” or a mere slice of cake. No, 1917 is a work of art. It is a beautiful film. It is a deceptively deep inquiry into the value of life, the treasured heritage of Western civilization, and the importance of martial courage. 1917 is, after Malick’s Tree of Life, the most profound film I have seen in some time.
This is a fitting reference with which to conclude. What did we hear early in 1917, after all? “Keep your eyes on the trees.” How fitting, and how consonant with rich Christian theology. It was a tree misused that damned us. It was a tree fitted for torture that saved us. Like Schofield at the end of his journey, sitting in peace beneath a tree, a living thing that is itself a witness to the goodness of God’s creation, so it will be a tree’s leaves that heal us weary pilgrims in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2).
Keep your eyes on the trees, indeed.