1917: Do Sacrifices Really Matter?

The gripping WWI film wrestles with duty as it drags you through the mud.

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Source: DreamWorks/Universal Pictures
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Source: DreamWorks/Universal Pictures

My wife and I finally saw the long-awaited war film 1917!

As a history buff of WWI in particular, I have been chomping at the bit to see this movie. Plus, it’s a unique experience as one of the only films to be a portrayed as a “one-er” — in film parlance, that’s what we call a long shot that doesn’t cut to capture a large portion of action. Most one-ers last a sequence or a scene, but not a whole film. To create this illusion, the filmmaker utilized long takes and strategized how to stitch them together seamlessly to create the illusion of one long shot.

This strong aesthetic decision personalizes the predicament of these men who are unable to escape or look away from the horrors of war. As director and co-writer Sam Mendez stated:

I wanted an audience to feel every second passing and take every step with them, and also be aware of geography and distance and physical difficulty. The feeling that you are going to have to live through the story with them is accentuated by not cutting.

Still, there’s deeper material to plumb in this riveting story than just the excellent visual craftsmanship. Cinematographer Roger Deakins even admitted that the movie “unspools in a world without a clear moral compass.” This highlights a troubling reality about the Great War, and war in general: Do sacrifices matter?

Story

Duty and the cost of human life are shown over and over throughout the narrative:

  • Many of the characters portrayed are so numbed by the carnage surrounding them that they treat imminent death as a laconic joke. The pessimistic Lt. Leslie even calls one of his men a “bloody waste of space” to his face.
  • The concept of soldiers as tools, not people, is highlighted by Lt. Leslie who cares more about the flare gun he gives to Blake and Schofield than to the intrepid lance corporals themselves.
  • When the German pilot Blake and Schofield pulled from his burning plane stabs Blake, the audience is outraged. It is easy for one to exclaim, “They were stupid for saving him! If they’d have left him for dead, Blake would still be alive!”
  • The enemy Germans are constantly vilified by the British soldiers — a common wartime occurrence.
  • Schofield’s objective, Col. Mackenzie, is coldly characterized by Cpt. Smith by this admonition: “Some men just want the fight.”
  • When he’s finally confronted, Mackenzie nearly refuses to follow orders, showing both his desire for victory and his investment bias in the battle he’s planned and launched. It doesn’t matter how many men die — he must seize victory.
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Source: DreamWorks/Universal Pictures

I’m reminded of my mentor’s harrowing experiences in Vietnam in which men were left outside at night to die rather than being brought inside a barn for security reasons. Philosophically, this issue of the value of human life and sacrifice in warfare relates to ethics, especially moral duties. There are a myriad of ethics theories, but I’m going to cover the distinction which relates most to 1917: Deontology versus Consequentialism.

Moral Framework: Deontology

Deontology simply means duty-based ethics; an act is ethical because of its relation to a moral or natural law. An older form of duty-based ethics was formulated by Thomas Aquinas, who stated that God-given instincts and reason enable humans to deduce natural law.

The German philosopher Kant built on these concepts with his Categorical Imperatives, the idea that there are moral rules which must be followed at all times. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

Moral philosophy, for Kant, is most fundamentally addressed to the first-person, deliberative question, “What ought I to do?”, and an answer to that question requires much more than delivering or justifying the fundamental principle of morality. …Kant offers a categorization of our basic moral duties to ourselves and others. …To act out of respect for the moral law, in Kant’s view, is to be moved to act by a recognition that the moral law is a supremely authoritative standard that binds us and to experience a kind of feeling, which is akin to awe and fear, when we acknowledge the moral law as the source of moral requirements.

Still, the Thomistic and Kantian system of morals don’t mesh entirely, as explored by Brendan Woods:

Kant’s…idea of a good will approximates the virtue ethics held by many Christians, and his belief that moral truths can be determined by man echoes Aquinas’s commitment to using reason to arrive at the natural law…. [However,] the dilemmas that faced Kant — the necessity of giving up happiness to live morally, and the conflict between doing what is right and doing what benefits the greater good — do not exist in Christian conceptions of morality.

Moral Framework: Consequentialism

These Thomistic and Kantian flavors of Deontology sharply contrast with Consequentialism, which is more frequently known by its subtype of Utilitarianism. According to this mandate, an act’s goodness corresponds to its end result. This is the same overriding logic which motivates Spock to sacrifice himself for in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

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Source: Paramount Pictures

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.

Spock’s words and then self-sacrifice lend his philosophy the ring of truth. This Utilitarian philosophy is clearly at the forefront of the leaders in 1917 who send Blake and Schofield on a dangerous mission. Their lives are worth next to nothing in comparison to the 1,600 men who will be lost otherwise. At face value, this seems to make sense on such a large scale.

However, on a personal rather than impersonal scale, this is an entirely foreign moral framework to human experience if applied to every situation. Woods illustrates:

Utilitarianism leaves no room for compassion or hope of a better world.

Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing happiness (which could be defined in many subjective ways) and minimizing suffering. According to what standard are these morals judged? How is one sure that the act taken is truly maximizing the “good” for all involved? This is one of Kant’s ideas — an act cannot be considered good unless it could be applied universally to everyone in all situations. Having only the end in mind could easily make every ethical decision a mathematical equation for selfish gain.

Unlike their commanders, Blake and Schofield act from a Deontological framework. Had they been solely concerned with accomplishing their mission, they would not have saved the German pilot. In fact, they could have shot him as soon as he crashed in order to mercifully prevent his burning to death in agony. From the Consequentialist perspective, that would have produced maximal happiness since in the end, Blake would be alive, but the pilot would still be dead.

Schofield and Blake, however, did what they thought was morally right. Blake had no idea he’d be stabbed by the pilot he saved. In fact, calling Blake’s death a “sacrifice” could easily be labeled a misnomer, as he gave nothing up of his own volition. He was just stabbed and bled to death. This morbid simplicity is reminiscent of how Newt Knight’s nephew dies in the Battle of Corinth in the Civil War drama Free State of Jones:

WILLIAM: “He died with honor!”

NEWT: “No, Will…he just died.”

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Source: STX Entertainment

This moment is a key turning point for Newt’s journey throughout the rest of the story.

Cost of Sacrifice

It seems, then, that some sacrifices are worthless (or appear to be so), especially when there is no moral good being served or consequential good being gained. The questions raised by 1917 and countless other war films remain: When are sacrifices of life necessary? How does one measure the price of a sacrifice?

There’s also an assumption implicit in the question itself — why even think a sacrifice is measurable in the first place? A sacrifice’s measurability is really just an attempt to quantify (and therefore justify) the utilitarian, outcome-based approach. Since the stalemate trench warfare in France and Belgium a century ago led to massive slaughter to maintain the status quo, the Utilitarian necessity of combat failed the “Lost Generation.” This was the apparent reality for so many of the WWI veterans who saw their brothers slaughtered wantonly for no gain at all. 1917 co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns echoes this when explaining her visit to WWI battlefields when researching the era:

When I was there, I realized something I had read but never understood: that men died so their country could gain inches, just inches of land.

This led many soldiers who survived WWI to embrace Nihilism, the idea that nothing truly matters. Like extreme Consequentialism, this leaves the world devoid of hope or justice, and is ultimately self-defeating.

Not all who experienced the horrors of the Somme became so disenchanted — storytelling giants like Lewis and Tolkien are the exceptions of being ultimately strengthened rather than broken by the Great War. Even so, Lewis and Tolkien still saw senseless loss and could have easily wondered as we do in retrospect: did his or her sacrifice matter, or was it ultimately meaningless? In an amoral universe, such acts certainly would appear to be devoid of purpose. However, if the universe is governed by natural law, and thus a natural Lawgiver, then even the smallest sacrifice does not go unnoticed or uncounseled.

So, whether or not a sacrifice matters or not depends on how you define what “matter” means. Is a sacrifice’s value and significance based on its rightness, or its outcome? It was Blake’s demise which emboldened Schofield to risk it all to fulfill their once-joint mission; Blake’s death clearly mattered personally to Schofield. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay eloquently shows this:

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Source: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns/Neal Street Productions

That’s Schofield’s character arc: An unwilling soldier becomes driven and heroic.

  • Schofield tells Blake, “Age before beauty,” and bravely chooses to exit the trenches before Blake.
  • Blake tells him he can leave, but Schofield does not.
  • When offered the chance to hide with the French woman he helps, he stalwartly refuses.
  • Schofield valiantly charges across a battlefield in view of the enemy to save as many comrades as he can.

Synthesis

All of these actions showing Schofield’s sense of duty are further heightened when it’s revealed at the end of the film that he, like so many soldiers on both sides, has a wife and family back at home. Schofield still risked it all to do his duty — to do what was right in spite of his own self-interest. In the end, Schofield was able to save some (if not most) of the men fated to die in battle. Should Blake and Schofield have saved the German pilot, even though it led to Blake’s death? To Blake, it was the right thing to do; it was his duty. As Kant theorized,

A human will in which the Moral Law is decisive is motivated by the thought of duty.

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DreamWorks/Universal Pictures

This could be seen as both Deontological, since he did his moral duty, and Consequential, since the stakes for the mission were incredibly high. In my estimation, the concepts of duty and consequences are not mutually exclusive. Each aspect affects the other. As this Ethic professor points out, moral decisions are never made in a vacuum. Some could characterize this acceptance of both systems as Rule-Consequentialism, but I need to study more to arrive at a definitive answer. In my current estimation, the needs of the many sometimes do outweigh the needs of the one, but not always.

As laid out by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Thomism seems to suggest that our duties must be prioritized according to not just the effects of our acts but also their relation to the eternal Lawgiver:

According to Aquinas, ‘it is this participation in the eternal law by the rational creature that is called the natural law.’ …The ‘eternal law’ refers to God’s providential ordering of all created things to their proper end. We participate in that divine order in virtue of the fact that God creates in us both a desire for and an ability to discern what is good.

The good in question functions as an end — the object for the sake of which the agent acts. ‘For the object of the will is the end and the good.’ …Aquinas’s point, however, is that our actions are done for the sake of what we believe (rightly or wrongly) to be good.

Ostensibly, one could argue that without Blake’s death to motivate him, Schofield and Blake may have been unsuccessful in their quest to prevent further loss of life. Schofield wanted Blake’s death to be significant, which would only occurred if his mission was completed. Only then would Blake’s death and dying wishes be fully actualized. In that way, Blake’s death was a sacrifice, though he didn’t know it.

That’s also why sacrifices are so difficult: the outcome is often not known. The only thing known is the personal moral duty to sacrifice oneself regardless of the consequences, good or bad. Though not in time to save everyone, Schofield (thanks to Blake’s sacrifice) did complete his two-fold mission: prevent the slaughter of his countrymen and deliver the sobering news to Blake’s brother.

Schofield’s weary rest in the open field after speaking to Blake’s brother bookends the beginning of the film when both were sleeping in a field. The bittersweet moment reminds me of a poem that WWI veteran C.S. Lewis wrote in 1919:

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Source: Storylosopher on Pinterest

Sorely pressed have I been

And driven and hurt beyond bearing this summer day,

But the heat and the pain together suddenly fall away,

All’s cool and green.

This poem, titled “Death in Battle,” was written before Lewis became a Christian, even before he was so thankful the sacrifice lamb had been slain on his — and our — behalf.

Drop your thoughts on 1917 in the comments below!

Originally published at https://storylosopher.com on January 29, 2020. Get my FREE Screenwriting Masterclass: How to Be Taken Seriously As a Screenwriter!

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