World War 1 (28 July, 1914 - 11 November, 1918) claimed the lives of more than 20 million soldiers and civilians. But more than 100 years later, the events of the war are a faded memory for many people. There wasn’t the technology back then to give a true visual account of what happened; only a few pieces of film and a stock of black and white images remain from the war now. Those who survived the war wrote about it in diaries, while others were so traumatised by the events that they were unable to speak about it for decades.
“It’s the first industrial war,” says Sam Mendes, director of new WWI film, 1917, which airs on Sunday, 20 September on M-Net (DStv 101) at 20:05. “It starts with horses, and ends with tanks and machine guns, and it also leads into and causes World War II. It shapes our entire world and the boundaries of Europe were redrawn.”
For the James Bond director (Skyfall in 2012 and Spectre in 2015), the war hit home in a hard way, which led Sam to make the movie. His grandfather, Alfred, fought in the war but kept his silence about what happened, until a young Sam asked him about it after picking up a peculiar mannerism.
Sam noticed how compulsively his grandfather would wash his hands, and when Sam asked his father why, his dad told him, “He (your grandfather) remembers the mud of the trenches.”
Sam says that his grandfather was a great storyteller, and finally opened up on his time in the war. Alfred was 16 years old when he was enlisted in the war. Sam reveals that when Alfred got to the Western Front, “He just couldn’t believe what he found. His stories weren’t about bravery, but how utterly random it all was. His small stature meant he was often chosen as a messenger. That image of that little man, cut adrift in that vast, misty landscape, really stayed with me.”
And the messenger’s storyline gave birth to 1917. In the film, dodging bullets and bombs, a pair of British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), trek across France’s war-torn countryside to deliver a game-changing message to their fellow troops as they plan a massive attack on the Germans.
Recreating a war
The movie was filmed up and down Britain, including Wiltshire, Teesdale, Salisbury Plain, Scotland and in Shepperton Studios. The cast and crew rehearsed for more than 6 months due to the technicality of showing the brutal horror of the war. Besides the movie script, there were an additional 45-page script, made up solely of maps and schematics and diagrams of where the actors moved and where the camera moved accordingly. “Every scene had to be planned to the second, and stop-watched as it was rehearsed. That meant weeks of arranging, the re-arranging cardboard boxes to form a stand-in for trenches on a Shepperton Studios soundstage, and then counting steps (and seconds) in the English countryside near Stonehenge, which doubled as northern France,” says Sam.
At one stage, they took the actors and the 2,100 extras out to a giant field to map out the movie. “We were just walking around, planting flags. Coloured poles represented different things, such as yellow for one character, green for another character, and red poles represented the camera.”
The actors also found the sets and outside trenches very realistic. “The conditions we were actually filming in were so realistic to how it would have been,” says Dean-Charles Chapman, “especially the mud. I describe the mud to walking on ice, that’s how slippery it was. There is one scene, in the opening moments of the movie, which shows our feet slipping everywhere, but that’s not us acting, that’s genuinely trying to put one foot in front of another!”
At the 92nd Academy Awards, 1917 won Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. The movie won two further awards – Best Motion Picture: Drama, and Best Director – at the 77th Golden Globe Awards, and won seven BAFTA awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Outstanding British film.
Sam says that he hopes that after watching the movie, viewers will remember those who fought it because they sacrificed everything. “I hope that it will inspire viewers to look into their own ancestors' history, maybe find out their story. It’s important to remember.”
Watch 1917 on Sunday, 20 September on M-Net (DStv 101) at 20:05