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The True Story Behind '1917'

By: Cora Chambers

It has been just over a month since the theatrical release of the Oscar award-winning war film 1917 which, since its release, has grossed an approximate $296.6 million worldwide. Directed, co-written, and produced by Sam Mendes, the film follows two young British soldiers during the First World War as they are ordered to deliver an urgent message across enemy lines. Among the 106 awards under the film’s belt is that of “Best Achievement in Cinematography,” largely credited to the precise illusion of a one-shot film created by cinematographer Roger Deakins. With all the talk surrounding this epic war film, you can’t help but wonder: what is the real story behind 1917?

Sam Mendes revealed in several interviews that the inspiration behind 1917 stemmed from his grandfather’s stories. Arriving at the front at the age of 18, Alfred Mendes served in the 1st Rifle Brigade from 1916-1918 and went on to write about many of his experiences in his autobiography later in life. Having trained to be a signaler, he served close to the front lines and provided communication signals through telephones and landlines; however, since these messages were prone to interception and wires were easily cut, some situations called for hand-delivered messages. Sent to the Battle of Passchendaele, Alfred Mendes’ battalion had suffered heavy losses, and his company had lost all contact with the other three. To be able to report their status, location, and losses to the report centre, the young signaler volunteered to make the lone journey across no man’s land to make contact with the other companies. Though he managed to deliver the message and return without injury, he described this event as “a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep [his] grandchildren and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.” Sam Mendes described this story in interviews as a “fragment that stayed with [him]” and revealed that he felt for a long time that “that kernel of that idea” would lead to the creation of something astounding – that something being 1917.

Though the film does depict a similar story and takes place roughly around the time of the Battle of Passchendaele, it is important to note the characters, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, are entirely fictional and are not meant to represent Mendes’ grandfather. Though the inspiration for the film finds its roots in his stories, it was made clear in interviews that it is not a movie about him specifically. Since situations like these were common, it was created to showcase a real-time and intimate viewpoint of two young men on the Front. While it shares parallels with his grandfather’s stories, it was not meant to be solely a tribute to him, but rather to all soldiers. War diaries were frequently consulted during the making of this film to aid in the creation of realistic environments and depictions.

It is true that war films are not exactly uncommon, and the topic has always been of interest to many ; what is unique is a WWI one-shot film, unfolding in real-time and following every step of the main characters. The fact that this film was created to give the appearance of a single continuous shot is yet another element that separates it from its predecessors. Though it does not recount the large-scale events or conflicts, its focus on the individuals who experienced the horrors of trench warfare is a fitting way to pay tribute to all those that lost their lives and all those who returned home physically or mentally wounded. As writer José Narosky once said, “in war, there are no unwounded soldiers” and that claim appears to be proven time and time again throughout 1917.

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