1917 by Sam Mendes: A Journey into the Dualism of Human Nature

Updated: Mar 1

By: Rosi Corrado

Schofield in "1917" © Universal Studios

“Magnificent” is the word coming to mind when watching 1917 directed by Sam Mendes.

Although, as the title suggests, WWI represents a gruesome and gory war, the film “1917” is magnificent for its demonstration of the dualism of human nature.

That is to say, “1917” does a spectacular job at depicting that mankind is able to commit atrocious acts like war but at the same time possess qualities like compassion and the capacity to love.

Further, the mediums through which this movie expresses this reality is through its wonderful cinematography, suspense, and authenticity of emotions which will be seen in more detail along this review.

The viewer is immediately immersed in the British trenches in French territory where two young lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) are assigned a perilous task by general Erinmore (Colin Firth).

They are to cross a German enemy scattered territory to reach the British Battallion commanded by Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumerbatch) to warn him to call off his attack on the Germans.

In fact, although it appears the enemy has retreated, a British plane recollection has revealed that the Germans are indeed tricking the Brits by moving their trenches west.

The attack, if not stopped, would result in the slaughter of more than 16,000 British soldiers.

The two lance corporals set off for their journey, which is shown as a long and extraordinary single shot.

We viewers are plunged with them into the trenches, we are thrown into mud, we are left with the sense of smell of the dead bodies lying all over.

We feel the agitation, the fear and the resilience of the two young men in a perspective which is the same as theirs.

After Blake dies in the arms of Schofield, he is left to continue the journey alone.

We feel every drop of fear and courage as well as the “humanity” of the characters as seen in the explanations below.

He proceeds through a French town on fire and then survives a trip into a river to finally join the British battalion.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins is extraordinary in the dark French town where complete darkness is broken by flashes of fire and flashes of gunshots which may also represent a visual metaphor for the alternation between life and death.

Further, the darkness brings us to resonate with Schofield and to feel the fear he experiences at dodging the gunshots.

Amidst the atrocity of war, there is a moment of tenderness when the British corporal finds a French girl with a baby and leaves them his provisions of food before continuing his mission.

This is an example of Schofield’s “humanity” and compassion towards another human being that, in a fleeting moment, triumphs over the cruelty and violence of war.

This film won seven BAFTAS, including “best film” and “best direction,” gained three Oscars, for “sound”, “cinematography,” and “special effects” along with two golden globes for “best drama” and “best director”.

What struck me the most about this film is how it was able to portray the crude reality of war – and make its audience’s heart skip to the beat of gunshots – but at the same time, remind the audience that despite the atrocity of war, compassion and love persist within human nature.

What is most remarkable about this film is the authenticity of the tale, as it was inspired by and dedicated to Sam Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who acted as a messenger during World War I and related his story to his grandson.

In the last shot, we see the expressive face of Schofield (George MackCay) where weariness, relief, sadness and a feeling of the absurdity of war are expressed at the same time.

The words of Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) resonate with us: “Yes, I’ll call off the attack today, but there will be another order in a couple of days, to attack again.”

This phrase uttered by Col. Mackenzie means that, although he is relieved to call off the attack, he is well aware that war is not over and other attacks will occur.

Therefore, this phrase reiterates the whole essence and complexity of the dualism in human nature: the propensity towards love and peace, in perpetual battle with its propensity to destroy.

Rosi Corrado holds a PHD in Linguistics and Italian, a Master’s in Italian Language and a BA in Modern Foreign Languages. From 1999-2005 she taught Italian Language and Culture and Brown University and Boston College. From 2008-2010 she worked as cultural attachée at the Italian Embassy of Tbilisi, Georgia where, among many things, she organized and managed the participation of Italy in the International Film Festival of Tbilisi. From 2010-2013 she taught a seminar in film at the University of Athens. There, she produced a short film entitled "Una Bouganvilla ad Atene" with her students.

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