As a psychologist, I’m fascinated by how the human mind impacts our behaviors, so naturally, I love movies about war and history. Some of my favorite war films include Dunkirk, Patton, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. I am a student of history, so when I saw the trailer for 1917 I was hoping to have a cinematic experience similar to when I saw Dunkirk.
There are so many instances of history that are underrepresented—especially World War I—so I had high expectations. My expectations were also heightened since I went into the film knowing it was nominated for Best Picture of the Year at this year’s Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
1917 is Nothing to Write Home About
1917 follows a very specific two-day period of World War I.
In it, Germans have pulled back from a sector of the Western Front in northern France. Two young British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, learn that the Germans have made a tactical withdrawal in order to draw in the British to an ambush.
These two young soldiers are ordered to hand-deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion in order to call off the attack which could cost the lives of 1,600 men. One of the men in the Battalion is Blake’s own brother, which further motivated them to find the 2nd Battalion.
It is likely the commanders picked Blake specifically as a motivator to cross the most dangerous part of Europe at that time.
Schofield and Blake cross no man’s land and experience a series of trials, including abandoned German trenches, tripwires, and an enemy aerial dogfight. A German plane plunges into a farm and despite Schofield and Blake saving the burned German pilot, the pilot stabs Blake who ultimately dies. Schofield promises to complete the mission.
Ultimately, Schofield reaches the 2nd Battalion and the attack is called off. He also finds Blake’s brother Joseph and shares the news of Blake’s death. Schofield walks away and sits under a nearby tree. Which is essentially a copy of the initial opening shot of Schofield and Blake napping in a field.
Psychology of 1917
My main psychological take away from 1917 was the underlying tension between the need for family versus loyalty and selflessness.
The themes in 1917 include the love between brothers, friendship and sacrifice, and ultimately family. We see British and German soldier’s family photos which humanized both sides even in the face of extreme death and torture. In a bombed-out town, Schofield experiences a very intimate family moment.
Schofield stumbles upon a young girl and an infant (not her own) and provides milk to the baby. He wants to help and is torn to return to his mission and face death. Schofield needs to keep moving to get to the front, but the girl urges him to stay.
She asks if he has a family but he provides no response other than to offer the infant milk. I would say this is one of the more powerful moments in the film with the tension of a burning city and German soldiers hunting him down while telling a tender poem to comfort the baby.
But, he continues his mission leaving this “family” behind.
And upon reaching the front we see more family as he finds Blake’s brother and informs him of his death. Schofield asks if he can write Blake’s mother for him. His brother says Yes. And the film ends with Schofield taking out his own photo of his family.
The family he had not spoken of with a written message from his wife stating, “Come back to me.”
World War I was a critical period in the field of psychology with Germany taking the lead in studying people’s sense of war. During this period, Walter Ludwig studied 200 officers and wounded men asking them to describe “what the soldier thinks in the moment of greatest danger in order to overcome the fear of death.”
Ludwig discovered in the men’s writings, that religious feelings, memories of home, and comradeship were the most common themes. Patriotism was very low in terms of priority. Another early researcher in the field of psychology, Paul Plaut, studied his own questionnaire of soldiers and described an intense sense of fatalism that soldiers develop.
In hindsight and with my focus on the theme of family and sacrifice, 1917 was more enjoyable for me than after I first stepped away from the film.
But in no way do I think this film compares to the other films nominated for an Academy Award. I would’ve preferred to watch it for free at home. One of the director’s film techniques was to create a continuous shot. I was aware of this moving into the film and saw every failure in completing the shot and being aware of this film making device was distracting for me.
The film also seemed very formulaic.
1917 has a very predictable narrative structure. Each tense moment was predictable, and I felt little tension in the story. We know how it’s going to end, we know one of the soldiers will die, and I ultimately did not feel an emotional connection to any of the characters in the film.
The effort employed to create a new film experience is appreciable, but in no way is it comparable to other war films such as Dunkirk or All Quiet on the Western Front. And last but not least, as an avid video game player, I pretty much felt as if I were running through a game of Fortnite. But that’s probably just me.