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?
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 “shellshock” expression on the officer in the trench) and ultimately, to Colonel Mackenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggle for meaning.
What they all have in common — and what is ultimately separating them from one another — is the idea of death on their mind.
World War I has a particularly well-documented relationship with Nihilism. The disillusionment in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. Chuck Klosterman describes a correlation to the popularity of Moby Dick with the experiences of WWI sailors in his book But What If We’re Wrong. On their book tour for Turtles All the Way Down, Hank and John Green performed an audience sing-along about WWI soldiers in the trenches questioning their purpose. And 1917 demonstrates this sense of Nihilism throughout, though perhaps no more poignantly than with Blake’s death.
The death comes sudden and unexpected. Both protagonists have just avoided being killed by an enemy plane and have dragged the injured pilot from its flaming wreckage. In the brief lull, the audience might even be expected to applaud Blake’s decision to spare his enemy — until Blake’s screams of pain jolt us back to reality. We are faced with the meaninglessness of Blake’s death as well as the isolation that comes with it. Blake and Schofield are both afraid, and they are both afraid of Blake’s impending death, but in the Nihilist interpretation of the scene, they are not (and cannot be) afraid together. Blake fears for his own death, while Schofield fears for the death of his friend. In this moment, though Blake may well understand the fear for the death of a friend, Schofield cannot understand the fear for the death of himself. And while Schofield has demonstrated caution and an understanding of the dangers of war, he has never had to face the certainty that he will die, only that he might die. Though the two men are closer, physically, than they have ever been, they are also further apart than they could ever be in this moment.
And if the film wanted this Nihilist message to resonate with the audience, this scene would mark an excellent conclusion. Two strapping young men go off on a mission for King and Country, only to fail and suffer meaningless tragedy along the way.
Beyond Meaninglessness: A Sisyphean Task?
But the film doesn’t end with Blake’s death. Instead it drives forward, with Schofield singularly at the helm. Certainly, he must now be alone. The stakes of the quest are far less real for him as he has less skin in the game. He is the only one left on this suicide mission, having already made it clear he would much rather have a bottle of wine than the honors that come with demonstrated valor. If none of this means anything and he faces almost certain death to continue forward, he should just quit. Or desert. Or fake an injury.
So why doesn’t he?
Schofield’s response to Blake’s death mirrors that of many of the Existentialist philosophers and Modernist writers reacting to WWI. In the face of overwhelming meaninglessness and insignificance, he could submit to his despair, just as so many around him have done already. Or he could reject traditional power structures and choose for himself. Schofield has already balked at the notion of any valor to be gained in this war, but he’s still in the predicament of being a soldier who is compelled to follow orders. Like Camus’s Sisyphus, fated to push the boulder up the hill over and over for eternity, Schofield (and the other soldiers) is caught up in a cycle of meaninglessness. But with Blake’s death, he is given a choice, a purpose.
He can continue to follow the orders of a general who promotes a traditional system of power or he can reframe the issue, thereby exercising his will. Schofield can cease to be a tool and become a human.
Saving Blake’s brother, specifically, and writing home about Blake’s death won’t bring accolades or medals, but it does give Schofield something he’s been longing for even more — genuine purpose.
The effect of this change becomes immediately apparent, with Schofield nearly exhausting himself to free the stuck transport as the soldiers around him languish in their pessimism, only stirred to act by this showing of sincere effort by Schofield. He later gives more of himself — all the rations he’s carrying — in service to a complete stranger. Something has changed within Schofield that drives him to connect with others. His true purpose is made clear once he has successfully delivered the general’s letter to Colonel Mackenzie, thus calling off the attack; he seeks out Blake’s brother in order to complete his true mission and satisfy his true purpose. The intensity with which he pursues this goal is as passionate (or even more, considering that the threat of bodily harm has subsided) as his intensity in seeking out the colonel. And it is only after he has completed this mission, his true mission, that he is able to go off by himself and find peace.
And though the movie closes with Schofield by himself against that solitary tree, we know that he is no longer alone.