‘1917’ ending explained: Why does Mackenzie call off the attack?
(Credit: Netflix)

Film Flashback

'1917' ending explained: Why does Mackenzie call off the attack?

The harrowing portrayal of World War I in 1917 makes for one of the most authentic war movies of modern times. Director Sam Mendes arguably does his best work for two decades, and a typically gutsy lead performance from George MacKay brings the struggle and strife of British troops in the trenches to life.

Set in the penultimate year of The Great War, the film’s story centres on two young British soldiers played by MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman. They’re trying to deliver a message to an army colonel played by highly-rated Netflix stalwart Benedict Cumberbatch, the contents of which concern the fate of around 1,600 men.

The year in the title alludes to a moment at which the war was deadlocked. Attritional trench battles were claiming more and more young English and German lives while failing to gain much ground for either side. Colonel Mackenzie, leader of the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, is looking to break the deadlock by launching a dawn attack against a section of the German army which appears to be in retreat.

British reconnaissance planes shed light on the situation that Mackenzie and his fellow officers on the frontline hadn’t taken into account when planning their attack. Hence, the mission of young Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake was to bring this reconnaissance information to Mackenzie so he could call off the attack.

What did the planes see?

When the Western Front was viewed from above, the big picture became clear. German forces were withdrawing in order to entice Mackenzie’s regiment forward before ambushing them with superior artillery power. This plotline is based on Operation Alberich, a real strategic manoeuvre by German generals in World War I who instructed their men to retreat to the defensive Hindenburg Line in northeastern France.

After overcoming enormous obstacles and losing his fellow Lance Corporal Blake, who was fatally stabbed by a German pilot, Schofield reaches Mackenzie with his message in the nick of time.

“This attack is not to go ahead!” he cries. “You have been ordered to stop. You have to stop.”

“Who the hell are you?” Mackenzie replies dismissively. He refuses to acquiesce to the more junior Schofield’s instruction. Until Schofield makes him read the message from a British general, confirming his explanation that the Germans’ withdrawal is a trap, which will lead to the deaths of 1600 British soldiers.

Mackenzie eventually gives the order to call off the attack. He reflects on the about-face he’s been forced to make, telling Schofield, “There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing.” His bleak perspective implies that thousands more men will have to die before the rest of the fighting is finally called off.

Schofield, meanwhile, finds Blake’s brother, who is part of the 2nd Devonshire Battalion and breaks the tragic news to him. The film ends with a moving scene in which Schofield goes through family photographs. He finds a note on the back of one that reads, “Come back to us.” With more than a year of the war still to be fought, we’re left to wonder whether he will.