From the moment they wake from a nap in a spring breeze safely removed from the front line, we never leave the side of lance corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield. We walk with them into the trenches to receive their mission: deliver an urgent message to a general 15 miles away who is positioning his 1,600 men to charge into a trap. We climb over the embankments into no-man’s land with them as they make their way through barbed wire and dead men and rotting horses into recently-abandoned enemy territory. We run through destroyed French cities and float along corpse-ridden rivers with them as they make their way to save the battalion—and Blake’s brother, who is among the men to lead the attack.
The unique storytelling technique is surely one reason the film has been nominated for a number of Oscars. It is also a clear example of what Catholics will recognize as a sacramental approach to art. If a sacrament is a symbol that effects what it signifies, this film succeeds in incarnating the horror of war for our imaginations. The viewer leaves with a visceral feeling of what the experience was like for those who fought and died.
In fact, the film gets even more explicit with Catholic imagery. In part, this is because the story reflects the worldview of those who fought in the Great War, but I think Mendes is up to something more. The construction of the references points to an effort to deliberately grab hold of this sacramental worldview and use it as a cinematic tool.
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