Sam Mendes’s 1917 and Philosophy

Aaron Meacham
5 min readFeb 21, 2020
Photo by Francois Duhamel / Universal Pic
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
--Rudyard Kipling, "The Winners"

Colin Firth’s General Erinmore recites the above quote upon revealing the hero’s quest to the film’s duo of protagonists. What feels like a bit of abstract encouragement turns out to initiate a major through-line for the film and its heroes. And in following with Joseph Campbell’s archetype, it is Schofield’s (George MacKay) rejection of that call to the quest that foreshadows his status as the film’s true hero.

Mendes cleverly disguises Schofield’s initial rejection as reasonable caution, especially against Blake’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) impulsivity as Blake breathlessly pushes his way through the British trenches. Schofield’s apparent caution is immediately reinforced by Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) — in one of the film’s few humorous scenes — projecting an image of Blake as the dewy-eyed optimist who refuses to be dragged down by the bleak reality surrounding him.

But the reality that surrounds the duo is a bleak one. And if Blake does learn that lesson, it is only too late.

It is Schofield’s relearning of that lesson and grappling with the ensuing philosophical entanglements that drive the rest of the film.

Nihilism: Can Anyone Truly Be Alone?

Throughout the majority of the film, Schofield is seldom by himself. After Blake’s death, he is almost immediately discovered by another regiment of British soldiers, whom he travels with until disembarking and engaging an unseen enemy, then several seen enemies, then a civilian, more enemies, and finally— after a brief, yet harrowing trip down a river “of the dead” — countless more British soldiers.

So is Schofield ever really travelling alone, as the general’s poem suggests?

Absolutely.

Just, maybe not in the sense it seems at first.

Mendes makes certain to document the various ways in which the horrors of war have affected the British troops, from Lieutenant Leslie’s gallows humor to the attempts at humor on the troop transport to the fatalism of the men in the 2nd Devons preparing their attack (as well as the…

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Aaron Meacham

My name anagrams to “a man becomes.” I love movies and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t understand how anagrams work.