'1917': The True Story Behind This World War I Drama

Director Sam Mendes shares how his grandfather inspired the critically acclaimed film.

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- Posted on Jan 10, 2020

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917

The period drama 1917, which weaves in suspense, real-life stories and history, has been widely lauded and is expected to be a contender at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film follows two British soldiers during World War I, as they race through enemy territory to deliver an urgent message that could save 1600 lives.

Director Sam Mendes, known for films like American Beauty and Skyfall, was inspired to create the film because of his grandfather’s experiences in the war.

“The first time I understood the idea of war was when my grandfather told me about his experiences in the First World War,” Mendes said in a press release. “This film is not a story about my grandfather, but rather the spirit of him—what these men went through, the sacrifices, the sense of believing in something greater than themselves.”

The film—shot in an immersive style that looks like one continuous shot—follows the men closely as they race through trenches and across no man’s land, encountering German soldiers and deserted farms, facing seemingly impossible odds to fulfill their duty.

Mendes co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a screenwriter known for Penny Dreadful and a self-described history nerd, incorporating stories from his late grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, a messenger during the war. Due to his five-foot-four stature, Alfred was able to cross the foggy mist of No Man’s Land without detection, Mendes said in the press release.

“Our film is fiction, but certain scenes and aspects of it are drawn from stories he told me, and ones told him by his fellow soldiers,” Mendes said. “This simple kernel of an idea—of a single man carrying a message from one place to another—stayed with me and became the starting point for 1917.”

The film centers on the friendship between the two young men sent on the harrowing mission—one of them to save his brother. Their commitment to each other, and to returning to their families, is the heart of the movie.

The cast is rounded out by performances from award-winning actor Colin Firth, Sherlock and Dr. Strange lead Benedict Cumberbatch, Irish actor Andrew Scott and Richard Madden of Game of Thrones.

“I suppose one thing I’d like to [convey] is that this was a time when people understood the notion of sacrifice in a different way than they do now. And in the end, the movie is a human experience of war,” Mendes told The Boston Globe. “It’s not a nationalistic movie, it’s not about how the Brits were great or the Germans were awful. It’s about war bringing out the greatest extreme of human emotion and stripping us down to our essence, and trying to see something universal in that.”

1917 is in theaters everywhere January 10.

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