“Time is the enemy.” That’s the marketing tagline for Sam Mendes’s World War I epic 1917, this year’s Golden Globe winner for best drama. Not since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has time itself been so foregrounded as a war film’s scariest foe. In both Dunkirk and 1917, the ostensible enemy (the German army) is largely unseen. Sure, we see their bullets, bombs, and bunkers; but we (mostly) don’t see their faces. This is because Mendes, like Nolan, wants audiences to focus on a more universal and terrifying villain: time, and its close cousin mortality.
Every one of us confronts this villain—whose weapon is simply a ubiquitous presence that constantly reminds us our time is limited; our lives are like vapors. What will we spend this precious life doing? Will we seek to preserve ourselves and lengthen our lives as long as we can? Or will we give ourselves away to a cause bigger than ourselves, even if it costs us?
Mendes based 1917’s plot loosely around an amalgamation of stories told to him by his grandfather, Alfred, who fought in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917. Mendes remembers his grandfather telling one story about having to carry a message across No Man’s Land—a story that forms the core of 1917’s fictional plot. We follow two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they seek to take a message through enemy territory to another group of British soldiers about to be ambushed. Some 1,600 men—including Blake’s brother—will be lost if the message doesn’t reach them in time.
The task is seemingly impossible and probably a suicide mission, and the boys know it. Lesser men would still refuse to go, knowing they’d probably die. Yet when Schofield and Blake receive the grim orders from the general (Colin Firth plays a small but memorable role), they respond with a firm salute.
This resolute gesture, made with unmistakable dread in their eyes, captures the beauty of duty and simple obedience, of saying “yes” to something costly and hard, simply because an authority above you gives the order. In a “follow your heart” world where “do as you’re told” deference to authority is tantamount to blasphemy, the moment feels radical and refreshing—and the rest of the film only builds on it.
It’s been a long time since a film immersed me in its world as…