[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Sam Mendes’ 1917; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
While Sam Mendes’ 1917 has earned near-universal critical acclaim, its minimalistic narrative structure has attracted its fair share of detractors (especially in response to its numerous Oscar nominations). Even a few of the film’s supporters agree that it represents a classic example of style-over-substance—the ambitious visual presentation is the main event, they argue; the story is of secondary concern. But in my opinion, such a narrow assessment vastly underestimates the elegance of simplicity. Indeed, the straightforwardness of the plot actually becomes its greatest asset, drawing the viewer’s attention to those rare occasions when it does depart from the conventional formula (often in surprisingly significant ways).
In a traditional war movie, for example, Dean-Charles Chapman’s Tom Blake would undoubtedly be the protagonist. His introductory scenes establish him as charismatic, jovial, and noble—qualities that define both a strong leader and a strong lead character. His flaws, too, quickly become apparent: his swagger and sarcasm betray an overconfidence and naiveté that make him ill-suited to the horrors of trench warfare; at this point, the audience might begin to suspect that his experiences will gradually smooth out these relatively minor blemishes, sculpting him into a more seasoned warrior. Most importantly, he is personally invested in the mission that drives the action forward: his older brother is among the 1,600 soldiers marching straight into a German ambush, and will surely perish should he fail to deliver the message ordering the company’s retreat.
George MacKay’s William Schofield, on the other hand, would normally be relegated to the role of the contrarian sidekick. He is volunteered to accompany Blake on the borderline suicidal assignment against his will, and seemingly exists for the sole purpose of creating conflict: though he seldom complains outright, he frequently objects to Blake’s rash and hasty decisions. This cautious attitude is motivated not by cowardice, however, but rather by pure pragmatism—he’s been on the battlefield long enough to discover how little accolades and medals truly mean when you’re wading waist-deep through mud, filth, and corpses. His world-weariness and cynicism beautifully counterbalance Blake’s youthful optimism; it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which his comrade’s dogged determination ultimately inspires Schofield to sacrifice his own life for the greater good. Blake, for his part, would subsequently be forced to carry the guilt of having directly caused his friend’s untimely demise—a difficult but vital moral lesson along his path to maturity.
And yet, less than an hour into the pair’s perilous trek across No Man’s Land, Blake is the one lying sprawled out in the dirt, slowly bleeding out from a fatal stab wound. His death isn’t even particularly glamorous: the injury renders him so insensible that he initially curses Schofield for attempting to drag him to safety, unable to focus on anything other than his immediate pain.
Once Blake breathed his last, Schofield is left completely alone, lost in enemy-occupied territory with only an illegible map to guide him. Nobody would blame him for following his own earlier advice and prioritizing survival and self-preservation over the success of a fool’s errand that, in all likelihood, was always expected to fail. Instead, after a brief period of mourning, the previously hardened pessimist redoubles his efforts, all the more intent on preventing further suffering. He becomes our hero throughout the rest of the journey—and his heroism feels more genuine, more substantial, and more meaningful than Blake’s because of his lack of personal stakes in the story. He doesn’t require familial connection as an incentive to rescue the doomed regiment; he chooses (and it is a conscious, utterly selfless choice) to race against time to save hundreds of perfect strangers… simply because it is the right thing to do.