ESSAY
1917: A Visible Word
POSTED
February 18, 2020
FILED UNDER
Movies
  1. Introduction

You should think of 1917 at church on Sunday.

Why? Let me explain.

There's one film every Oscar season which everyone seems to have watched—your parents, your colleagues, even your pastor. This year, it's 1917—Sam Mendes' WW1 epic following two British Tommies on a seemingly impossible quest to deliver a message across No Man's Land.

Its reception has been largely rapturous, and the impressive cinematography—one apparently continuous take, incorporating stunning shot after stunning shot—is the stuff of water cooler talk.

Yet 1917’s success is slightly curious, as it lacks many of the features we expect from a war movie. It’s sparse on dialogue, ensemble, and set-pieces, and the star barely fires his rifle. The film’s few negative reviews largely share the criticism that it is so preoccupied with visuals that it lacks the emotional heart we’d expect from such a film.[1] David Sims of The Atlantic compares it to other “gorgeous” war movies such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, or The Thin Red Line, concluding that Mendes’ movie falls down because “those films are all grounded by characters and themes, while 1917 has to largely strip those elements away in service of its grand stunt.”[2]

You can see his point. The Thin Red Line aside, the film is more Mallick than  Spielberg. Among its glut of accolades, 1917 has only a couple of minor nods for acting, and just one for screenplay (though that, curiously, is from the Academy); for directing, editing, cinematography and such, nominations abound. This should tell us something about what makes the film tick.

  1. Empty Words and Empty Images

These criticisms resurrect a question debated ever since The Jazz Singer popularised “talkies” in 1927: what should be the relationship between what you see or what you hear in the cinema?

In a famous conversation with French director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcok famously quipped:

“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call 'photographs of people talking.' When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.”[3]

Hitchcock said that in 1962. We could provocatively say that he predicted the formula for “Oscar-bait” in the coming decades—verbose screenplays, with dialogue written to help stars win acting awards.

Decades later though, empty spectacle rather than empty talk seems to dominate. Last year, Martin Scorcese’s much misrepresented remarks on Marvel movies (in which he compared them to theme parks) were taken as an attack on the studio’s reliance on visuals. As he elaborated in a subsequent column however, they were an attack on Marvel’s aversion to risk and individual artistic vision meaning those visuals have no greater significance.[4] Scorcese recognises great talent behind the films, and agrees they contain defining elements of cinema, but the studio’s checklist means we end up with something less than the sum of its parts—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Scorcese summarises: “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema”.[5]

So Hitchcock laments words devoid of an enlivening image. Scorcese laments images devoid of an enlivening word.

Audiences now often seem forced to choose between the two: critically acclaimed movies with excellent scripts and performances appealing to the ear, or commercially successful movies with dramatic effects appealing to the eye.

Yet 1917 walks the apparent tightrope between eye and ear. Its sparse dialogue and restrained characters, along with our prior knowledge of the war, provide just enough narrative to animate the film’s arresting shots—the desolation of No Man’s Land, the slow bleed of a knife wound, the press of the trenches, a town lit by a burning church. The combination has triumphed with crowd and critic alike.

In this way, Mendes’ film fits one of the traditional definitions of a sacrament: it is a visible word.

Perhaps, if we consider 1917’s unusual success, itcan remind us of how the sacraments function as visible words in the life of the Church, and compel us to embrace their unique role in our worship.

III. Visible Words

First, on visible words. Augustine coined the phrase as a description of a sacrament when discussing baptism: “The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word[6]. This definition was later enthusiastically foregrounded by the Reformers.[7]

This is not to say the sacraments “speak for themselves”, but they speak visibly what has also been spoken verbally in gathered worship. The word read and preached can stand alone, but the visible elements of the sacraments are made significant only by their marriage to the word.

There is of course more to sacraments than a combination of word and visible element. Calvin acknowledged as much when quoting Augustine.[8] James Jordan argues that the Supper would be more appropriately called an “edible word”,[9] and Peter Leithart warns against viewing the sacraments as mere “sermons in disguise”.[10] Also, if word and element were all it took, you could make anything a sacrament—and, to paraphrase The Incredibles, when everything’s a sacrament, then nothing is a sacrament.[11]

All that being said, church history has vindicated “visible word” as a central, if not exclusive, way of understanding the sacraments.

And yet contemporary Protestants are often not sure of what to make of these visible words. Our emphasis on the written and preached word doesn’t seem to leave a place for them. Sola scriptura made the cut in the Five Solas; sola sacramenta wasn’t so lucky. And we have ingested the idea that anything visible or tangible in worship belongs in the Old Covenant; we see the arrival of the New Covenant as “a move from ritual to non-ritual, from physical to non physical forms of worship. Baptism and the Supper seem anomalous throwbacks to an earlier era”.[12]

We are quite happy for our worship to resemble what Hitchcock hated: people talking.

And that’s because we fear our worship looking like what Scorcese hates: empty spectacle.

So why does God give the Church visible words in the New Covenant?

In spite of our internecine strife over the nature of the Lord’s Supper, if there’s one thing Protestants can all agree on about the sacraments (even if you call them ordinances) it’s that they must achieve something that the written and preached word by itself doesn’t achieve (even if that “something” is merely reminding, commemorating, or sealing).

In the toolkit of God’s ordinary means of grace, the sacraments have some unique utility. Even Protestants whose emphasis on the written and preached word means they struggle to know exactly what that utility is, and so observe the sacraments largely a matter of simple obedience, must admit that much.

We (rightly) preach the word until we are blue in the face, often feeling this fully discharges the pastor’s task on a Sunday. Yet, in a humbling seal to our preaching, God insists that he is not done cleaning or feeding us until the sacraments are administered.

Why are these seals humbling? Preachers can easily lean on human wisdom and eloquence in their speech, rather than the foolishness of the gospel—that’s why Paul aginst it so often. But it is difficult to exalt oneself, when, having preached, you have to break bread and pour wine, or lower a new convert into the baptistry.

It is of course possible to drive the foolishness of the gospel out of the sacraments too, making them instruments of worldly wisdom—usually when the written and preached word are neglected, and the visible word becomes dominant. That’s precisely what the Reformers saw in the exploitative superstition of the Mass.

But that is not the danger of our time. We are like Naaman in 2 Kings 5. He proudly assumed that some thunderous verbiage from Elisha would cure his ills. But what was he told to do? Physically wash himself in the lowly Jordan. He wanted a purely audible word, but was given a visible one.

We rarely grasp the humbling necessity of God’s visible words. Within evangelical training schemes and seminary education, you’ll find a hundred modules on the necessity of preaching and “how to give a talk”. You are hard pushed to find even a tenth of that attention given to the necessity of the sacraments in church life, and how to administer them. To most trained in this way, Elisha seems to waste a great evangelistic opportunity.

Returning to the negative reviews of 1917: theycriticise the film’s lack of theme and character. But the film is grounded in the same themes of other great war movies: self-sacrifice, duty, camaraderie, futility. And it has the same classic characters: the dutiful lead with the mysterious home life (see Saving Private Ryan), the rogue warmongering officer (see Apocalypse Now), the humble farmhand missing home (see War Horse). So the criticism is not about lack of theme and character, but about how verbally those things are spelled out.

The same “word” animates 1917 as animates its fellow war films. But it makes use of that word more silently. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, the mystery of the lead’s home life is not constantly referred to, but left unsaid until the closing moments. Unlike Apocalypse Now, the warmongering rogue does not dominate but haunts the narrative, conspicuous by his absence until the very final moments. Unlike War Horse, no action takes place at the humble farmhand’s home; it is merely glimpsed in a stained family photograph.

All of this has irked certain critics, who seem to not know what to do with a film so unapologetically visual.

We are likewise irked by the sacraments. We crave to be told. But the sacraments show.

IV. Conclusion

Our cinematic menu today often offers us a choice of verbose critical darlings on the one hand, and flashy CGI shlock on the other. Given the fact that we tend to end up liking what’s on the menu, it might surprise us that 1917 has been such a hit. And yet it has. But why?

Perhaps it’s because, although pagans, audiences are still post-Christian pagans, so remain receptive to the sacramental dynamic. But visible words were given in creation before they were ever given in grace.  Eden had talking pictures before Hollywood, or the Church, or even Israel. Augustine again helps us when he teaches that the Tree of Life was a sacrament in the Garden: “God did not want man to live in Paradise without the mysteries of spiritual things made present in material things. Man, then, had food in the other trees, but in the tree of life there was a sacrament”.[13]

So more likely is the fact that people have a natural receptiveness to the sacramental dynamic. We may agree that not everything is a sacrament, but we can perhaps agree that anything can be sacramental; that is, able to impart or communicate something beyond its immediate reality or appearance.

And that’s why Hollywood sometimes understands sacraments better than the Church does.

So when you next take the Lord’s Supper, or next see a baptism, think of 1917’s combination of word and image. And let that remind you what is happening—something that has not happened so far during the service in the read or preached word. Allow the sacraments to be what they are—not mere appendixes. Wash, and be clean. Eat, and be satisfied. Drink, and be quenched. Look, and live.


Rhys Laverty is a Graduate Diploma with Union School of Theology. He podcasts about film and TV on For Now We See, and tweets @IfADoubleDecker. He lives in Chessington, UK with his wife and daughter.


[1] For example, see reviews in The Telegraph, The Mirror, and The New Statesman

[2] David Sims, “1917 is a Visual FEat and a Bad Movie”, The Atlantic, Jan 3 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2020/01/1917-review/604318/

[3] Hitchcock/Truffaut, (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 61

[4] Martin Scorcese, “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain”, New York Times, Nov 4, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html

[5] ibid

[6] Augustine, Tractates 80.3, accessed 29 Jan 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701080.htm

[7] For a short summary of this, see E.J. Hutchinson, “Sacraments as Visible Words: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation (4)”, The Calvinist International, 3 Oct 2017.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.1, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xv.html

[9] Peter Leithart, Blessed Are The Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 69

[10] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 85

[11] Derek Rishmawy makes a  similar joke here, but I can say hand-on-heart that I had made the joke to myself before reading his piece! Great minds.

[12] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, 84

[13] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VIII.4.8

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