This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
By now you have more than likely heard about this flick called 1917. It is a World War I epic directed by Sam Mendes which tells the historical-fiction tale of two British soldiers who are charged with carrying an urgent message across enemy lines in order to stave off an imminent attack that would otherwise end up a massacre. It is the simplest of stories. And yet, in that simplicity, you are confronted with, perhaps, the most affecting cinematic experience of war ever captured on film. Some might protest Mendes’s creative choice to edit the film to appear as if it was shot entirely in one take. Some might say it is nothing more than an artistic gimmick employed to hook the audience. But such misconceptions fail to recognize what Mendes was attempting to do through such artistry.
Personally, I am endeared to films that do not say what they want to say, they just show it. Far too many wartime dramas spend too much time attempting to explain the soldier’s psyche through the course of gunfights, gunfights, intimate conversations, and more gunfights. This is why, in my own hierarchy of film rankings, the more recent entries portraying war are some of the best ever crafted. This is mostly due to the fact that the audience is not merely told soldier-y thing after soldier-y thing. Rather, the viewer is immersed in the experience of war (as much as that is possible for a theater-goer).
The two films I am referring to, of course, are Dunkirk and the aforementioned 1917. What is fascinating about both is that while they take place in firmly rooted parts of world history, they are not necessarily factual recreations of actual events. Instead of inserting you into the context of every decision that changed the course of a particular battle, like, for instance, The Longest Day or Tora! Tora! Tora!, both Dunkirk and 1917 are much more concerned with captivating your attention for two hours and making you walk out of the theater almost as fatigued as if you were there. It is entirely immersive. You feel the devastation behind every bullet. You feel the demoralization behind every fatal step forward. You feel the agonizing fight for survival. You feel the same ache for home.
This is not to dismiss previous movies that have sought to portray the awful effects war. Still, what differentiates Dunkirk and 1917 is their ubiquity. To be sure, Dunkirk lives up to its director’s penchant for playing with time. That, to me, though, is different than the unmistakable Spielberg-ianism of Saving Private Ryan. Or the existential brooding of The Thin Red Line. Or the overt “Americanism” of 13 Hours. Or the gory horrors of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. Or the tragic dread of Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor. Or the hellish vistas of Fury. Not to mention the kitschy Hollywood-isms of Pearl Harbor and Midway. For my own part, I am not as moved or affected to nearly the same degree by those films as I am Dunkirk and 1917. And I think that is partly because they are predominantly anonymous movies.
The uniting thread of each of those aforementioned entires is that they all have characters. They are brimming memorable personalities (and performances) that transcend the screen and, in their own way, move you to emote and empathize with them and their stories. Dunkirk and 1917 are not devoid of characters, but they are less driven by persona than they are by absorption. Instead of presenting us with valiant heroes to emulate, Dunkirk and 1917 remind us that heroism is rarely exhibited by those looking to be heroes.
In Dunkirk, the antagonist is not the caricatured evil of Fascism. It was the chaotic frenzy to stay alive. Christopher Nolan’s mesmeric filmmaking and deft editing forged an experience in which you, the viewer, were caught in the mayhem of war right along with everyone else, even if you did not fully understand what that meant. There was no command center scene to understand the enemy’s movements. In fact, the enemy’s presence is only understood through the dreadful expressions on everyone’s faces. They are never truly seen. Similarly, in 1917, the enemy is rarely portrayed visibly.
1917 is a film that resounds the honors and horror of war. But, like Dunkirk, its “heroes” remain mostly unknown and unacknowledged. In fact, when the one soldier we have been following finally makes it to his destination, he is swiftly told to “bugger off.” The illusions of heroism are quickly deflated in the realization that there are not really heroes in war. There are only survivors. The true heroes are the forgotten ones. The ones whose remains are left unburied and unhonored to decompose among mortar shells, bullet casings, and rivers of blood. And it is this message that I find so affecting. It is one that has proven inescapable for me for several years. Perhaps this is because I am often reluctant to admit my own proclivity to pine after legacy.
Both Dunkirk and 1917 are trenchant masterpieces of cinema that present to audiences bent on individualistic expression the anonymity of true heroism. Speaking for myself, I take my freedoms for granted. The luxuries of life in the West are ones for which I am neither consistently nor verbally grateful. Likewise, it is not often that I sit and ponder the terrors and atrocities that countless seventeen-year-olds endured to secure the liberties I am enjoying today. Moreover, I do not believe the true horrors of war can be accurately depicted by any Hollywood director. For as violent as movies are made nowadays, the hideousness of war will always be several degrees more fierce than we in the theater can imagine. Nevertheless, for a few moments, Dunkirk and 1917 permit us to experience an infinitesimal sampling of the ferocity and frenzy of modern warfare. It places you in the center of the fray, provoking an uncanny appreciation for those who served, reminding free people of the exorbitant price for such freedom.
For these men, that meant fighting on when all faith was shattered. Their blood was spilled to safeguard the lives of those who will never know their names. Their lives were spent to to save those who would soon forget them. For me, this is especially powerful. It reminds of the collective “others” from Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 is supposedly the “hall of faith” chapter that records the incredible faithfulness of God’s servants throughout the eons of Christendom. As the writer nears the end of his catalog of faith, he bemoans that “time is too short” for him to give due credit to all the faithful ones in God’s kingdom. (Heb 11:32) In lieu of space, he sums up his discourse by citing the “other people [who] were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” (Heb 11:35) No names, just “other people.” These others lived and died and suffered the severest forms of persecution and hatred for the sake of the gospel, all without regarding the notions of “making history” or “leaving a legacy.” They were hardly remembered. Their names were not written down in the annals of time. At the cost of their lives, they pursued the glory of Christ crucified and risen again. And for that, truly “the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb 11:38)
Dunkirk and 1917 are paragons of film that remind us of the true nature of heroism and the cost of freedom. For the casual viewer, they are able to effect a greater awareness and keener affection for grandparents and great-grandparents who endured such violence and turmoil decades before we were born. For the believer, though, I think there is deeper meaning. These films remind us of God’s upside-down economy of greatness — the sort that is not caught up in names for ourselves. These films remind us that we are free to live as unnamed saints and unremembered witnesses who point to the one true Hero whose name will be remembered forever. The freedom proclaimed in the gospel is freedom from the scratching and clawing after man’s applause. Because all the approval you will ever need was paid for by God’s own blood.