Written by: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Genre: Dude with a Problem

This film has received almost universal acclaim, in particular for its technical accomplishment. The filmmakers intended this story to take place in “real time,” and—with the exception of one moment—it is written and designed to be one continuous shot.

However, the movie has received some negative criticism for the video game feel that “the continuous shot” approach generates. Also, because the action starts from minute two, some feel the characters are not fleshed out enough.

The first time I saw this, I too was impressed by the beauty, horror, and technical proficiency but left feeling oddly cold. My immediate thought was that an important beat is missing. I thought I knew which one, so decided to go back and watch it a few more times to try to get a feel for the underlying structure.

As writers and lovers of Save the Cat!, we know that, “Structure is everything.” We study great movies to see what they got right and where they went astray. We do it with great respect, humility, and admiration. We are the critics. They are the artists!

In the analysis that follows, there will necessarily be SPOILERS. Unlike our heroes when they first receive the Call to Adventure, you have been warned.

Note: I clocked the story via pages of the screenplay as well as the timings of the movie itself. Interestingly, the screenplay is the standard 120 pages. However, the narrative part of the film takes only 109 minutes. I plugged the number of pages into my STC! software and came up with the timings it should hit. The STC! recommended timings for the beats are in [square] brackets.

Opening Image [1] (page 1 / minute 1) After a title card of white letters on black—April 6, 1917—we see an idyllic field of wildflowers. Two British soldiers in distinctive World War I uniforms doze in the sun. One of them, Schofield (early 20s), rests against a tree. The lower half of a sergeant appears and his voice commands the other one, Blake (19), to “Pick a man, bring your kit.” Blake stands and holds out his hand to Schofield, who blinks sleepily then resignedly extends his own for a lift. The Call to Adventure in minute two? I am worried that we have had almost no Set-Up and I expect this might throw off the STC! timings of the story.

Theme Stated [5] (page 10 / minute 7) After being briefed on their life-or-death mission, Schofield asks the General, “Sir, is it just us?” In reply, General Erinmore quotes a verse of a poem: Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.

Set-Up [2-12] (pages 2-12) We get very little Set-Up as the two corporals follow the sergeant to their as yet unknown destination. Hungry Blake remarks that he “decided against the priesthood” because he thought they might get some “decent grub out here.”

In a nice Save the Cat! moment (reminiscent of the same beat in at the beginning of both versions of the movie Aladdin), Schofield shares his food, a small portion of ham and bread he has been saving.

We also hear the friendly banter between the two and get the sense that they know each other well, even though Schofield is older and a brass stripe on his sleeve shows he was wounded and must therefore be a veteran of other battles.

But there is no hint of Six Things that Need Fixing. These are two brave and obedient young soldiers. For me as a viewer, this is worrying. The best stories are Transformation Machines in which we see how our hero has changed at the end. Are we setting them up for a fall?

Catalyst [13] (page 9 / minute 5) Also known as the Call to Adventure or the Inciting Incident, this comes extremely early for most stories. General Erinmore tells Blake and Schofield that the Germans have created a new line (which will later be known as the Hindenburg Line). A Colonel named Mackenzie is planning an attack shortly after dawn the next day, but it’s a trap. Among the 1600 men who will be sent to certain death is Blake’s older brother. “Your orders,” says the General, “are to get to Croisilles Wood and deliver this to Colonel Mackenzie. It is a direct order to call off the attack. If you fail it will be a massacre…” He then quotes the line of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a favorite of soldiers in the period our story is set.

Gehenna is the Biblical metaphor for hell, and The Throne stands for heaven, of course. If the theme is the lesson our hero must learn. then we see that “Time is the Enemy” (the tagline of the film) and that our heroes cannot linger. They must press on if they are to save the lives of 1600 men. Also, there is something ominous about the quote if you know the previous lines of the poem:
When the night is thick and the tracks are blind
A friend at a pinch is a friend, indeed,
But a fool to wait for the laggard behind.
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

We are subliminally warned that this will ultimately be a journey of one man.

Debate [14-26 mins] (page 11 / minute 8) This beat is also known as the Refusal of the Call in the Hero’s Journey structure, made famous by Joseph Campbell. After receiving their orders, which Blake does not even question, Schofield says “Let’s talk about this for a minute.” But Blake is already off, moving quickly down the trench. Schofield has to run to keep up. “We just need to think about it…” and “The last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn’t end well.” Although panting with terror, Blake ignores Schofield as he questions the sanity of the mission.

In the trenches

The trenches get narrower, like a gauntlet, and Blake and Schofield are met with oaths and glares from their own men. They are going “Up the Down Trench.” Schofield continues to argue with Blake as they go, proposing that they wait until dark. But Blake is unwavering.

As they move further along the trenches, they go deeper into the earth and the world around them changes: it becomes muddier and more depressing as even the sky seems to cloud over. “God’s sake,” says one soldier, “You’re stepping on the dead.” Mythic quests often include a Crossing of the Threshold. This movie has at least 20 instances where the hero moves from one world of danger into another. This is one. Our first vision of hell. It silences Schofield for a while.

Walking through the now silent trenches, Blake asks, “Was it like this before Thiepval?” He is referring to the notoriously bloody battle of the Somme. “I don’t remember,” says Schofield. “At least you got a medal out of it,” says Blake. Schofield says he doesn’t have the medal anymore, our first hint at a shard of glass, a flaw, something haunting the hero from the past.

At the 13-minute mark the two young lance corporals find sleeping Lieutenant Leslie, “croaky, full of flu, a little delirious.” Leslie gives Schofield more fuel for the Refusal of the Call, when he insists it must be a trap and sarcastically remarks that “There’s a medal in it for sure. Nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow.” Leslie is a kind of cynical mentor, telling them how to cross over into No Man’s Land and giving them a talisman, a flare gun they should fire if they get through. He even bestows a mock priestly anointing with drops from his whiskey flask and the words, “Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.”

Break into Two [27] (page 23 / minute 16) This step comes very early in the film at the 16-minute mark. This is because very little time has been set aside for Set-Up. Going up and over, our heroes find themselves in the upside-down world of No Man’s Land: blasted trees, barbed wire, and bloated corpses. Crows perch on bodies and flies buzz in clouds. This is a second, more familiar version of the hell that was WWI.

A few minutes in, Schofield pierces the palm of his left hand on a piece of barbed wire (clear Biblical imagery) before accidentally plunging the hand into the chest of a corpse with the consistency of Camembert cheese. The two then move forward on slippery mud between massive shell holes filled with water and bodies. We remember that Lt. Leslie warned them, “You fall in, there’s no getting out.”

The biplanes fly overhead

Halfway across No Man’s Land two biplanes approach overhead, our young heroes throw themselves into a small waterlogged shellhole. But the planes are British and they can relax for a moment before pressing on.

The soundtrack here (by the always superb Tom Newman) is called Gehenna. In Bible times, Gehenna was a rubbish dump in a valley south west of Jerusalem. Fires often burned there making it a useful visual metaphor in the New Testament for a place of punishment after death—in other words: hell.

As the music reaches a crescendo, our lads reach the German line. The trenches seem to be deserted. But you never know what might be around any corner. They make their way through the German trenches (better constructed but eerily empty), and then the tunnel barracks (massive but also deserted). Here is another vision of hell where “even the rats are bigger.”

One of these rats sets off a tripwire as Blake and Schofield try to find a way through. After a thunderous blast at the 28-minute mark, Blake must dig Schofield out of a “grave” of rubble. Schofield resurrects, but coated with dust he must take a blind leap of faith over a mine shaft, or else be buried by the collapsing tunnels. More thresholds and more images of death and resurrection.

B Story [33] (page 36 / 30 minutes) This is usually where a new character is introduced—lover, sidekick, opponent, or mentor—to help the Hero learn the theme and complete his spiritual journey. I believe that in this case Blake, who is pretty much perfect, acts as a kind of mentor.

At 30 minutes, exactly a quarter of the way through the story, the two young soldiers miraculously emerge back into the light. Schofield bathes his dusty eyes with water and asks “Why in God’s name did you choose me?” Blake protests that he didn’t know what he was in for and tells Schofield to go back if he likes. But Schofield just shakes his head and tells Blake to fire the flare. For the first time, Schofield is ready to stop debating and commit to the mission. The B-Story Character, Blake, has helped the hero of this story see what he must do. Soon, like many mentors, Blake will die.

Fun and Games [28-59] Although not strictly “fun,” we have already been getting the Fun and Games portion of the story: the specific horrors of WWI.

Our two lance corporals are now walking through a new hellish landscape: a desert piled with shells and destroyed artillery, the machinery of death, empty apart from the ubiquitous rats feeding on corpses. Despite this bleak environment, our first extended moment of fun comes with Blake’s anecdote about the rat and Wilko’s hair oil. As Blake tells the story they ascend a small ridge into a burnt and shattered stand of trees, and from there to a hillside sloping down with the first signs of grass and other living things since they left the meadow at the beginning.

Schofield now confesses that he traded his medal for a bottle of wine. He obviously despises what his medal stood for. Unlike Blake, who is fresh enough to believe in heroism and likes the idea of receiving “a bit of tin with a ribbon on,” Schofield knows how futile the war is. Perhaps this is why he was so reluctant to risk his life, even to save 1600 men.

The two young soldiers now come to the remains of a walled orchard full of cherry trees in glorious white bloom. Like the Garden of Eden, however, it has been ruined. Every tree has been cut down by the Germans. I noticed that Schofield passes properly through the door but Blake crosses by stepping over a breach in the ruined wall. The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed you must cross a threshold properly or bad luck would befall you. Another foreshadowing?

This is also a whiff of death moment in a film that is non-stop whiffs of death. “So these are all goners?” asks Schofield about the trees. “Oh no,” says Blake, who has a cherry orchard at home, “they’ll grow again when the stones rot. You’ll end up with more trees than before.” Whiff of Resurrection.

At the deserted farmhouse with the “whiff of death” in the air

Passing through the ruined orchard at 40 minutes in, they come to a new setting: the deserted farmhouse. Schofield sees a dead dog near the house and inside a child’s doll with cigarette burns on its eyes. The people who’ve been here are ruthless. Back outside, they find one live cow and a bucket of fresh milk which Schofield uses to fill his canteen.

At 42 minutes in, the two biplanes reappear and attack a lone enemy plane. Blake and Schofield stop to watch a dogfight, seemingly at a distance… until the downed German crests the hill and ploughs into the barn, nearly killing them. Despite this, good-hearted Blake bravely fights flames to free the enemy pilot. Whereas Schofield wants to put the fellow out of his misery, Blake unhesitatingly follows the injunction of Jesus, to Love your Enemy. His reward? Being stabbed in the stomach.

44 minutes in. Schofield shoots the pain-crazed pilot and cradles dying Blake who poignantly begs his friend “Tell me you know the way.” Schofield reassures him and Blake utters his final words, “It’ll be dark by then.” “That won’t bother me,” says Schofield. “I’ll find the 2nd, I’ll give them the message and then I’ll find your brother.”

Blake the Mentor has commissioned the real hero of the story: Schofield, who must carry on alone. Although Schofield will meet a succession of characters, none of them can stay with him for long. He must learn the theme of the story: Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone. Scofield takes the letter from Blake’s pocket—a grim talisman—along with his friend’s rings and dogtag.

Midpoint [60] (page 58 / minute 46) This is the moment when everything changes, often with an apparent defeat, and the story gains new urgency. In a shock twist to the plot, our Hero is now dead! The Sidekick has become the Hero. In the film it happens earlier than halfway, but comes almost exactly halfway through the screenplay.

Bad Guys Close In [61-81] (from page 60 / minute 48) Suddenly allied troops appear. Kindly Captain Smith offers to take Schofield as far as Ecoust, a town on the way to Colonel Mackenzie. But they can’t do much when their truck breaks down and later they find the bridge to Ecoust destroyed. The purpose of this scene is to give us a small break from the action, show other viewpoints of the war, and for Schofield to demonstrate that he is now determined to complete the mission and save the lives of 1600 men. When one of the more skeptical privates says, “You’ll never make it.” Schofield looks at him levelly. “Yes. I will.” (page 70 / minute 58)

75 minutes in we get another fabulously exciting Crossing of a Threshold as Schofield tight-rope-walks along the side of a ruined bridge to Ecoust, and then scrambles for safety as a sniper fires at him. Then he bravely goes to confront the sniper in a upper story of a half-ruined lock house.

All Is Lost [82] (page 77 / minute 65) Schofield and the sniper fire at the same moment. Schofield kills the sniper but the sniper’s bullet hits Schofield on the helmet, knocking him backwards down the stairs where he hits his head and blacks out for an indeterminate amount of time.

Dark Night of the Soul [83-92] (p 78 / minutes 66) Schofield comes to, woken by a drip of water. His watch is smashed and his helmet missing. (From now on he has no head covering, which makes him easy to identify.)

The town of Ecoust becomes the most hellishly beautiful setting.

It is night and the ruined town of Ecoust, first glimpsed through a window, becomes the most hellishly beautiful setting yet. Flares paint the world orange and yellow and send shadows sliding back and forth across the blasted town. Is Schofield dreaming? Or even dead?

A gunshot startles him back to reality. This is no dream and he’s still alive. He runs. Throws himself down as a flare lights him up. Runs again. In and out of nightmarish landscapes until the sight of the church on fire stops him in awe. Out of the hellish light a silhouette moves towards him. Friend or Foe? The figure raises his rifle and fires. Foe.

(Page 81 / minute 71) Once again Schofield runs for his life. Seeing a light in a basement, he leaps down the coal chute and then pushes aside a heavy cloth (more thresholds!) to find a terrified young French woman and a baby girl. She tells him how to reach the woods at Croisilles and in a moment of peace and quiet she bathes his wounded head. Lit by the lamplight and holding the baby, she looks like Mary, the mother of Jesus. Schofield is miraculously able to provide milk, taken from the abandoned farmhouse earlier that day.

(Page 86 / 77 minutes ) “Do you have children?” the French girl asks. The question is too painful for Blake to answer. But he quotes part of an Edward Lear poem about the Jumblies going to sea in a sieve, a picture of futility. This is the Eye of the Storm, a moment of respite before the Hero must resume his journey. As the bell tolls six, he realizes that it is later than he thought.

(page 87 / minute 79) Lauri, the French girl, begs him to stay, but our Hero has learned the lesson: Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.

(Page 90 / minute 81) There is often a whiff of death at this moment and this comes when Schofield must strangle a young German to keep him quiet. This is not firing from a distance, but the most visceral type of killing, hands on pulsing throat. Schofield somehow manages to overcome the enemy but when another German raises the alarm, Schofield abandons his rifle to flee.

(Page 92 / 82) Like a caged rat, Schofield runs through a maze of streets, now lit by the blue light of dawn. Miraculously he is not hit and when he reaches the bridge he vaults over it and plunges 40 feet into the river below.

Break into Three [93] (page 93 / minute 83) Schofield finds himself in the rapids, narrowly missing jagged rocks and going over a waterfall at minute 84.

(Page 92 / minute 86) After the waterfall, the river grows wider and calmer. For a blissful few moments Schofield hears birdsong and drifts among cherry blossoms in the deep blue pre-dawn light. He is almost lulled into drowning. For a moment he goes under but comes up gasping. Another death and resurrection. Then he washes up against a dam of bloated bodies which make the stream resemble the mythical River Styx that separates the living from the dead.

(Page 93 / minute 87) Schofield must clamber over the bodies to reach the bank. Once there he sobs for the first time: shivering, grief-racked, and utterly exhausted.

Finale [94-119] (pages 96 -119 / minutes 90 – 108) As we all know, the so-called STC! Finale actually consists of five steps.

1. Gathering the team There is no team to gather, but when Schofield floated among the cherry blossoms on the water he murmured one word: “Blake.”

2. Executing the Plan (page 96-98 / minutes 90 – 93) Drawn uphill by a lone soldier singing “Wayfaring Stranger”— There is no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go—Schofield realizes he has reached the Second Devon. The first wave has only just gone. He has time to stop the massacre if he can just reach Colonel Mackenzie

3. The High Tower Surprise (pages 99-102 / minutes 93 -97) Schofield shoves his way to the front line but the men are about to go over and the bombardment has begun. He will never make it to Mackenzie in time. This is where our hero must Dig Down Deep.

Schofield digs down deep.

4. Dig Down Deep (pages 101-105 / minutes 92 – 96) This is what Blake Snyder called the “touched-by-the-divine” beat where the hero lets go of old logic and does something he would never do at start of the story. “You’ll have to wait until the first wave goes over.” “No, I can’t!” Clutching his wet but still legible letter with direct orders to call off the doomed attack, Schofield rises up out of the trench and begins to run across 300 yards of open ground without weapon or helmet.

5. Execute the New Plan (pages 106 -107 / minutes 97 – 98) The air thunders and men charge. Twice Schofield stumbles and once he falls. His lungs burn and his breath comes in ragged gasps. He sprints the final few yard and leaps into the trench. Fellow soldiers try to stop him from getting to the Colonel but he uses his last morsel of strength to elbow one in the stomach and careen into the dugout. Even now he must battle to be believed, but finally the Colonel reads the letter and after an impossibly tense moment of silence he tersely commands, “Stand them down.” On page 111 and minute 100, Schofield has accomplished the main part of his mission.

But he has one final task: to find Blake’s older brother and tell him what happened. He does this in a moving scene beginning at page 115 and minute 105.

Final Image [120] (page 119 / minute 109) Like a sleepwalker, Schofield walks towards a lofty tree in a meadow and slumps down at its base. He pulls out a photo of his wife and daughters, then turns it over and reads the message: Come back to us. Then he closes his eyes to rest.

This final image, an exact replica of the Opening Image, only without Blake, is strangely unsatisfying. It almost makes the whole story seem like a dream. It is usually a comparison of Opening Image and Final Image that shows us how far the hero has risen or fallen. If the best stories are transformation machines, then this one has failed. Or perhaps that is part of the film’s message: the futility of war. Are we being told that whether we end up in heaven or hell, life is but a dream, and we always travel alone?

Although technically impressive, I wonder if this film will last in the public’s memory. It lacks the emotional depth of seeing someone transformed by their ordeal. Previous Oscar®-winning films that show dramatic character change include Casablanca, Rain Man, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, Rocky, The Godfather, The King’s Speech, and—another Sam Mendes film—American Beauty, to name just a dozen.

Will 1917 become a classic like those? Or is the hero’s apparent lack of change a flaw? Only time will tell.