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"There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing."

"Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone."
Rudyard Kipling (quoted by Gen. Erinmore)

1917 is a war film co-written and directed by Sam Mendes and starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth.

The story takes place from April 6-7, 1917, in the midst of World War I. With the Germans in apparent retreat, the Devonshire Regiment is scheduled to launch a full on attack on their front line. However, aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the Germans are planning to lure the Devons into a massacre.

With the field telephones to the Devons' sector cut, the only way to get word to stop the attack is to send two runners: Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). Blake has been chosen to deliver the message because he'll have extra motivation: his brother is an officer with the regiment. Having received their orders, the two soldiers go on a hazardous, harrowing trek through no man's land, hoping to reach the Devonshires and stop the attack before it's too late.

Notably, the story is told in Real Time, and the film is shot and edited to look as if it were done in one take à la Birdman or Rope.

The movie was given a limited release on December 25, 2019, and was widely released on January 10, 2020.

Previews: Trailer 1, Trailer 2, Trailer 3.

1917 contains examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Granted, the "action" is generally of the subtler, tension-based variety, but the moments of relative peace and safety are used to help build character and add patches of levity. One of the most notable is the scene where Schofield runs into German forces in Ecoust and finds himself hiding in the home of a French woman taking care of an orphaned infant. It doesn't directly matter to the overall plot and is never brought up again, but it still stands out as a tender, hopeful moment in such a horrible circumstance.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Blake's telling about another soldier's unfortunate dealings with rats because of his hair oil even makes Schofield chuckle.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: Blake gets stabbed by a German pilot he'd rescued from a burning plane. Despite the other soldier's attempts to get him back on his feet, every small movement makes him scream or groan in agony and he continuously falls back over. In the end, there's nothing that can be done to save him, and he dies slowly and painfully while Schofield stays by his side to ease his terror of death, assuring him that he will finish their mission.
  • All for Nothing: Zig-Zagged. Schofield succeeds in getting the message through, calling off the worst of the attack, and Blake's brother survives. However, Colonel Mackenzie points out that even if this attack is cancelled, another will be ordered in a few days. And in the long run, all of this will have come to naught when World War Two happens...
  • All There in the Script:
    • Almost all of the British soldiers with dialogue are named in the credits, including characters not referred to by name onscreen such as Captain Smith, Colonel Collins, Sepoy Jondular and Captain Ivins.
    • The presence of Sepoy Jondalar in the midst of a white unit is explained. He's part of ad-hoc force of Sikhs, Royal Scots and Worcestershire regiment sent to the front.
  • Arc Symbol: The color white is used throughout the movie to represent both death and hope. The white cherry trees are one of the first signs of the Salt the Earth strategy employed by the German, but Blake points out that in the long run it will result in even more cherry trees growing in the area. Blake gets progressively paler as he dies. Soon before that they find milk, which Schofield later gives to a woman with a baby along with all his rations, giving them a slightly better chance of living through the war. The white cherry flowers appear again when Schofield is floating down the river, signaling that he's made it to the woods and he's close to his goal; but first he has to literally swim through dozens of white, bloated, rotten corpses to make it out of the water. Finally, he has to race through the trenches of the Devons, which are dug in white soil, closing in on the end of his mission while surrounded by soldiers rushing towards certain death because he's too late to stop the first wave.
  • Are You Sure You Want to Do That?: Schofield asks Blake this before they head off into no man's land. His concerns are justified.
  • Armchair Military: As per Real Life, all of the senior officers in the film, with the exception of Colonel Collins, are seen in bunkers behind the trenches, although they do try to maintain a good grasp of the situation and issue orders accordingly.
    • Although Erinmore is presented as an Officer and a Gentleman, other soldiers note he hasn't seen the front, really.
      Schofield: Erinmore's never seen no-man's land. We won't make it ten yards!
    • Colonel Collins is the sole staff officer shown venturing into the field, but his screen time consists of yelling at soldiers to move a fallen tree while sitting comfortably in his car.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: A rare Inversion where proper safety is out of place. A few modern weapon-handling techniques are seen in minor places, such as trigger discipline, which was not a widespread thing nor a part of military training until the 80s.
  • Artistic License – History: A minor example. When Blake and Schofield start crossing No Man's Land, they see an abandoned Mark II tank. The film starts on April 6, 1917; the tank was not used in the area until three days later.
  • Bayonet Ya: Blake and Schofield mount the bayonets on their rifles before heading over the top into no-man's land. The bayonets are never actually used; only Schofield uses his rifle to shoot, not to impale.
  • Batman Gambit: Twice in the film:
    • General Erinmore sends both Schofield and Blake on a mission to deliver a letter to Colonel Mackenzie to call off an upcoming attack on the new German trenches, even though there were risks the mission could fail due to possible dangers.
    • The Germans allowed the British to attack so they can take them by surprise. Despite the attack being called off, the strategy still worked to an extent as it resulted in Mackenzie losing many of his men by death or injury.
  • Bearer of Bad News: In the final scene, Schofield must tell Lieutenant Blake about the death of his brother.
  • Big Brother Instinct: An inversion with Blake as he's the younger brother, but is very determined to deliver the message that could save his older brother's life. Even when Schofield expresses doubts and cynicism, Blake pushes forward, knowing it'll save his life.
  • Big Eater: Blake is noticeably pudgier than Schofield, and admits that he took the special mission by hoping it was to be sent to get the rest of the men food. He constantly asks if Schofield's found any rations during their trek. Later, the duo comes across a field of chopped-down trees and Blake immediately identifies them as cherry trees, and rattles off a list of different types of cherries one can eat. Blake makes mention of his mother's cherry orchard back home, hence his knowledge on the subject.
  • Big Heroic Run: The big, climactic scene of an unarmed and desperate Schofield blitzing through the battlefield as fellow soldiers rush perpendicularly to him and explosions go off, all to deliver the message to call the attack off.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Schofield ultimately succeeds his mission, calling off the attack in progress and saving hundreds of lives, and delivers Blake's personal effects to his brother Joseph. However, Schofield has seen further incredible horrors, including Blake's death, and thousands more will die before the war finally ends. Worse, there is the implication that this happens all the time, with a colonel wearily claiming that the war will be fought "last man standing."
  • Black Vikings: The film includes a noticeable amount of black and Indian soldiers sprinkled among the British Army. In Real Life, black soldiers primarily came from the West Indies and thus fought in their own West Indian regiments, while the Indian forces had already been withdrawn from the Western Front by 1917, though a few remained.
  • Booby Trap: Blake and Schofield are on the lookout for traps as they advance through German trenches. They notice a tripwire bomb–and a rat sets it off. Blake scrambles to pull a buried, blinded, and choking Schofield out of the collapsing tunnels before it can claim them both.
  • Book Ends:
    • The film starts and ends with Schofield resting in a field under a tree. Additionally, Blake's part in the story begins and ends with him lying on the ground.
    • The whole film is structured symmetrically, with the midpoint being when Schofield is knocked out by the German sniper, which happens to be the only hard cut in the movie. There are several parallel moments, from the handshakes, the meetings with high-ranking officers, the cherry blossoms, a river, and the trench runs.
  • Brick Joke: Blake and Schofield leave the German trenches and come across a lone farm, with all but one cow shot dead, along with a dog right near the front door of the house. About fifteen minutes later, while a fresh platoon starts to drive away, one of the soldiers asks if that's a dog lying there.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Blake especially:
      • General Erinmore tells him his brother is in grave danger unless a message is sent to call off an attack.
      • He gets told off by another soldier for not using the one-way system.
      • He gets into more trouble and nearly throttled by an angry soldier for accidentally bumping into his injured sergeant.
      • He tragically gets stabbed by a German pilot that he tried to save.
    • Schofield also falls into this trope combined with Trauma Conga Line:
      • Gets his hand cut open by barbed wire, then accidentally sticks the same hand into a dead German's stomach.
      • Nearly dies from an explosion in a German bunker.
      • Gets temporary blinded and choked from the dust from said explosion.
      • Loses Blake who gets stabbed to death by a German pilot.
      • Is knocked unconscious from a sniper's gunshot, losing precious time.
      • Nearly drowns via a waterfall.
  • Cassandra Truth: On his way to Colonel Mackenzie's bunker, Schofield tries to warn several officers about to launch the first wave that the attack has been canceled but they either don't believe him, are suffering from shell shock or reply that it's too late to call it off.
  • Central Theme: Hope. The movie alternates between the best and worst aspects of it without taking a stance in favor of either.
    • On the negative side:
      • Right off the bat, the audience is informed that Blake hoped to get sent home temporarily soon, but his permission was taken away with no explanation.
      • The whole story happens because the British have noticed the enemy retreating and this gives them hope of a victory, but it's a trap and acting on that hope would result in around 1600 men dying horribly and pointlessly.
      • Blake's rescue of a German pilot could be interpreted as a sign of hope since it shows he hasn't relinquished his humanity and mercy even towards the enemy, he's promptly rewarded with a horrible death.
      • It's the jaded, hopeless characters who are mostly presented as sensible, such as Schofield himself, Captain Smith giving him pragmatic and cynical advice and Colonel Mackenzie outright saying that hope is dangerous and pointing out that the whole mission was ultimately pointless since they will all die anyway when they eventually receive orders to attack.
    • On the positive side:
      • Blake and Schofield take their chances based on uncertain reports of a relatively safe route.
      • Blake's hope of saving his brother and keeping his friend alive lead him to heroic feats, such as digging Schofield out of the debris.
        Blake: The whole thing's coming down! You keep hold of me!
      • Blake mentions that the cut trees will produce even more trees, so eventually the scorched countryside will return to its former beauty.
      • Hope is also represented by the woman and the baby, who have lost it all to the invaders yet cling to survival and are rewarded by a fortuitous encounter with a soldier that happens to be carrying supplies and milk.
      • Schofield's final run is an attempt to save lives even as fellow soldiers are dying all around him, he makes it in time to save most of them including Blake's brother.
      • The film ends with Schofield looking at a picture of his wife and child, implying that the hope of returning to them encourages him to carry on in spite of the horrors he lived through during the movie, and the horrors he lived before (as implied by dialogue) and will likely live before the war is over.
    • A case could be made to either side on the fact that Blake does succeed in his objectives of saving his brother's life and not getting Schofield killed for coming with him, but Blake himself doesn't make it.
  • Character Development: Schofield begins the film the more cautious of the pair, as he is implied to be a somewhat more experienced soldier than Blake is and has less of a personal stake in the way things play out than his buddy does. By the end of the film, desperate to save Blake's brother and see that both their mission and Blake's death were not in vain, Schofield throws caution to the wind and knowingly and willfully exposes himself to heavy enemy fire running parallel to the top of the trench line to see that the attack is halted.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The canteen full of milk, which is given to feed a baby Schofield encounters later.
  • Chekhov's Skill: It's mentioned early on that Schofield fought in the Somme and dealt with a French captain. His basic knowledge of French helps him in Ecoust.
  • Cherry Blossoms: Unusual in a Western, live-action work, but they appear at least twice, carrying much of the same significance (i.e. the beauty of life, and its transience and fragility) that they have in Japanese culture.
  • Chiaroscuro: In the night scenes, the film averts Hollywood Darkness, and instead strategically chooses light sources to achieve the dramatic effect (while making sure that the film can still achieve its oner effect). There are two notable scenes where the light/dark contrasting lighting is especially prevalent:
    • When Schofield wakes up in the bombed-out French town, German flares fly over the town, lighting up the streets and exposing Schofield. These flares cast strong moving lights, creating constantly shifting shadows.
    • When Schofield enters the town square, he sees a massive burning building. This building provides the sole source of light for all the town street scenes afterwards (not counting the indoor scene which is lit by oil lights), and much of the time only the characters' silhouettes are visible.
    • The interplay of light and dark as Schofield runs through the archway combined is strongly reminiscent of the artwork of Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist active during World War I who often employed this trope.
  • The Chessmaster: The Germans. They abandoned their own trenches and relocated to the Hindenburg Line in an attempt to take the British by surprise. The strategy works as they manage to gun down many of Colonel Mackenzie's men. Schofield even lampshades this to Colonel Mackenzie. Makes it more horrific by the fact that this happened in real life as the Germans attempted this method to win the war. In fact, Germans were experts at pulling off surprise attacks such as moving its troops to Verdun in 1915 knowing the French would defend the town and very nearly won in 1918 by attacking the British for the first time known as the spring offensive before the Americans arrived.
  • Classy Cane: Captain Smith carries around a walking stick, with Mark Strong commenting that he chose to carry one after observing several World War I officers carrying them in old pictures.
  • Collapsing Lair: A tripwire bomb causes the trench system to cave in, and Blake and Schofield narrowly avoid being buried alive.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • The German bunker has been abandoned, presumably for several hours at least, and there are rats crawling everywhere, one of which just happens to run into the tripwire right after Blake and Schofield arrive.
    • In the abandoned barn, Schofield just happens to find a bucket of milk, which just happens to have been collected recently enough that it isn't spoiled (milk spoils very fast without refrigeration), and just happens not to have been contaminated by dirt or grime, despite the entire farm complex being in ruins. Later in the movie, Schofield just happens to encounter a situation where the milk he collected in his canteen becomes extremely useful.
    • Out of all the places for the German pilot to crash-land his crippled plane, he inexplicably decides to aim it for the only building within miles.
  • Cut Phone Lines: General Erinmore mentions that the Germans cut the phone lines during their strategic retreat. The only way to get word to the 2nd Devons is to deliver the message in person.note 
  • Dangerous Deserter: The German stragglers occupying Ecoust are at least partially made up of deserters, and had looted and destroyed the town, dumping the killed residents in a nearby river.
  • Deadpan Snarker: General Erinmore speaks in a very deadpan voice despite a war going on. This is likely because he is used to the fighting and doesn’t have any hope the war will end anytime soon.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Blake is set up as the hero–he has the personal stakes of rescuing his brother. He's the one chosen for the mission thanks to his good pathfinding skills, and he picks Schofield as a partner, who conversely gets his hand pierced by barbed wire and is nearly crushed to death by a cave-in early on. Despite all the narrative conventions, Blake still dies halfway through, and Schofield is left to finish the mission alone.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: The Germans do this to the Allies during the movie, pulling back to new lines. The 2nd Devonshire goes after them, and run the risk of being massacred by the superior German defenses.
  • Determinator: Lance Corporal Blake once he learns his brother's life is dependent on the mission's success. Schofield becomes this when Blake dies, and to an even greater extreme.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Blake dies in Schofield's arms.
  • Disney Death: After a bomb blows up a German bunker Schofield lies motionless under the rubble and at first glance he seems to have been killed, but miraculously survives but suffers temporary blindness and suffocation.
  • Double Knockout: Schofield opens a door with his rifle ready–and the German sniper is waiting for him. They both shoot each other at the same time. Schofield survives, thanks to his helmet, but the German is less lucky.
  • Ear Ache: Blake tells Schofield a story about another soldier they know, who had a rat bite off his ear after he put on too much of a sweet-smelling hair oil.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: When Blake and Schofield cross No Man's Land and get to the German trenches, they take note of how much larger and meticulously constructed that side was compared to the British side (trenches were wider, walls lined with plywood, large underground facilities with metal bunk beds, telephone wires hung on nails hammered into the walls rather than on shaky poles in full view of the enemy, and tunnels that resembled mine shafts). This was Truth in Television.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: While searching the abandoned farmhouse, Schofield notices a doll lying on the ground.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: See also The Oner. The movie moves in Real Time following these soldiers as they move along in their mission. Especially notable is that Shaky Cam is averted, and so at several points the camera phases through the obstacles the soldiers had to bypass and will seamlessly rise above the trenches or down to the waterline of a river and over a waterfall.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Due to its Real Time nature, the plot covers less than half a day, total.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: The German pilot Schofield and Blake rescue from the burning plane being the viper. Schofield suggests putting him out of his misery, but Blake insists on getting him water. Not one minute later, the German pilot has fatally stabbed Blake.
  • Fatal Family Photo:
    • Played with when Blake dies clutching one while he was already fatally wounded before taking it out.
    • Defied with Schofield who does not look at his family's pictures until after he has completed his mission. He keeps his in a metal case, which he examines multiple times throughout the film, but the audience never sees the actual photos until the last scene.
  • Fat and Skinny: There's a noticeable physical contrast between Blake and Schofield; both are in good shape, but Blake is shorter and a bit on the pudgy side, while Schofield is comparatively tall and lean. Since they spend the vast majority of their shared screentime with helmets on, this makes it easier to tell them apart.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • Captain Smith is patient, concerned upon meeting Schofield, and does his best to accommodate him, while seeming fairly at ease with his own men.
    • Major Hepburn mentions that Lieutenant Blake is the kind of man to accompany his men over the wall, right into the thick of things. When we see Lieutenant Blake, he is helping some of his wounded men back to the medical tent while offering them reassuring words. Blake is clearly bleeding from a head wound, but is more concerned with making sure his own men are taken care of first at the regimental aid post. Additionally, the first thing he says to Schofield is him asking if the latter is hurt anywhere. Even after he finds out about his brother's death, he still makes sure to remind Will to get some food and medical attention.
  • Fauxshadow:
    • The hand grenades Blake and Schofield are given at the start of the mission are never used.
    • Schofield badly cutting his hand on rusty barbed wire and, only moments later, accidentally forcing that hand into a rotting corpse gets presented as meaningful, but it ultimately never comes up again. It's an apparent reference to Sam Mendes's grandfather, who provided the inspiration for the film and became a compulsive hand-washer as a result of his wartime experience.
    • Captain Smith advises to Schofield that when delivering the message to Colonel Mackenzie, he should make sure that there are witnesses, implying that he could potentially ignore the order to retreat. When Schofield manages to get to him, this issue has minimal impact — there are naturally other authorities in the bunker, and while Mackenzie resists listening to Schofield at first, he complies once Schofield tells him what the Germans are really up to.
      • In fact, the trailer and the first part of the film, especially Captain Smith's aside to Schofield, make it seem like Colonel Mackenzie will be the main antagonist (besides the Germans). The Colonel calls off the attack after a short argument, in a relatively short scene, and the focus is more on the sheer bloody, exhausting hell Schofield goes through, including losing Blake.
  • Flare Gun: Lieutenant Leslie reluctantly gives Blake and Schofield a flare gun to signal that they've made it through the German trenches. He half-jokingly quips that if they get pinned down or they're about to die, that they should throw it back in their general direction as they hate losing the guns to the enemy. Thanks to Leslie's rude bluntness, Blake dismissively drops the flare gun in the dirt after firing it.
    Up yours, Lieutenant.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first shot of the film, believe it or not. Schofield is placed in the "stage front" of the frame, with Blake in the background. This serves to represent Blake's status as Decoy Protagonist and Schofield being the true Protagonist of the film.
    • When asked why he's not sending a full unit to deliver the message, General Erinmore replies with the Rudyard Kipling quote, "Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone." Initially, this seems like an erroneous quote by the General because he's obviously sending two men, not one... but it becomes tragically prophetic when Blake is killed and Schofield must continue the mission alone.
    • Schofield stumbles upon a female French civilian who's caring for an orphaned infant and gently plays with the child for a few minutes. When she asks him if he has any children of his own, Schofield doesn't answer, but the glimpse we get of the photo he carries with him at the end shows that he does.
      • Lieutenant Leslie snarks to Schofield that he'll surely get a medal for the mission — "nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow" — which visibly annoys Schofield. In the end it's revealed that he actually is married and is worried enough about making his wife a widow.
    • While the two men are exploring an abandoned German structure, Schofield and Blake spot a few eerie reminders of the absent men's sweethearts and family members, like names scratched in the plaster and an abandoned family photo indicating the extreme haste of the German withdrawal. Both men seem suspicious of why such a thing would be left behind. This foreshadows both men's own significant family photos — Blake's, abandoned on his remains, and Schofield's, carried to the end.
    • Early at the front line, two stretcher bearers carry a soldier who is badly wounded in the head, before we see others also wounded in dressings. This obviously foreshadows the dangers the two friends face.
    • As the two heroes cross No Man's Land, several men are seen lying dead with many decomposing, implying they were killed in the last conflict. This foreshadows Blake's death.
  • For the Evulz: Captain Smith advises Schofield to make sure there are witnesses when he gives Colonel Mackenzie the message to stop the attack because Mackenzie might choose to ignore them for this reason.
    "Some men just want the fight."
  • For Want of a Nail: Blake insists on leaving immediately upon getting their orders, as General Erinmore indicated they should, while Schofield wondered if they should wait until dark. It is left to the audience to decide how different things might have gone if they had left later. If they had waited, then they wouldn't have encountered the pilot who ended up killing Blake, and might not have had the delaying encounter with the sniper. Although on the other hand, they would have been traveling much slower through the dark, would have had far less time to make it to the Second Devons Battalion's camp, and wouldn't have gotten a lift from Captain Smith's truck which, while brief, potentially saved a couple of hours of traveling on foot.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Lieutenant Blake is briefly visible on the blood-soaked photo Corporal Blake shows Schofield as he's dying.
  • Fresh Clue: More of a suspense trigger than an actual clue. At the German trenches, the two protagonists find a bucket with still-glowing coals in it, a sign that the Germans couldn't have left long ago.
  • Friend or Foe?: While roaming through the French town and encountering a building up in flames, Schofield sees the silhouette of a soldier walking towards him from it. It's unclear whose side he's on at first, but after a moment, the soldier realizes who he's looking at...and opens fire on Schofield
  • Frontline General: Both General Erinmore and Colonel Macknzie lead their men in the frontline of trenches.
  • Gaia's Lament: There are several shots and scenes that detail just how badly the war has ruined the once-beautiful countryside. Any portion of the film dealing with an actual battlefield shows barren rocks and mud, littered with rats and corpses, while the places between the battlefields are verdant and clean, though they're often still marred by battle (most notably the cherry trees which were cut down).
  • Gallows Humor: Before the pair go over, Lieutenant Leslie sprinkles whatever's in his flask on them and sardonically administers last rites.
  • General Ripper: Subverted with Erinmore. Unlike most portrayals of the World War I general staff, he recognizes that the German retreat is actually a trap and immediately tries to avert a bloodbath.
  • Glory Hound: Captain Smith warns Schofield that Colonel Mackenzie is very motivated to attack, and cautions him to give Mackenzie the orders to retreat with witnesses. Ultimately downplayed. Whilst Mackenzie does indeed take a bit of convincing, he ultimately cancels the attack. What Smith sees as Mackenzie's hunger for glory is at least partly motivated by Mackenzie's impatience with the prolonged conflict and frustration with the high command's constant indecisiveness. Of course, the colonel seems very keen to push for that decisive killer blow, but he understands the folly of sending his men into a potentially costly trap; and one of the witnesses present thanks Schofield for talking the colonel down.
  • Got Volunteered: Blake gets woken up from a nap and told to pick a partner for an upcoming mission. He volunteers Schofield, because they're good friends, and he thought it was going to be something easy.
  • Gut Punch: Blake's death, which drives home that Anyone Can Die.
  • I Have a Family: Blake's main motivation.
    Gen. Erinmore: You have a brother in the second battalion.
    Lcpl. Blake: Yes, sir. Is he...
    Gen. Erinmore: Alive. And with your help, I'd like to keep it that way. But they're walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning's attack. If you don't, we will lose sixteen hundred men. Your brother among them.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: The orphaned French baby Schofield meets absolutely melts his pessimistic heart, likely due to him being a father himself.
  • Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: Subverted. Schofield and Blake keep their helmets on the entire time they're on screen until the end of the first half. Schofield's helmet saves his life during the confrontation with the sniper when, while he shoots the sniper in the chest, the sniper goes for his head.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Leslie and his men have a dog with them.
  • Heroic BSoD: Schofield suffers one after Blake is killed and pretty much is mode-locked like it for the rest of the film. He has a full breakdown after escaping Ecoust and surviving the river, crawling over bloated, soaked corpses only to break down crying. Subverted in that he's still able to carry on with the task of delivering the message.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Had Blake not insisted on saving the German pilot, he likely wouldn't have gotten stabbed and killed in the first place.
  • Home by Christmas: Discussed Trope. Blake mentions early on that command had said that all it would take is one big push and everyone would be home by Christmas. Given that the movie takes place in April, that push either fizzled out some time ago or is a long time coming, and the Sergeant mocks him for it. note 
  • Hope Is Scary: Mackenzie mentions that "Hope is a dangerous thing" after accepting orders to stop the attack.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Not discussed, but shown. Mendes states that his intention was to show how much damage we were causing to the environment with our destruction of the world by contrasting beautiful images of nature with the damage of war, and that at the end of the day, nature will win out, laughing at us.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Schofield is shot at multiple times at close range but never takes much of a hit. Justified in that the scene at the ruins of Ecoust was at night, with only flares for a light source.
  • Inevitable Waterfall: Schofield jumps into a river to escape the German soldiers at Ecoust, and soon takes a plunge down a waterfall. Fortunately, this helps him lose his pursuers, and he makes it out no worse for wear.
  • Irony: Blake is chosen for the mission, both for his navigational skills and the personal stake he has in seeing it succeed. (His brother is an officer in the unit that is about to be wiped out.) Schofield, meanwhile, is chosen by Blake for a companion, simply because they are friends and Blake thought they had something good coming their way, like being sent behind the lines to be fed. Blake is killed early on, and Schofield is the one who has to move heaven and earth to see that the job is done.
  • It's Personal: Part of the reason Blake was chosen for the mission was because his brother was a platoon leader in the 2nd Devons, and as such would be among the troops going over the top into the German trap if the orders calling off the attack are not delivered on time, giving the Lance Corporal a personal incentive to make sure the mission succeeds.
  • Jump Scare: When Schofield crosses the bridge and suddenly a sniper shoots at him.
  • Knight in Sour Armor:
    • Schofield is cynical, jaded, and extremely cautious, due to his experiences in the Somme and his fear of not surviving. However, he supports Blake, takes lead going over the top into No Man's Land, and develops the determination to carry through the mission.
    • Lieutenant Leslie is openly dismissive of the mission, crass, and mockingly baptizes the two soldiers for their suicide mission. It's made clear it's only because he's seen far too much fighting.
    • Colonel Mackenzie, who bitterly notes that even if the attack's called off, they very well may be going into another bull-headed rush for "glory" next week, and tells Schofield to get some medical help and "fuck off".
  • Leap of Faith: After Schofield is temporarily blinded by an explosion, Blake has to encourage him to leap across a mine shaft.
    "You need to trust me! Jump!"
  • MacGuffin Escort Mission: The plot revolves around two soldiers delivering an important message across dangerous grounds to another division.
  • Made of Iron: Schofield is extremely lucky to be alive after the injuries that he sustains, let alone have the strength left to finish his mission.
    • He cuts his hand on filthy barbed wire right after entering no-man's land. Minutes later, he accidentally plunges the same hand into a half-rotten corpse's belly. Twelve-plus hours later, the hand is still working and he's showing no signs of sepsis.
    • He gets nearly crushed to death by a collapsing tunnel, inhales so much limestone dust that he almost asphyxiates, and is temporarily blinded.
    • Most harrowingly, he survives a rifle shot directly to the helmet at short range. His helmet saves him but the blast throws him down a flight of stairs, he gets a deep cut to the back of his head, and he's knocked out for something like 10 hours. An injury like that could easily cause a serious brain bleed, and even if it didn't, losing consciousness for thirty minutes is alarming. At ten hours, you'd be worried about irreversible, devastating brain damage.
    • Shortly after coming to, Schofield is strong enough to keep walking, can think clearly, and even wins a hand-to-hand fight with a German soldier. He then escapes the German's comrades by taking a high dive into a fast-moving river.
    • The river's current then carries him over a waterfall. He nearly drowns, and when he resurfaces, he gets swept up against a rock.
    • After all of that, he still has enough left in the tank to sprint 300 yards across an active battlefield, despite getting knocked down twice by oncoming soldiers.
    • All this time, his only food and drink have been about half of a ham sandwich, a few sips of milk, and less than one canteen's worth of water (he used a good bit of it washing the grit from the tunnel out of his eyes).
  • Manly Facial Hair: General Erinmore has a tough 'stache, as do various sergeants and lieutenants in the Devonshires, seen preparing their men to go over the top. Colonel Mackenzie's is a fairly thin one, but does add to the air of authority that he carries.
  • Mildly Military:
    • The British soldiers in the film, even the officers, seem unprofessional and mostly unfriendly to one another. Probably very accurate, given how long the war had lasted by the time the film takes place. The pre-war professional British Army of 100,000 men (the "Old Contemptibles") had been used up in the opening months of the war, and the British Army in France in 1917 was made up of hastily trained men recruited into "Pals Battalions."
    • When Schofield enters Croisilles Wood, there is no patrol around to pick him up, as everyone is listening to the singer.
  • Mirroring Factions: When Blake and Schofield explore the German barracks, they see pictures of loved ones and a girl's name written on the wall—things they would likely find in a British trench as well.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: When Blake and Schofield enter the abandoned German trench, we can hear a loon call. The loon has a spooky call, but it is also a North American water bird.
  • Mobstacle Course: Schofield makes it to the Second Battalion, but the trenches are full of troops preparing to attack. He has to push past 300 yards of trench and men, all the way to Colonel Mackenzie. Exaggerated, when he opts to brave running across the open battlefield as a shortcut to the colonel to avoid the crowded trench. Even then, he has to weave between charging soldiers on his own side and even gets plowed into several times.
  • Mood Dissonance: When Schofield hitches a hike on the back of a truck. He is mourning the death of his friend while the other soldiers unaware of his loss are cracking toilet jokes.
  • More Dakka: Implied. The hundreds of spent artillery shells in the quarry Blake and Schofield pass through tell a story of the Germans raining down an awful lot of Death from Above.
  • Mucking in the Mud: A truck giving Schofield a ride briefly gets stuck in the mud, with his urgency at getting it unstuck causing the other passengers to realize that he's on a serious errand and help dislodge the truck, and ask him about it once they get moving again.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Some of the trailers include a few seconds of the scene where Schofield is with a woman holding a baby. Out-of-context, the footage seems to imply it's either a flashback of Schofield's family back in England, or the movie would include a romantic subplot. It's actually neither, but merely footages from a scene when Schofield randomly encounters a French female civilian and briefly bonds with her.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The reconnaissance planes that shoot down the German pilot. Though they were only doing their jobs, they also inadvertently put a major threat right into Blake and Schofield's laps.
  • Nicknaming the Enemy: The Germans are frequently referred to as Huns, which is true to history. Hun was used as a pejorative to call the Germans barbarians, based on a quote from Kaiser Wilhelm II during the Boxer Rebellion. "Boche" is used at least once as well.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Blake and Schofield pull a German pilot out of a burning airplane, sparing him from being burned to death. The pilot responds by fatally stabbing Blake.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The vast majority of the film is oppressively silent, with long stretches of no dialogue between various events. Enemies are always hinted to be present just around the protagonists, but they remain invisible for most of the film and only make a few extremely brief close-up appearances. This is especially true when Blake and Schofield go through No Man's Land; the entire stretch is utterly still except for them, and with the danger they're in, crossing in daylight with no cover in full view of any Germans that might be on the other side, the tension is palpable.
  • The Not-Love Interest: The French woman to Schofield, whose interactions with him play out like a romantic encounter. Nothing comes of it because Schofield is already married.
  • Not What I Signed Up For: Blake eventually apologizes to Schofield for picking him as his companion for the mission, saying he'd thought they were just wanted to do something mundane like unloading supplies.
  • Obvious Trap: Lieutenant Leslie is highly skeptical of news of the German retreat, pointing out that the Germans' trap should have been obvious to figure out, as countless men have died for a few inches of land, so they obviously wouldn't suddenly give up miles to the enemy. This is something Colonel Mackenzie evidently did not take into account when he saw an opening to gain ground and attack.
  • Officer and a Gentleman:
    • Gen. Erinmore appears very refined and upper-class. He's well-read enough to casually quote Rudyard Kipling to Blake and Schofield: "Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone."
    • Captain Smith, who is concerned with both the importance of the mission and Schofield's well-being.
  • Offscreen Airplane Pull-up: A disabled German plane flies out of sight behind a hill, presumably to crash - but then abruptly pulls up and crests the hill, to menace Blake and Schofield.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Blake and Schofield, while searching within the German bunker, collectively let out a panicked Little "No" when they find a rat dragging its meal into a live tripwire, promptly detonating the trap right in their faces.
    • When the German biplane shot down heads towards them.
    • A subdued, double-pronged version occurs when after being convinced to look at the reconnaissance photos sent along with General Erinmore's orders, Colonel Mackenzie instantly calls off the next wave and then starts dejectedly speculating about what the next set of orders will be, showing that he both recognizes that he was in fact about to charge into a trap, and that the enemy not being as weak as he'd thought ensures the conflict he was hoping to end will continue to take its toll on both armies and the rest of the world.
    • Schofield, after surviving a trip down a rapid river, finds himself next to a battalion of British soldiers, who are watching a soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger, and decides to sit down too and take a rest. When the song is finished, Schofield asks the battalion for the directions to the 2nd Devons, only for them to answer that they are the 2nd Devons, and the attack has already begun. Cue Schofield's climactic mad dash for Col. Mackenzie to call off the attack.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Blake and Schofield witness a British plane take out a German plane, and are nearly killed when the plane crashes on their position.
  • Old Soldier: Col. Mackenzie is incredibly cynical. He mentions to Schofield that even with this attack called off, another will be ordered in a few days.
  • The Oner: The movie is largely shot and edited to look like it was filmed in a single take, with hidden cuts happening during moments of darkness or as the heroes pass through a doorway. However, there is actually one visible hard cut in the film, when the German sniper shoots Schofield's helmet off, knocking him out, and the film cuts to black for a while. This mostly serves as a plot device meant to skip time forward a few hours, one which a non-oner film would not have a problem with. This also serves as an Oh, Crap! moment for the audience.
  • The Only One: Blake is entrusted by General Erinmore to deliver a message to his brother who is in another front several miles away along with Schofield. Schofield, though, is left as the sole man to fulfill the mission after Blake gets murdered.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Colonel Collins, arguably. His subordinate, Captain Smith, is introduced surveying the farmhouse around the crashed plane with his men, offers some useful aid to the mission, and also inquires about its purpose and destination. Colonel Collins, on the other hand, is seen staying in his staff car, squawking out orders to try and remove an obstacle from the road and asking if there's a way around when there obviously isn't, and while he agrees to let Schofield ride in the truck with the men, he does it absently and with little to no curiosity about his objective and destination.
  • Precious Photo: It's revealed that Schofield has a wife and child, and carries a photo of them around that pleads with him to "Come back to us."
  • Precision F-Strike: "Now fuck off, Lance Corporal."
  • Product Delivery Ordeal: The crux of the film's plot. An isolated regiment is scheduled to launch a full on attack on their front line. However, aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the Germans are planning to lure them into a massacre. With the field telephones to the regiment's sector cut, the only way to get word to stop the attack is to send two runners, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, to deliver the message in writing. The two soldiers go on a hazardous, harrowing trek through enemy territory, hoping to reach the regiment and stop the attack before it's too late.
  • Race Against the Clock: The heroes have a little under a day to reach the front line and call off the attack before the British soldiers charge into a trap and get massacred.
  • Rated M for Manly: Since the whole movie takes place on the front lines of a war zone, women are non-existent, save for a random civilian Schofield encounters.
  • Real Time: Basically, the film is two separate Real Time halves, as we follow Schofield and Blake in real time as they receive their mission and try to complete it. The only major departure from real time is that we skip from Schofield getting knocked out in the afternoon of April 6 to not long before 6am the following morning when he wakes up.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Colonel Mackenzie, who despite heavy foreshadowing of him as a dangerous glory hound, obeys the written orders and calls off the attack now knowing it to be suicide, if still bitterly telling Schofield that it won't make a difference in the end. That said, Schofield did need to invoke high command's authority in front of witnesses to make him back down.
    • Captain Smith (and his briefly seen superior) are this as well, giving Schofield a ride to cut down on the time he'll spend in the field, and a little advice.
    • Most British officers are shown as this. Living in the trenches with the men is a healthy reality check of what war really is, and which properties are required from a field officer.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: During the mission, Blake is rushing and pushing to get to his brother as fast as he can while Schofield is there to tell him they have to be smart about how they travel. This is justified given how Blake has a very personal reason to succeed on this mission while Schofield doesn't at the moment.
  • Road Movie: Not as such but the majority of the film is spent on the two protagonists embarking on a long and dangerous journey towards their goal on delivering a message.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Trees are repeatedly used to symbolize life and hope, and the impacts that the war has on them.
    • The ruined stumps and logs in no-man's-land, which (like the men) have been casually and pointlessly destroyed by the gunfire and shelling.
    • The cherry orchard at the farmstead, which adds emotional weight to the Salt the Earth tactics that are in use, and (according to Blake) shows the potential for renewal after the war ends.
    • More generally, fallen trees appear several times acting as barriers to Blake and Schofield—on the German side of no-man's-land, across roads, and across the river below Ecoust. The symbolism is not as strong in these cases, but they reinforce the damage and losses from the war, and the time and resources that will be needed to recover.
    • The single, apparently unscathed tree that Schofield rests against in the film's closing moments, representing his survival.
  • Rule of Three: The two British planes are seen three times by Blake and Schofield. The third time they appear, they shoot down a German plane that crashes into the farm where the soldiers are, which ultimately leads to Blake's death.
  • Salt the Earth: At one point, just outside of Ecoust-Saint-Mein, Schofield and the company he's riding with drive past a dead herd of cattle, having been shot by the Germans to deny the advancing British forces access to fresh food.
  • Schmuck Bait: Despite everything else of value having been removed, the abandoned German trench inexplicably has an abundant supply of canned food tucked away in a corner... right next to an easily missed tripwire.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Captain Ivins, whose brief screen-time (which keep in mind takes place before the attack has even properly begun) has him shaking, sobbing, and unable to understand or give any orders when Schofield tries to give General Erinmore's message to him. Schofield himself also counts as this, as he's become significantly more jaded due to his experiences in the war. Going by dialogue, he survived the Battle of the Somme.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The loss of Blake. The film is a fairly serious, character-driven affair but Blake is far more jovial and upbeat than Schofield, and keen to tell the latter a darkly amusing tale about how a fellow soldier lost an ear. Schofield later notes Blake had a knack for telling funny stories and making people laugh.
  • Shout-Out: The German soldier that Schofield strangles is named Bäumer. Paul Bäumer was the protagonist of All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Soldiers really did use corpses as landmarks in No Man's Land.
    • Several rats are seen during the film, including feasting on the corpse of a dead soldier and a black rat is seen setting off the tripwire in the German bunker. Rats were an infamous problem on the Western Front, with many reportedly growing as big as cats.
    • The Germans were viciously pragmatic in their scorched earth, killing cattle to deny troops easy food, destroying their artillery, and booby-trapping their fortifications to prevent them from being exploited by the British, even chopping down trees to delay advancing troops, stalling them for their trap.
    • The Germans in the Western Front put much more effort into constructing their tunnels and trenches than the British or French, using plywood to cover the mud walls, steel beams to support the underground structures, neatly pinning their wires to the wall, even moving heavy bedframes inside their tunnels.
    • Several soldiers are shown with their helmets having regimental badges on the front which were added later in the war.
    • Blake's face going white as flour when he is dying indicates that he's going into hypovolemic shock due to massive blood loss, the German's knife having likely pierced his descending aorta or inferior vena cava. The audience can see that he's bleeding badly from his stomach, but he's bleeding worse internally (look close and you can actually see his belly become distended from the internal bleed). The amount of time it takes for him to expire is also consistent with his injuries, instead of being drawn out or sped up for any dramatic effect.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The film shoots straight down the center between nihilistic and idealistic, with Blake representing idealism and Schofield representing nihilism. Their fates invert. Blake dies as a result of his idealism when trying to aid a wounded enemy, but Schofield ends up risking his life for the mission even though he scoffed at such selfless heroics at the beginning of the film. In the end, the senseless war may go on, and many more men will be lost, but at least one crisis has been averted by Schofield's actions.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The German sniper (who the camera focuses on for perhaps fifteen seconds altogether, some of it from a distance and some of it as a corpse), who wounds Schofield. That action delays the mission until the next morning, causing Schofield to be chased and nearly captured by other Germans and arrive just too late to keep the first wave from being launched. The German pilot who kills Blake is one as well, having little to no audible dialogue and only about two minutes of screen time.
  • Smash to Black: The scene cuts to black when Schofield hits his head during his shootout with the sniper.
  • Spoiler Cover: The International Poster and the DVD cover reveal that Schofield arrives alone to give the orders after Blake dies.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Both the explanation of the mission's high stakes and the soldiers' acceptance of it are taken with traditional British restraint. When Captain Smith learns of Blake's death, his simple advice to Schofield is, "It doesn't do to dwell on it."
  • Strong Family Resemblance: As he is dying, Blake explains to Schofield that he'll be able to find his older brother because he looks just like him (Blake).
  • Suicide Mission: While the higher-ups downplay the dangers of the mission, Lieutenant Leslie certainly thinks this way about the assignment and has no qualms about making his opinions known, much to the two soldiers' annoyance.
  • Tactical Withdrawal: The 2nd Devons Battalion is prepared to attack to finish the Germans off, but General Erinmore receives photographic evidence that the German retreat was actually this trope.
  • Take Up My Sword: After Blake is fatally wounded, he makes sure that Schofield knows the route to take so he can complete the quest on his own.
  • That's an Order!: Schofield tries to get Mackenzie to cancel the attack, but Mackenzie refuses. Schofield declares that canceling the attack is a direct order from High Command.
  • Title by Year: A 2019 film about World War I, titled for a year where that war was happening and when the events of the story take place.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Whereas Schofield is world-weary and cynical, Blake is more upbeat and good-hearted: he immediately takes off to help his beloved brother, still believes in the nobility of war heroism (and is shocked that Schofield easily traded his medal), saves Schofield's life and refuses to leave him behind during the cave-in, gives him his water, and saves the life of an enemy combatant and tries to ease his pain whereas Schofield wanted to put him out of his misery. Unfortunately, he dies for the last decision.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Schofield takes Blake's rings and medallion off his dead body. He delivers them to Blake's brother at the end of the film.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Blake dying halfway through the story can be guessed by carefully watching the trailers: they feature scenes from the whole movie, including some where Schofield is alone on-screen. That Schofield makes it to the front too late to stop the attack from happening altogether can be surmised from the trailers, as well.
  • Traveling at the Speed of Plot: Blake estimates that it would take them six hours for their 9 miles journey to Croisilles Wood. However, Schofield arrives after less than two hours of travel on-screen which was only slightly sped up by a four-minute ride on a truck plus two minutes in the rapids.
  • Trying Not to Cry: While Schofield is riding with the convoy of other soldiers, they obliviously joke around while Schofield is doing his best to not fall apart from grief, having just watched Blake die in his arms minutes before.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • The German pilot, who fatally stabs Blake right after he and Schofield save him from his crashed burning airplane. Judging by his panicked babbling after they lay him on the ground, he seems to be too rattled by the crash and flames to be thinking very clearly.
    • Colonel Mackenzie also qualifies for this trope as he even tells Schofield to leave him alone via bad language. Justified as Mackenzie is obviously disappointed his tactics have failed and his hopes on defeating the Germans have ended in shambles.
  • Unstoppable Mailman: Essentially what the two protagonists are, especially when they have personal reasons to get the message delivered successfully. Blake is determined to see the mission done to save his big brother from certain death, and later on following Blake's death, Schofield takes up his task and goes above and beyond to finish the mission and break the news to Blake's brother.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film was based on the various stories of the First World War that director Sam Mendes's grandfather told him in his youth. The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, Operation Alberich, forms the basis of the film's plot. The scorched earth policies shown to have been employed by them during the retreat, such as machine-gunning cattle, laying booby traps and chopping down trees, are also based on historical fact.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Downplayed. Schofield stumbles across a drunk German soldier vomiting during his walk through the ruined town, twice. However, the soldier always vomits far away in the background.
  • Walk and Talk: The first half of the movie is mostly comprised of scenes with Schofield and Blake walking and talking.
  • War Is Glorious: Discussed by Blake, who believes that winning battles and medals will bring glory to him. Schofield berates him for that line of thinking.
  • War Is Hell: Dead and decomposed bodies are a frequent sight, as are wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. The actual combat scenes are relatively brief and far from glamorous. Schofield clearly holds this view as the more experienced soldier and having survived the horrors of the Somme.
  • The Women Are Safe with Us: Schofield encounters a French woman who is absolutely terrified of the occupying German forces; her dialogue implies that the Germans have been looting the town at their leisure. He gives her his stockpile of food and milk for an orphaned baby she's caring for before he has to leave.
  • You Are in Command Now: On their way out, Blake and Schofield are sent to see a major at the front trenches and tell him about the trap. They are informed that major has been dead for two days and Lieutenant Leslie is in charge of his unit.
  • You Are Too Late: Played with. When Schofield arrives at the Devons, he realizes he was too late to stop the first wave but his Big Heroic Run makes sure the attack gets aborted quickly after.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Blake and Schofield encounter multiple rats during their journey. One ends up triggering a tripwire bomb. After that, Blake particularly hates rats — but to try and lighten the mood, tells a tall tale about how one of the soldiers they both know lost an ear due to a rat particularly liking the taste of his hair oil. Notably, rats show up prominently when one of the main characters is in a near-death situation — Schofield is nearly killed by the tripwire, and the rat-infested farm is where Blake dies.

♫ I'm going there to see my Father
I'm going there no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home. ♫