1917 is based on a harrowing true WWI story from director Sam Mendes's grandfather
Truth is stranger than fiction, as it has famously been said. That certainly holds when it comes to the plot of director Sam Mendes’s new WWI epic, 1917, which just won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes and gets its wide release on Friday. (Mendes also cowrote the script alongside Penny Dreadful staff scribe Krysty Wilson-Cairns.) To be clear, there are no aliens or overlapping universes to contend with across the film’s 117 minutes, just the daunting, terrifying absurdity of war.
The film opens with a claustrophia-inducing trek through the ill-kept British trenches that introduces Mendes unique filming style, which feels like it was filmed via one continuous shot. Then, our two heroes receive their orders. It’s April 6, 1917—coincidentally the day the U.S. formally entered the war—in northern France when Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, best known as Tommen Baratheon on the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) are called into their superior’s bunker. The troops at the front line are about to walk into an ambush, they’re told by a fictional General Erinmore (Colin Firth). They plan to go on the offensive and attack the German forces, who appear to be retreating, but it’s a trap. 1,600 lives are at risk and the only way to get news to the operation’s commanding officer is for Blake and Schofield to hand-deliver a letter. They must exit the trenches, cross No-Man’s Land, get through the German encampments and then also a town, and then head down river to the woods where the men are preparing for what they don’t know is a certain slaughter.
Oh, it must be done by dawn. “If you fail,” they're warned, “it will be a massacre.”
Blake accepts willingly, furiously. His brother is at the frontline, but Schofield, who has already survived the Battle of the Somme, where more than one million men lost their lives some 18 months prior, and has since gotten rid of the medal he earned, swapping it for a bottle of wine, begs his partner to just stop and think. He doesn’t; they don’t. And beyond even the saga’s wrap, the anxiety—insanity—of combat feels inescapable. It also begs, especially with Mendes’s closing film dedication to his grandfather, World War I veteran Alfred Mendes, whom the director thanks for “the stories,” is any of this true?
Below, Esquire unpacks the fact and fiction that built the new epic.
The Germans really did retreat, which led to pronounced confusion on the side of the Allies.
In the Spring of 1917, the Germans really did launch Operation Alberich and fall back to the Hindenburg Line, a “newly built and massively fortified" safehold, as Mendes described to Vanity Fair. Doran Cart, senior curator at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, told Smithsonian Magazine, the Germans were “consolidating their forces in preparation for potential further offensive operations.” They, he continued, “never said they were retreating. They were simply moving to a better defensive position.” (The Allies would not breach that barrier until September 29, 1918.)
Much of the confusion that this inspired, which is shown so effectively with Mendes’s linear storytelling (the audience never gleans more knowledge than the two Lance Corporals), came from the fact that the Germans basically moved 42 miles of their existing front line overnight. As Blake and Schofield relay their instructions to the leader of their own front line—a jaundiced Lieutenant Leslie played with great, fatalistic humor by Andrew Scott (Spectre, Fleabag)—asking him where the holes in their own wires are for a hopefully seamless exit, Leslie tells them he truly has no clue if they’ll happen upon empty trenches or thousands of pointed guns. He hands them a flare gun and asks, if by the chance there actually are no Germans over there, would they mind shooting that thing off to let the guys over here know?
“The research shows everyone was disagreeing,” Mendes explained to Deadline last year. “So you have a dramatically wonderful situation, where you have a general say, they’ve gone, they’ve abandoned their position. Trust me, go across No Man’s Land. And 200 yards later, you will meet someone else saying, that’s absolute nonsense. You’re going to die if you go over the top. We did that last night, and we died. What are you doing?”
The Germans did actually booby trap the bunkers they abandoned.
As the Germans pulled back, they made sure to handicap anything the Allies might find useful in their push forward—cables, roads, bridges, (a number of trees, plus one blown-to-bits bridge, delay the progress of troops in 1917)—so as to slow their enemy's progress towards the new front line. “The Germans had destroyed anything of value—burnt down the towns, taken most of the civilians, chopped down the trees, and they had left behind booby traps, snipers, and a few other unexpected surprises,” the director also mentioned to Vanity Fair.
That reality inspired much of the scorched earth setting viewers see in the film, where barbed wire, mud, rats, and ash cover more earth than grass. Schofield and Blake also encounter the violent threat of secret weapons left behind near-immediately, when a trip wire inside the abandoned, in comparison, opulent German barracks, nearly sends Schofield to his grave.
Is April 6, 1917 a significant day in history?
The answer is yes, but it's followed by a huge “but.” The United States did enter the war on the day Mendes chose to depict—and here it is—but it is a total coincidence and has nothing to do with the plot that unfolds on screen. That such a big announcement would have no bearing on these characters feels, in many ways, appropriate. History recalls such a moment so definitively, but the very here and now of men like Schofield or Blake wouldn’t have changed in its goal with that news. Their truest, biggest mission remained to stay alive, today.
Regarding the events of the film and the exact single day 1917 captures, it’s possible, though not definite, that a mission like this would have happened on that date. The Germans began moving stretches of their Western Front backwards beginning February 25 of 1917, ending sometime in April. As Smithsonian also notes, it seems like the attack Schofield and Blake must stop is heavily modeled on The Battle of Poelcappelle, which actually happened in Belgium in late 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, and The First Battle of Passchendaele, which was part of the same campaign and was plotted based on misleading information. (The latter was sanctioned under the assumption that Poelcappelle had earned a substantial advance, which it had not.)
Blake and Schofield’s mission didn’t—but could have—happened.
“The idea was loosely based on a story my grandfather told me,” Mendes told Deadline last year. So while neither Blake nor Schofield were real soldiers, the need to deliver messages physically was common. The Germans had cut off telegraph cables and telephone lines rarely survived.
“My grandfather fought in the First World War. He was very young, and small and very fast. He was given the job of carrying messages on the Western front … the spirit of what he told me and the central idea of a man carrying a message wouldn’t leave me. It just clung on in there somehow, for the last 50 years.”
One mission of his grandfather’s seems to have carried particular weight for the filmmaker.
“It wasn't until his mid-70s that he decided he was going to tell the stories of what happened to him when he was in his teenage years," Mendes told NPR in 2019. "And there was one particular story he told us of being tasked to carry a single message through no man's land in dusk in the winter of 1916. He was a small man, and they used to send him with messages because he ran 5 1/2 feet, and the mist used to hang at about 6 feet in no man's land, so he wasn't visible above the mist. And that stayed with me. And that was the story I found I wanted to tell."