Sam Mendes’ remarkable World War I film “1917” follows, in what appears to be a single tracking shot courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, two British soldiers sent across No Man’s Land to deliver orders to call off an assault that would put thousands of their comrades at the mercy of massed German forces. The script, which the director co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, was inspired by stories Mendes’ grandfather had told him about his service in the Great War.
“He fought in the war,” Mendes said of this grandfather in a recent interview in Dallas, a stop on a promotional tour on which he was accompanied by Wilson-Cairns and by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who play the soldiers Scofield and Blake. “He went to war when he was seventeen, but he didn’t really talk about it until he was in his seventies. He didn’t tell his own kids about it, but he decided to tell his grandchildren for whatever reason. I never forgot [his stories].
“Once I had the idea of this man, or two men, carrying a message in two hours of real time, [the technique] sort of went hand-in-hand with that—that it would be one continuous shot.”
Wilson-Cairns recalled, “He called me up and told me it was going to be about the image of his grandfather, lost in the fog of No Man’s Land, carrying a message, I knew it was going to be a very different type of war movie, so I was very excited. Then he told me it was going to be in one shot, and hung up on me!
“It was going to make my job very hard—how are you going to write a story in all one shot, which as a traditional narrative is a bit tricky? But then we got together, and forged a new path as it were and got it down on the page. We just kept working it back and forth, until it became a proper collaboration…[about] the human experience of war.”
It helped that Wilson-Cairns was, unbeknownst to Mendes, something of a student on the war. “He didn’t [know that], not at that phone call,” she laughed. “I guess I’m a slightly surprising World War I buff.”
Asked about the film’s approach, Mendes said, “The war exists in literature and first-person accounts, and that war gave birth to an incredible amount of wonderful art trying to express the nature of the war, from the war poets like Wilfred Owen to novelists like Remarque…and there is sort of a cliché of the British as slightly recessive and old-fashioned, but the truth is that the war was savage, and relentless, and chaotic, and massive. And I think that the reality of that emerges more, later on in first-person accounts—in diary entries, things that were not sent at the time.
“Because the public perception at the time was controlled by the government and the press as being a ‘Good War’ in order to keep people going. So somebody like my grandfather, he enlisted to a war that he imagined to be totally different, and was shocked when he arrived there. And the image of the desolation of No Man’s Land goes into twentieth-century literature well into the present day—a play like ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically set in No Man’s Land. The barrenness and flat mud and dead tree immediately conjures up images of the First World War. It was a generation-, world-defining war that was bit defined by combat but death—the level of destruction and chaos.
“The war starts as the last old-fashioned war, with horses and carts, and ends as the first contemporary war with machine guns and tanks and bombs, weapons of mass destruction—a war in which the killers are persons a thousand yards away but you can’t communicate with men twenty yards away, because there was no commensurate development of communication.
“So that particular perfect storm of chaos is a very difficult war to get your hands around, and so to try to create a story that was about a journey within that war was one of the first things we had to try to find—to find a moment in the war when it was possible to take a journey. That enables you through the keyhole of this micro-experience to begin to understand the scale of the destruction and the vastness of the landscape…that it wasn’t just No-Man’s Land, but trenches and farmhouses, trees cut down, towns destroyed, civilians killed, vast collateral damage. Trying to find a way to express the war visually was difficult.
“Also, the fact that there is no definable enemy as there is in the Second World War, where you’re fighting universal evil. You don’t locate yourself in that moral compass. They’re all the same, in a way. The German Scofield encounters in town is, as is patently clear, the poor man is as terrified as he is. They’re just ‘lost boys,’ really, and trying to try to express that human experience in a human story in terms that are visceral and detailed…was the challenge.”
Mendes also explained why the episode was set in early April, 1917, after the Germans had undertaken a strategic withdrawal after the Battle of the Somme—which the British misread as an unruly retreat. “It was one of the few times in the war when you could tell such a story,” he said. “To be able to walk across No Man’s Land…was very rare.”
Scofield and Blake go through a series of grueling episodes to deliver their message, but ironically MacKay and Chapman spoke of the shoot—a relatively short one, though it required great precision to manage the continuous six-to-eight minute takes, with great affection. “We had a great time,” MacKay recalled. “That said, we were blessed with incredible sets and detail. In a sense so much of the work had been done for you. It was about knowing the characters well enough that when you got to that scenario, you knew [instinctively] what to do.
“I felt quite close to Scofield, the man behind the soldier, physically and emotionally. I read first-person accounts, more than anything—to know where’s he’s from, and also artwork. I wound up using a postal book. In the end, though, I trusted that Sam gave me the job.”
Chapman agreed: “You can really get lost in it, fully immersed. At the same time, it’s quite sobering. It was the least complaining set I’ve ever been on, actually.”
He added where he found inspiration about his character: “In the costume department, there was a picture of a group of four soldiers. One soldier in particular was leaning against a truck, his jacket open, smiling–he had no teeth. He had two rings on, one on his pinkie finger. That photo really got me. His personality just reminded me of Blake—even in the middle of a war zone, Blake was optimistic.”
Mendes emphasized that the relatively short shooting schedule was misleading. “For me, the shoot began with the rehearsals,” he explained. “If you think of it as a series of layers beginning with the rehearsals—that meant that they [MacKay and Chapman] did it over and over, and so when it finally came to shoot, it was the final stage of making the film, but we had been making it for a long time. It went quite fast, as long as the weather was okay—a combination of incredible precision on the part of what the camera was doing and spontaneity on the part of what was going on [in the shot].”
For Wilson-Cairns, the collaborative feel Mendes cultivated extended to her being on set fairly consistently.. “It was wonderful for a writer,” she said. “I remember one day when we went on set, and it was all foggy, and you felt you were on No Man’s Land…it felt like time-travel.”
Mendes agreed that the decision to create the illusion of a single-shot film led to frustration when some small thing would go wrong near the end of a take: “After six and a half minutes, you had to start over. And sometimes it would mean four or five takes before you got back to where you’d been.”
He recalled one harrowing sequence in which Scofield is escaping enemy fire in a bombed-out town. “George, where he’s running along the trench, and stumbles, that was an accident,” he said. “He just carried on, with all the people cheering behind the camera.”
Mendes closed by noting how satisfied he had been with one sequence toward the close of “1917,” in which Scofield finds the troops he’s searching for by following the voice of a soldier singing a song. The episode was inspired by a recollection in one of the first-person accounts he read: “[The soldier] was wandering through the forest, and he heard music. It was a soldier playing a piano looted from a farmhouse. He was playing Debussy, a nocturne. [The writer] said it was the most beautiful music he’d ever heard. He hadn’t heard music at all for two years, and hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it. I just thought that an amazing thing, and it became the scene in the wood with the singing soldier, used in an entirely different way. Sometimes when you find a piece of research and it finds its way into the movie like that, it’s very pleasing.
“Everything stops, and you bear witness to the extent of the human tragedy.”
“1917” is a Universal Pictures release.