Theme: Down to Gehenna . . . Up to the Throne
Opening on Christmas Day 2019, DreamWorks’ highly anticipated World War I film 1917 was an instant success with critics and audiences alike. Filmed in two continuous movements, the cinematography makes it unlike any other film and captures the horror of trench warfare in a very up close and personal way.
Written from fragments of stories his grandfather (Alfred Mendes) told him as a child, Sam Mendes (director, writer, and producer) has said, “At its core 1917 is the story of a messenger who has a message to carry.”1
April 6, 1917
The movie opens with ominous music and the date April 6, 1917; the music sets the tone, the date tells the story. April 6, 1917, was Good Friday. The movie is a metaphor for the journey of Jesus Christ, The Messenger of God’s salvation who goes down to Gehenna, and rising from the dead ascends to the throne. Lance Corporal Tom Blake is a type of Christ while Lance Corporal William Scofield is the model of a disciple; one who is saved by Christ and in turn lays down his own life to take the message to others.
The first movement of the film opens with a beautiful field with a grove of trees in the background. One tree stands out and is larger than the others. As the camera moves, two men are dozing as they recline against trees in the foreground. A sergeant approaches Lance Corporal Blake and instructs him to chose another man and follow him. Blake turns to his friend, Will, and offers him his hand.
In the tent to which they are led they meet General Erinmore and learn why they have been chosen, elected, called out from the rest. Blake is known to be able to read maps and has a brother in the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The General needs to get a message to the Colonel in charge of the Devons, telling him to call off their planned attack, reconnaissance has discovered it is a German trap. If the two men do not get through by the next morning, sixteen hundred lives will be lost.
When Scofield asks almost incredulously if it’s just the two of them, General Erinmore replies with a verse:
Down to Gehenna or up to the throne . . . He travels the fastest who travels alone.2
The verse spells out their journey….the Christ journey.
Leaving the tent Scofield tries to dissuade Blake from the mission by saying, “Let’s at least wait until dark”. Blake squares his shoulders and sets his face like a flint and heads off to Paradise Trench. He will go down into Gehenna to save his brother’s life.
In the most remote trench the pair finds Lieutenant Leslie, now in command after his Major’s death the day before. Hearing their orders he gives them instructions on how to exit “Paradise Alley” and cross No Man’s Land. He grabs a bottle of booze, whirls around, sprinkling them as an Orthodox Priest would with holy oil saying; “Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.”
In the Orthodox Greek tradition, the anointing with holy oil (efhelaio) is placed every year in Holy Week in order to prepare the faithful for their participation in the Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
The first prayer offered in the Holy Week service of Holy Unction by the priest is:
Great Marvelous God who keeps your covenant and your mercy to them who love you, who grants remission of sins through your Divine Son Jesus Christ. You gave us a rebirth from sin; you give light to the blind and raise up the fallen, you love the righteous and show mercy to sinners.3
This prayer is depicted as soon as the two Corporals cross No Man’s Land and enter the dark realm of the enemy. Wandering through the underground cavern Scofield spots a wire, but before he can catch it, a scurrying rat trips the wire setting off an explosion which buries him. Blake recovers from being knocked down by the blast and begins a frantic search for his friend. Digging with his hands through the rocks and rubble, he catches a glimpse of Will’s jacket. Grabbing him with both hands he yanks him forward crying, “Wake Up!” (Ephesians 5:14). Scofield’s mouth and nose are filled with dirt and as Blake tries to clear them, Will suddenly heaves forward into life.
Blinded by the dust unable to see, he has to hang onto Blake as they try to exit the now collapsing tunnels. At one point they come to a mine shaft; Blake jumps ahead and yells to Scofield to follow,“You need to trust me . . . jump!” With a leap of desperation, Will makes it and Blake grabs him saying, “Don’t let go of me”, and leads him out into the light where he then helps to wash his friend’s eyes with some of his own water.
Cut Down Trees
The next stage of their journey brings them to an old walled orchard where all the cherry trees in full bloom have been wantonly cut down in the German’s hasty retreat. As they walk through the felled trees Blake, whose mother had a small orchard, gives Scofield insight into cherry trees. When Will asks if these are all goners Blake responds, “Oh no; they’ll grow again when the stones rot . . . you’ll end up with more trees than before”.
This is a prophetic statement which also speaks of the biblical truth Jesus uttered on the way to his own death on Good Friday. “Truly, truly I say to you unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)
Shortly Blake’s own life is slashed down like the trees by a German pilot whom he tried nobly to save. He did not love his own life, but poured it out sacrificially. Holding his dying friend as his life ebbs away, William Scofield is transformed. He lovingly gathers up Blake’s personal items, places the family picture next to Tom’s heart and pockets the orders to Colonel McKenzie. Blake’s mission to save his brother and sixteen hundred men has now become Lance Corporal Scofield’s. He is the messenger who travels alone.
Taking up the Mission
His last words to Blake were reiterating the mission, I’ll find the 2nd, I’ll give them the message, and then I’ll find your brother, just like you . . . a little older.” The hours ahead are filled with darkness and death but there are moments, interludes of divine grace. One such moment comes as he is trying to move Blake’s body to the long grass. Out of nowhere two British privates appear almost like angels and help carry the body. Then the quiet gentle voice of Captain Smith offers him a ride to Ecoust and some fatherly advice . . . it doesn’t do to dwell on his friend’s death and if he makes it through to Colonel McKenzie make sure there are witnesses when he gives him the orders to stand down, for some men just want the fight.
The second movement begins at night and is like a descent into another level of Dante’s Inferno. Scofield awakens after being knocked out from a fall in a battle with a German sniper. He discovers Ecoust is on fire with most of the town in ruins, and running here and there are German soldiers looking like denizens of hell. Trying to evade one he slips into a window and finds himself in a small room where a very young woman and an orphaned infantare taking shelter. He experiences another moment of grace when the girl touches his wounded head. Her tenderness alone seems to infuse life back into him. Wanting desperately to help them as if to preserve this fragment of beauty in a world run amok, he pours out all the provisions he has with him. However the clock strikes signaling an end to the interlude, and he knows he must hurry on, morning has arrived.
Following directions the young woman gave him he fights his way to the river, jumping in to escape German bullets. Passing through raging waters and going over a waterfall, his body is bruised and battered bringing him to a point of utter exhaustion. Clinging to a log and at the dangerous point of letting go, cherry blossoms begin to gently float down from above covering him as a grace-filled reminder of Lance Corporal Tom Blake, the man who saved his life. With the memory and the morning the mission comes abruptly back into focus. Scofield fights to escape the river, climbing over a dam filled with dead bodies. He’s been baptized and is in new territory; kneeling down he breaks into heaving sobs for all he has been through, all he has seen, and all he has lost.
And then another in breaking of grace . . . he hears music . . . singing, following the sound of something old and forgotten, he comes upon the Devonshire Regiment listening to one of their own singing Wayfaring Stranger.4 The song’s lyrics tell of his journey, of Blake’s journey, of the great promise of resurrection. Fully engaged now he must finish the mission, and with unbelievable grit, fortitude and valor he finds Colonel McKenzie and in front of witnesses delivers the message.
After searching out Lieutenant Blake and giving him the sad news of Tom’s death with his belongings, Will finds a tree and sits down. Taking out pictures of his wife and family he lets out a deep sigh and closes his eyes. The scene is reminiscent of the opening scenes including a beautiful field and in the distance not a grove of trees but a single large tree with its lower limbs gone but still standing tall.
1. 1917 (2019 film) Wikipedia
2. From Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Winners
3. The Meaning of Holy Chrism and Holy Unction by Mario Baghos