Keep Your Eyes on The Trees: Sam Mendes’ 1917, Genesis One and Further Theological Reflection on a Life Lived and Experienced Between Two Trees


It seems an eternity ago since going to the theater was still a functional part of my daily routine. This became all the more apparent when revisiting the Sam Mendes Directed 1917, a cinematic experience built for the big screen experience and a much celebarated part of the 2019/2020 film season.

One thing that I distinctly remember about Mendes’ film is the vivid imagery of these trees, or a tree that bookend the film, functioning as the starting point in the narrative and forming the end of this visual, and in many ways very spiritual journey from death to life. I remember noting the presence of the trees but finding myself a little bit lost in how to properly contextualize them within the larger narrative, a curiousity that I hoped to give attention to on rewatch.

A little while after seeing the film I encountered one of the most startling articles that essentially narrowed in on the functioning symbol of these trees as the heart of the film’s thematic awareness.

You can read the article here:
https://providencemag.com/2020/05/keep-your-eyes-trees-1917-movie-review/

This was not only one of the most exceptional film reviews I have read in some time, but it also offered a rebuttle to some of the misinformed critique that had labeled this film as all trick (in reference to it being edited to appear as one long, single take shot) and no substance. I highly recommend giving this article a close read, and then bringing it with you into a rewatch of 1917. It will help blow the narrative wide open and see the richness of the story it is telling.

Shane Woods’ Between Two Trees: Our Transformation From Life to Death and The Bible Poject: The Tree of Life
Every since reading this review I had been wanting to give some time to both a rewatch of the film myself while also considering the potential ideas contained within this review in line with Shane Woods, “Between Two Trees: Our Transformation From Life to Death”, a book I had recently read.

Similarly, I also finished a lenghty series from The Bible Project team in which they walk through the Biblical imagery of trees contained within the Biblical story with a sharply defined emphasis on the reigning image of the “Tree of Life”.

You can find the series here, or on any podcast platform:
https://bibleproject.com/podcast/series/tree-life-podcast

Along with an accompanying summary video here:
https://bibleproject.com/learn/tree-of-life/

As host and Biblical Scholar Tim Mackie suggets, when it comes to scripture, “Trees are not passive objects. They play an active role in the Biblical story.”

Mackie refers to the inclusion of trees as representing bookends in the Biblical narrative, as design patterns intended to say something important about the God-Human-Creation relationship. Where you encounter a tree in the Bible we typically find a time of “testing” and “choice” paired with an intimate concern for “communion with God”.

“People meet God at trees in high places and either succeed or fail at tests.”


What Woods then does in his book, “Between Two Trees”, is he narrows down the essential narrative of the two trees that frame the Genesis narrative and bookend the Biblical story, beginning in Genesis and culminating in Revelation, into a question of union- union with Death and union with Life. If we begin with creation and end with the promise of the new creation, what forms the essential tension of this life giving, creative movementini the present is the reality of Death itself, or what scripture refers to as the Powers of Sin and Death.

This becomes a movement then of a singular created purpose, but from death to new life in Christ, a return to the Garden setting the forms this narrative bookend. Approaching the Biblical narrative then is about making sense of thie God-Human-Creation story between these two trees, a place where New Life is being created but death still wields its destructive force. For Woods, this notion of living life “between two trees” isn’t about God controlling our story, but rather about God creating His story according to this declaration of God’s good creation. From the tree of life flows the life source that gives this its worth. And as God promises to stay faithful to this declarative creative purpose, we are likewise invited to participate in this life giving creation as God’s image bearers, to give allegiance to God’s story rather than Death’s story. If life declare our true identity as part of the good creation, Death affords us a false identity of a sin marred and self destructive reality. Tansformation, this movement from death to life then, is marked by this notion of planting and cultivating within creation with the tree, revealed in the Person and Ministry of Christ, planted at its center, calling us to take up the mantle of being image bearers of the Creator.

I’m reminded of this wonderful quote from Makoto Fufimura in his book, Art and Faith: Theology of Making.

“It’s important to note that God does not obliterate the darkness; rather, God names it and limits it—puts boundaries on it. The boundary is the light.. Just as Caesar’s portrait is stamped on a coin as an icon to represent earthly power, God places God’s “face” upon our hearts. God’s presence is real, even in the midst of oppression and darkness. God is the light that shines and places limits on evil and injustice on the earth. What if, in response… we began to paint (or write songs, plays, and poems) into the darkness with such a light? What if we began to live our lives generatively facing our darkness? What if we all began to trust our intuition in the Holy Spirit’s whispers, remove our masks of self-defense, and create into our true identities hidden in Christ beyond the darkness? What if our lives are artworks re-presented back to the Creator… Proper stewardship is part of our poetic responsibility to Creation… One aspect of our stewardship is to become poets of Creation, to sing alongside the Creator over Creation.

God’s Word is the Light; Jesus told us that he is the Light. If light places boundaries over the darkness, then our art needs to do the same. God is not just restoring us to Eden; God is creating through us a garden, an abundant city of God’s Kingdom. What we build, design, and depict on this side of eternity matters, because in some mysterious way, those creations will become part of the future city of God.

In seeking justice and fighting against injustices of the world, if we do not depict future hopes, as Martin Luther King, Jr., did in his “I Have a Dream” speech, we will be constantly defined by the opposition or the power of oppression. Art can be a means to liberate us from such oppression by depicting the world through beauty and truth, to point to the New.”
Similarly, Mackie reminds us in The Tree of Life series, Humans and Trees are deeply intertwined in terms of carrying this vision for creation. Both are described with the words seed, fruit, uprooted (infertile), cut off, water, and leaves. The biblical narrative sets us up to see how humans will act as either trees of testing or trees of life to one another.


Matthew Sleeth’s Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach us About The Nature of God and His Love For Us
Since seeing 1917,, reading Woods’ Between Two Trees, and working through the series The Tree of Life by the Bible Poject people, I recently encountered and finished this book by Sleeth which brings the trees that bookend the Biblical narrative into even greater focus.

As Sleeth writes,

“Other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. There is a tree on the first page of Genesis, in the first psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Every significant theological event in the Bible is marked by a tree. Whether it is the Fall, the Flood, or the overthrow of Pharaoh, every major event in the Bible has a tree, branch, fruit, seed, or some part of a tree marking the spot…. every major character in the Bible appears in conjunction with a tree.”


Sleeth basically walks through the Biblical story from start to finish using the construct of a tree as a signpost to guide our way from Creation to Exile to the Cross and towards the grand proclamation of the New Creation vision in Revelation. He submits that,

“As I first began uncovering trees in the Bible, God’s underlying reason for choosing them to be the workhorse metaphor of Christian life was not immediately apparent. I’ve come to understand that God chose trees because at every stage of their lives, trees give.”
Going on to apply this directly to Jesus’ work on the Cross.

“First, Jesus came to act as Jacob’s ladder— to be a bridge between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. Adam and Eve hid themselves using fig leaves; thus, the fig became a symbol of the separation between God and man. Jesus came to deal with this symbol and the sin it signifies… When Jesus died on the cross, he balanced an equation. He took the sins of all humankind on himself. The crown of thorns around his head represented the curse of the earth— the thorns and thistles Adam was burdened with in Genesis 3— and
this curse was absorbed by Christ.”
As he suggests, “When you spot a tree in the Bible, you can be confident that heaven is on the way.”


The Lost World of Genesis One and Genesis (Biblical Commentary) by John Walton
To gain a true appreciation of this notion of trees as Biblical imagery, this necessary academic work helps to outline the structure of the Genesis story, especially as it relates to the God-Human-Creation relationship.

As Mackie suggests in the Tree of Life series, borrowing in fact from Walton, each day unfolds in two acts, with Day 6 coresponding with Day 3 in the poetry of the Genesis text. This connects the second act of Day 6 with the second act of Day 3, humans and trees, both of which have seed. This self replicating life that mirror’s God’s life. Trees are commissioned to reproduce, as are humans.

What Walton and Mackie do is give this narrative force a context, which flows from the Exodus story to the mountain top on which Moses stands in communion with God, establishing this marriage or this covenant between God and His Creation, the very embodiment of this promise breaking through in the story of Noah and Abraham, to bring about the New Heavens and the New Earth, all while the people remain down below taking the name of Yahweh and turning it into idol, making God in their own image rather than bearing out the image of God as witness to this life giving, creative purpose. It is from here that we move from the vision of the Promised Land to this contrasting picture of the exile, the fundamental picture of these two trees taking root as opposing ideas amidst the God-Human-Creation relationship.

The tree becomes an embodiment of our origins as God’s good creation, our present reality found in the perpetuating and tension filled exile, and the hope of what God is building, that which calls us forward towards allegiance to this life giving promise emerging from the replanting of this tree in the New Creation, the tree that culiminates in the life giving reign of Christ. We embark on this journey in the midst of this present darkness, with the light breaking through in the incarnation and the establishment of Jesus as the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Temple being raised at the center of the cosmos, and God’s witness subsequently bearing itself out in our participation within this new Kingdom reality.

Sam Mendes’ Film 1917


Sleeth basically walks through the Biblical story from start to finish using the construct of a tree as a signpost to guide our way from Creation to Exile to the Cross and towards the grand proclamation of the New Creation vision in Revelation. He submits that,

“As I first began uncovering trees in the Bible, God’s underlying reason for choosing them to be the workhorse metaphor of Christian life was not immediately apparent. I’ve come to understand that God chose trees because at every stage of their lives, trees give.”
Going on to apply this directly to Jesus’ work on the Cross.

“First, Jesus came to act as Jacob’s ladder— to be a bridge between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. Adam and Eve hid themselves using fig leaves; thus, the fig became a symbol of the separation between God and man. Jesus came to deal with this symbol and the sin it signifies… When Jesus died on the cross, he balanced an equation. He took the sins of all humankind on himself. The crown of thorns around his head represented the curse of the earth— the thorns and thistles Adam was burdened with in Genesis 3— and
this curse was absorbed by Christ.”
As he suggests, “When you spot a tree in the Bible, you can be confident that heaven is on the way.”


The Lost World of Genesis One and Genesis (Biblical Commentary) by John Walton
To gain a true appreciation of this notion of trees as Biblical imagery, this necessary academic work helps to outline the structure of the Genesis story, especially as it relates to the God-Human-Creation relationship.

As Mackie suggests in the Tree of Life series, borrowing in fact from Walton, each day unfolds in two acts, with Day 6 coresponding with Day 3 in the poetry of the Genesis text. This connects the second act of Day 6 with the second act of Day 3, humans and trees, both of which have seed. This self replicating life that mirror’s God’s life. Trees are commissioned to reproduce, as are humans.

What Walton and Mackie do is give this narrative force a context, which flows from the Exodus story to the mountain top on which Moses stands in communion with God, establishing this marriage or this covenant between God and His Creation, the very embodiment of this promise breaking through in the story of Noah and Abraham, to bring about the New Heavens and the New Earth, all while the people remain down below taking the name of Yahweh and turning it into idol, making God in their own image rather than bearing out the image of God as witness to this life giving, creative purpose. It is from here that we move from the vision of the Promised Land to this contrasting picture of the exile, the fundamental picture of these two trees taking root as opposing ideas amidst the God-Human-Creation relationship.

The tree becomes an embodiment of our origins as God’s good creation, our present reality found in the perpetuating and tension filled exile, and the hope of what God is building, that which calls us forward towards allegiance to this life giving promise emerging from the replanting of this tree in the New Creation, the tree that culiminates in the life giving reign of Christ. We embark on this journey in the midst of this present darkness, with the light breaking through in the incarnation and the establishment of Jesus as the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Temple being raised at the center of the cosmos, and God’s witness subsequently bearing itself out in our participation within this new Kingdom reality.

Sam Mendes’ Film 1917

Now coming back to 1917 and the above refrenced review. As the author, Owen Strachan, suggests,

“The movie is at base a stirring philosophical meditation on the meaning of life; it is an aesthetic inquiry into the good, beautiful, and true.”


All merited on this uttered line in the film, “Keep your eyes on the trees”

He goes on to write,

“Throughout the movie, where trees flourish, there is rest; conversely, where trees have been hacked and hewn to evil ends, there is ruin and pain. In a manner consistent with the lush arboreality represented by Frederick Law Olmsted in design, J.R.R. Tolkien in literature, and Terrence Malick in auteur cinema, Mendes (and Wilson-Cairns) are telling us something vital. I mean “vital” in the deep sense, not the cursory. Bearing fruit, trees “manifest life” (from the Latin vitalis, fourteenth-century origin). Trees show us something of the created order as designed by God: it was not fashioned for death, but for life.”


In line with Woods, Sleeth, Mackie and Walton, Strachan speaks about this death-life, darkness-light reality bearing itself out in this marriage of God’s covenant and the beckoning call of our participation in this new Kingdom work as a working tension that flows from the Garden imagery. “Nature stewarded in celebration of life yields still more goodness, while nature sublimated to purposes of needless destruction makes creation nothing less than a witness to hell.”


One of the more profound observations comes from Strachan’s noting of the Cherry Trees, something Blake notices but Schofield doesn’t in the unfolding story. In the reference to them wading through the destructive reality of death that surrounds them, and in light of the hopeful notion of new life that persistently pulls them forward, we hear this statement.

“They’ll grow again when the stones rot. You’ll end up with more trees than before.”

As Strachan notes, “Man does terrible things to man, and to creation besides. But even with evil loose in the world, bringing desperate suffering to living things, beauty will win in the end”, going on to say, “The death of the grove means the flowering of a much greater forest. Transposed in theological terms, evil is not only overcome; evil’s purposes are turned on its head, and goodness expands in ironic fashion because of evil’s destructive schemes” Here he notes the persistant imagery of the cherry trees as an image of hope, be it in this picture of life emerging with this mother and child from the ruins, or the use of the cherry tree leaf falling on Schofield and reviving him following this flirting with death’s destructive force. Humans and Trees sit side by side in this good creation, destined to give life but also marred by death. It is in light of the promise that God is still at work in this world that we can then rise up in allegiance to this greater vision for the world. This becomes the choice between these two trees that plays itself out in the corners of our lives.

“Existence is not merely a test of survival. The created order is not intended for consumption, least of all for mindless destruction. Evil is everywhere, but the cherry trees—representing civilization—will grow back, and in greater number. Goodness, truth, and beauty are all around us, and will be found in greater measure in the age to come.”



This arrives with the notes of a song ringing through the fabric of this war torn countryside. “But golden fields lie just before me / Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep”, ringing in line with the Biblical narrative.


“It was a tree misused that damned us. It was a tree fitted for torture that saved us. Like Schofield at the end of his journey, sitting in peace beneath a tree, a living thing that is itself a witness to the goodness of God’s creation, so it will be a tree’s leaves that heal us weary pilgrims in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2).”


Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life
Given how Strachan incorporates reference to another film, Malick’s Tree of Life, I figured a good way to bring this all together would be to pull from my own reflection on that film’s materful and majestic view of trees and life’s creative force. As the tagline for this film suggests, in process “nothings stands still”. As the tagline for 1917 suggests, “Time is the Enemy”. Time moves forward with or without us. But that shouldn’t leave us as a people without hope. The power of this realization comes in the truth that it is in process that we can begin to trust that we are growing into grace, and growing towards a greater understanding of the ways grace and grace alone is given the final word. The film utilizes the art (or gift) of silence, allowing the visuals to speak through the absence of dialogue. The scenes jump quickly, and then slow, only to be given over to the chaos again and again in almost frustrating fashion. The performances submit, seemingly intentionally, to this same movement, their performances a prisoner to this same degree of chaos. If we gain a glimpse of grace, a break in the unending cycle, it is in the nature of the relationship between Jack and his father.

It is this relationship that allows the film to take the unfathomable, the unseen, the uncertainty, the unknown of life’s great mystery, and to allow it to take concrete shape as a deliberate human process, one that happens on the inside even if not always visible on the outside. Through this relationship we are encouraged, in the moments between the silence and the chaos, to find glimpses of our own inner struggle that pulls between our fallen nature and the grace and love that exists in the often unseen parts of our human (and spiritual) formation. It is this grace that gives worth to what can otherwise appear to be a meaningless endeavor of living in the chaos. And ultimately for each of us, this is what life is. Life is an ongoing battle between these two worlds, these two tensions, with the idea of hope being our single anchor. And the more we learn what it means to hope or to have hope, the more we can learn to see in the silence a means to live above (and in the midst of) the chaos, a vision and idea this film helps bring to the forefront of our own imaginations. In other words, the silence can help us see what the chaos is trying to teach us. And what this teaches us is found in the image of a tree of life bearing itelf out against this competing notion of death. The order formed from the chaos, the order undone in the chaos, order restored in its created and creative process.”

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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