As I sat down to watch the film that this blog post is about, I had been awake for nearly 24 hours. It had been a dreary day, its sky mottled with hostile, amorphous clouds. Each breath of air was a labor to the lungs, and the temperature middled between discomforting warmth and intolerable heat. It was a day best spent inside, but even then, the atmosphere was disquieting and uncomfortable. I was restless and exhausted, that day. As I began to search for a movie to watch, I did so with the hopes that I might drift to sleep during its run time.
I chose to watch ‘1917,’ a film directed by Sam Mendes. I had become a fan of the director’s work after thoroughly enjoying the James Bond film, ‘Skyfall.’ I admired the director’s choices regarding his use of stillness, overlapping shadows, eye-catching camera angles and the humanistic qualities Mendes coaxed from the actors. He told the smaller, deeper stories of each character even as the overarching plot was allowed to insinuate itself between the characters.
Everyone was compelling, demanding the attention and respect of the viewer, including the film’s powerfully performed antagonist. I do not know if I chose to watch another film by this director as a subconscious effort to give that bleak, gray day I was trapped in some purpose and meaning, but that was precisely what I accomplished in selecting ‘1917.’
I was riveted throughout the film’s entirety, and I was in a better place as the end credits rolled than I was as the film opened.
I will attempt to avoid revealing too much about the film’s plot because I highly recommend watching it. I will, instead, share my insights as to why I believe it is a film worth watching and how by watching 1917 that day, I was able to draw inspiration, insight and hope.
It is a moving, powerful story that is acted, directed, and filmed masterfully. I was captivated, growing attached to the film’s two lead characters as they endured the bleak, devastated landscape of norther France as it festered within the still-beating heart of the ‘war to end all wars.’
The heroes of this story were a pair of Lance Corporals in the British army: LCpl Tom Blake, and LCpl Will Schofield. Their rank struck a chord with me in the early moments of the film, as it was my father’s rank in the U.S. Marines. He was a combat veteran who served from 1960-1966.
My mind seeks to find parallels and meaning in the books I read, the songs I hear, and the films I see. I last found my mind insinuating my father into the background of a movie’s story when I watched the Mel Gibson film, ‘We Were Soldiers,’ as it took place during the same time period and in the same region where he served. Despite the vast differences between their wars, I found myself attached to these two soldiers, invested in their survival and their mission’s success.
That mission is given to Blake and Schofield in the early moments of the film, but even before that pivotal moment, the direction and cinematography had already drawn me in. The film opens with one of our main characters resting against the trunk of a lone tree against a backdrop of tall windswept grasses, a field of green dotted white and gold. It is uncharacteristically serene and peaceful, those opening moments, setting in stark, almost cruel contrast the hell these two soldiers are about to wade into.
From the instant this first scene fades in, ‘1917’ takes us on an incredible journey as we accompany the Lance Corporals in a long, stunning, flawless take.
The camerawork and editing are some of the best I have ever seen in any film. The camera either follows behind the soldiers, sweeps along by their side, or glides ahead of them looking back for nearly the entire two-hour runtime of the film. The effect is a sense of atmosphere and engagement that few other films have ever approached, in my opinion. There have been individual scenes of other films that have moved me in similar ways, but never before have I watched the entirety of a film and been so enrapt unable to bring myself to look away.
I will not provide any details that would diminish anyone’s enjoyment or their first-time viewing experience. However, I will state that, in my opinion, this period of time was probably the worst time to be alive in human history. Technology had advanced in all the worst ways and none of the best. War on a scale hitherto unseen had trapped all of Europe in a nightmare akin to something Dante Alighieri would have written of.
There was such hopelessness that at one point, when discussing the prospects of taking leave to visit family back home, one character’s outlook was so bleak that he believed it would be better to never go home at all than to do so with the knowledge that they would be returning to the trenches soon thereafter.
It is that tragic realism that made the opening scene of a peaceful field and a moment’s rest against a tree trunk seem so cruel, to me. Moments like that teased of tranquility that, once left behind, might never be found again. The characters suffer and struggle through a harsh and hostile blasted land in order to deliver a message and prevent the deaths of 1,600 men, whose Colonel has outdated intelligence regarding the placement and purpose of the German soldiers he has ordered his men to attack.
We witness their journey with our eyes keenly affixed upon them. We learn everything about the world they inhabit as they do, through their words and deeds, with their every step and misstep. There is a surreal aspect to this method of storytelling that helps convey the living nightmare soldiers like Blake and Schofield experienced.
Early during my therapy, I was encouraged to assess each aspect of my life, from the people I encountered to the moments I endured. My therapist encouraged me to 'take what you need and leave the rest behind.' She wanted me to apply this somewhat utilitarian sentiment to help me find worthwhile purpose in aspects of my life, casting aside whatever I otherwise found to be draining, hurtful, or meaningless. I have adopted this strategy in assessing the books I have read and the films I have watched during my recovery.
‘1917’ had a lot to offer me, and in recently re-watching it I was reminded of how helpful I found the film to be.
The film begins in a serene moment, then descends into a bleak, dreary, gray horror from which there did not seem to be any hope of escape. By the middle of the film, memories of how the film began so peacefully become mirthless and torturous. Hope is so hard to see through the muck, blood, and devastation all around.
Depression is similar in many ways.
It does not always help to look back to better times seeking hope, because visiting those memories are akin to a soldier returning home knowing that they would wind up right back in that muck, blood, and devastation once more. Whenever someone tries to talk to a truly, deeply depressed friend or loved one, they may find them supremely hesitant to heed their logic and reason. It is not because they are incapable of embracing their logic or seeing reason. As bad as they feel, they would rather remain hidden within their gray gloom than chance the cruelty of a moment in the light.
A harsh examination of the present might be untenable, as well, because when you are at your lowest, the forest one stands within is imperceptible beyond the few trees that surround you. The characters in the film have to keep that in mind, as well… their journey has a destination. It is vitally important that they get there, both to accomplish their mission in order to save lives, and to arrive at the other side of the hell they just hiked through.
Survival means pushing through the darkness rather than succumbing to it.
Getting through a depressed state, climbing out of the depths of a low moment, requires a lot of painful, exhausting work. The sufferer must not allow themselves to cling to their past, nor wallow in their untenable present. They need to find the resolve to keep moving so that they can emerge on the other side. They must do so not because of the false promise of a lasting peace at the end of that journey, which is part of why depression and pessimism go hand-in-hand. No matter how beautiful a lie it is, we should not resort to dishonesty toward ourselves as a motivator.
Things will be bad again. There is no sense in denying that, but there is also no sense in denying that things will also be good again. We can get through the darkness to the next momentary light, but not by looking back or sitting still. Even if every inch won is a battle, it is worthwhile because you are literally in the fight of your life.
A tree awaits in another serene field, somewhere, and it is better to embrace a moment’s peace because you won it by surviving to see it. I found that to be a beautiful thing to take from this film. As desperately low as I ever get, and as hopeless as things ever seem, even if I cannot see the forest for the trees, even if looking back at better times only hurts because I am unconvinced that I could ever regain whatever that moment of contentment offered, I can convince myself that if I keep pushing, fighting, and striving for every inch of progress, I can arrive on the other side of the hell my mind is putting me through. I can’t recapture past bliss, but I can survive and reach for whatever bliss awaits me once I escape the gray.