Of Tin and Trees: The Deeper Significance of “1917”

The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

–Revelation 22:2

What is a person? More specifically, what is a meaningful life?

The new film 1917  asks just these questions. 1917  traces the spellbinding journey of two soldiers—Schofield and Blake—to rescue a doomed pack of British fighters (1,600 in the fictional tale) in World War I. A thoroughgoing action movie, described as a “thriller” by director Sam Mendes, 1917  does not present itself as a high-flown philosophy. It reminded me of the famous description offered by Alfred Hitchcock of his films; they were “a slice of cake,” a treat, and were intended as such. In truth, Hitchcock smuggled a good deal more into his oeuvre  than he said, but nonetheless his assessment bears reminding in this age in which some directors feel evident pressure to make one grand philosophical statement after another in service of energetic activism for culturally-approved causes (or else to make very little sense at all).

Back to Mendes. His shotmaking is exceptional; the “one-shot” feel of the film succeeds in immersing us in the action and giving us not the grand overview of strategic combat, but the soldiers’ feel. 1917  is a soldiers’ film and intentionally so. We hear Blake and Schofield joke, gripe, gasp, and talk about trees together. Again, the dialogue is pitched at a normal level and is supposed to be so. Yet this choice is deceptive, and many critics of the film have taken the bait; they think 1917  is overly transparent and does not make any major statements. As we shall see in due course, this viewpoint misses the mark.

The central question engaged by Blake and Schofield as they walk is this: what is the role and value of things in a war-torn world? Said differently: how is a life fleshed out? Their discussion—a disagreement—centers in two realities: medals and cherry blossoms. As the young men walk, we learn that Schofield won a medal for bravery in a prior battle, and though he is wary and weary of war, his instinctual strength as a warrior repeatedly shows. Schofield disdains his medal; “It’s just a bit of tin,” he says, his words clipped and curt. Blake, the softer and more expansive soul, is clearly impressed by Schofield’s award and effectively rebukes Schofield for his martial agnosticism. As they converse about Schofield’s “tin,” the two men walk through a grove of cut trees, cherry blossoms of a specific kind named by Blake. Schofield knows of no such variations; he knows only cherries, not their variations. Blake is thus a witness to the degrees of wonder in the made world, a witness in a literal wilderness.

Blake and Schofield have this conversation about beauty—fragile beauty indeed—in a truly cut-flower setting. The enemies of beauty, true beauty, are everywhere around them, but a voice for the ethereal and lovely endures in Blake’s character. As with beauty, so with honor (which is effectively goodness, like beauty the sister of truth). For Blake, the medal represents something more—it is honor in tangible form. The fact that Schofield traded his medal for wine—signifying fleeting pleasure, perhaps—offends Blake, and we are coaxed by Mendes to hear him out.

The debate between these soldiers represents, one suspects, our postmodern cultural disagreements. Some today value honor and self-sacrifice and beauty itself; some scoff at such things, demean them, and wish them gone. Mendes, I wager, is up to more in 1917  than many critics say, and we might initially think. This is a deceptively profound film, provided one watches it closely and attentively in metaphysical terms. (It is like Mendes’s 2012 Bond film in this respect, a showy action piece that actually has a textured worldview, a deeply soulful one communicating the power of tradition and commitment, that many critics totally missed.)

Important as these considerations are, the film as a spectacle does not disappoint. Numerous details bear comment. The visuals repel us even as they fascinate us; the warzone has become, effectively, a new world, and a terrible one. The old and lovely pastureland and cityscapes are now places of the dead, with broken and misused trees everywhere. The film makes tremendous use of audio, with the booming, banging nature of guns and bombs shocking the viewer in extremity. Mendes and celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins give us numerous stunning images: a gothic structure engulfed in flame, a pistol that glows in the dark before a tremendous blast, a precious baby with a substitute mother, decomposing bodies bobbing in water, a group of soldiers sheltering peacefully in the forest. 1917  is a beautiful film. It is meant to be experienced as such, and I recommend that adults who can handle tough language and terrible warfare do just that.

Another great feature of the film: brilliant cameos by justly-celebrated actors. Andrew Scott is hard-bitten, exhausted, and darkly funny. Mark Strong is fatherly, of notably regal bearing, and makes a strong impact in a short period. Colin Firth is sober and deeply preoccupied, yet recites a quick poem that leaves an indelible impression. Mendes gives a burst of memorable time to Benedict Cumberbatch and uses his magisterial voice, both a growl and a roar at once, to great effect. These figures, like war movies more generally, span the range in terms of emotion and deportment. As a film, 1917  like Dunkirk  fits more in the “war is horrible” category than, for example, Midway, another excellent movie that emphasizes the heroism of soldiers and justice of the Western cause. I am not convinced that any one type of war movie is the  type we need and should want; war is many things, sometimes terrible and just at once, and our movies do well to reflect this truth.

The film is more than cameos, though, and a lot of running. At the end of 1917,  “a bit of tin” comes back into play in a powerful way. All that is left of a life, a whole existence, is a collection of tiny little items (we barely see them) to be passed on to bereaved loved ones. What is a life? It is honor. It is days and hours and years devoted to that which is true, good, and beautiful, a pursuit embodied in a handful of personal possessions. It turns out Blake was right after all. “Tin”—the material culture of our lives, with all its symbolic import—really does bear meaning, really does matter. In handing over such seemingly insignificant items to a grieving loved one, one is handing over what symbolizes a man’s whole life. Here, for those with eyes to see it, is a striking meditation on the value of our remembrance, our largely anonymous days, and our quest for honor and a meaningful existence.

Brett McCracken has rightly pointed out that one way to sum up Mendes’s thesis is by speaking a now-forlorn word: duty. No one wants to be dutiful  today; what a boring, pro forma  way to live. That’s not “following my heart”; that’s not my “expressing my authentic self”;  that’s not exciting, revolutionary, previously unheard of, or calculated for maximum freedom and personal flexibility. Whether you are a royal or a router, duty is so very not  the spirit of the age. It may truly be the principle, the ideal, that is least au courant.

Yet duty is of spectacular and fundamental importance. Duty carries the mission forward; duty gets the job done; duty is a major part of why in God’s kind providence the Allies defeated the Germans in not one but two cataclysmic world wars. We all need a lot more duty in our lives, suffice it to say, and a lot less self-expression. Duty rightly construed in terms of ultimate joy is what led to the very mission of Christ to our world, and what drives so much of the ministry of the present-day church Christ purchased with his own blood (Hebrews 12:2). Despite what we have heard, duty is a major part of what is going to give your life meaning and purpose, and a major part of what is going to do that in mine.

Duty is of great importance. But there is one last thread we need to pull out of 1917.  It is, once again, one that will pass many by, but I believe it may actually be the point of the film. When 1917  begins, Schofield rests against a tree. The tree gives him support and stability, representing peace amidst the real trauma of war. When Blake and Schofield venture out in no-mans-land, we see broken tree stumps everywhere, a nightmarish place where there is no rest. Then we encounter the cut-flower scene mentioned above, with a destroyed glade and a nightmarish outcome. After this trees litter the roads, the Germans having dumped them there to obstruct progress. Near the film’s end, we witness a large group of soldiers sitting quietly in a forest, a lovely song (one sung by Jonny Cash and others) wafting through the air.

Then, finally, his mission over, our traveler once again finds a tree. Exhausted and nearly broken, he takes shade and shelter underneath it. He has come to rest once more, and it is a tree that signifies it. I do not know Sam Mendes’s point or worldview, and this thematic tracing may be mere fancy thinking on my part. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an enthusiastic film reviewer (an amateur one) had overthought things. Yet I cannot shake the suspicion that Mendes intends for the sharp-eyed, and the spiritually questing, to spy a bigger Malickesque principle of some greater importance here. Film is (frequently) metaphor, and 1917  is a powerful metaphor of life in a fallen world, with rest—found only where trees flourish—a key part of this metaphor.

This breathtaking connection fits elegantly with the Christian worldview. It is truly by a tree, a tree hacked into a cross, that we find rest. It is through a tree that the world and we ourselves were undone. It is through a tree that we are saved, the climactic mission of rescue performed by the man of honor, Christ Jesus, in whom the sad things begin to come untrue. It is a tree, the tree of life, that yields its twelve kinds of fruit in the New Jerusalem, where there is nothing accursed, nor anything unclean (Rev. 21:27; 22:3). There is no lasting peace in the things of this world, where there are terrible wars and many tears, but there is peace in the city of God, where we dwell in spirit now, and where we will soon be.