High praise for epic war film

A scene from Sam Mendes’s 1917, which has received 10 Oscar nominations after winning Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and for Mendes as director.

The highly anticipated new film by Sam Mendes, 1917, which has garnered 10 Oscar nominations after having recently taken Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, opens countrywide on Friday, January 17. BILLY SUTER reports.

BESIDES its Oscar nominations and Golden Globe wins, the war epic 1917 has also been nominated for nine of the UK’s BAFTA awards (including Best Picture). It is also the recipient of various other high-profile awards/nominations from the National Board Of Review, the Producers Guild of America, The Critics’ Choice Awards and many other leading accolades.

To say it is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year is an understatement – and good news is that the drama opens countrywide in South Africa today, Friday, January 17.

Directed and co-produced by Mendes, who have us Skyfall, Spectre and American Beauty, 1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers on a single day at the height of World War I, as they are given a seemingly impossible mission. Time is the enemy!

The movie, inspired by the experiences of Mendes’s grandfather and others who served in World War I.

It tells of Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they are given a seemingly impossible task. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1 600 of their fellow soldiers – Blake’s own brother among them.

In this immersive cinematic experience, Mendes thrusts the audience into the immediate peril and vast scale of World War I, witnessing the conflict in an urgent and propulsive way.

The high-stakes-mission film also stars Mark Strong (The Imitation Game) as the compassionate and wise Captain Smith; Andrew Scott (Fleabag) as Lieut. Leslie, the war-weary commander of the Yorks; Richard Madden (Netflix’s Bodyguard) as Lieut. Blake, Blake’s elder brother, marching toward the Hindenburg Line’ and Daniel Mays (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as Sgt Sanders, who chooses Blake for the mission.

Also among the cast are Adrian Scarborough (The Madness of King George) as Major Hepburn, senior officer in the 8th Battlaion; Jamie Parker (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as Lieut Richards; Nabhaan Rizwan (Informer) as Sepoy Jondalar, a Sikh Private, wise beyond his years; and newcomer Claire Duburcq as Lauri, a terrified French woman trying to survive against all odds in a war-torn French town.

A tense moment from 1917, which took the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.

They are joined by Oscar-winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as General Erinmore, who sends the pair on their mission; and Benedict Cumberbatch (Avengers series) as Colonel Mackenzie, commander of 2nd Battalion, who is convinced they have the Germans retreating and is determined to finish the job.

This uninterrupted cinematic experience is directed by Mendes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Showtime’s Penny Dreadful).

The idea for 1917 was sparked by stories that Mendes’ grandfather, the late Alfred H Mendes, shared about his time as a Lance Corporal in the First World War, as well as the colourful characters he met during his service.

In the year 1917, Alfred was a 19-year-old who enlisted in the British Army. Due to his small stature, the five-foot-four-inch soldier was chosen to be a messenger on the Western Front.

The mist on No Man’s Land – the unclaimed land between Allied and enemy trenches on the frontlines that neither side crossed for fear of being attacked – hung at approximately five and a half feet, so the young sprinter was able to carry messages laterally from post to post.

His height meant he was not visible to the enemy, and he literally ran for his life. During the war, Alfred was injured and gassed, and was awarded a medal for his bravery. In his later years, the Trinidadian novelist retired to his birthplace in the West Indies, where he wrote his memoirs.

“I was always fascinated by the Great War, perhaps because my grandfather told me about it when I was very young, and perhaps also because at that stage of my life, I’m not sure I’d even registered the concept of war before,” Mendes says.

“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. 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.”

Mendes spent time researching first-person accounts of this era, many of which are held at the Imperial War Museum in London. As he took notes, Mendes began to compile fragments of stories of bravery confronting terror; in time, he began to dovetail them into a single tale.

During this exploration, he discovered that World War I was so wholly entrenched in a relatively small geographic area that it had very few long journeys.

“It was a war mainly of paralysis,” Mendes says, “one in which millions lost their lives over 200 or 300 yards of land. People are justly celebrated in all parts of the world for gaining tiny sections of land in World War I. In the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for example, they gained 500 yards, but it remains one of the war’s greatest acts of heroism. So, the question I asked myself was how to tell a story about a single epic journey, when essentially nobody travelled very far.”

His research stalled momentarily, Mendes soon discovered what would become the backdrop for his tale. In 1917, the Germans retreated to what was known as Siegfriedstellung, or the Hindenburg Line. After six months of planning and digging a huge trench system of defences and deep-lying artillery, the Germans placed a vast number of troops –once spread over the original, much longer, front line – into a new, enormously fortified, condensed line of defense.

The filmmaker discusses how he found the propulsive narrative of what would become his greatest challenge to date.

“There was a brief period where, for several days, the British didn’t know whether the Germans had retreated, withdrawn or surrendered,” Mendes says

“Suddenly, the British were cut adrift in a land they had literally spent years fighting over…  but had never seen before. Much of it was destroyed by the Germans, who left nothing of lasting value, destroying anything that might sustain the enemy.

“Anything of beauty was taken or destroyed; villages, towns, animals, food. All trees were cut down. It was made relatively impassible. The British were alone in this desolate land full of snipers, land mines and trip wires.”

Inspired by the fragments of stories from his grandfather, the first-person accounts he had researched at the Imperial War Museum – as well as the idea of the deadly venture to the Hindenburg Line – Mendes crafted the structure of the story that became 1917.

“Like most of the war stories I admired, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now, I wanted to create a fiction based on fact,” Mendes says. He reached out to frequent collaborator Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who, unbeknownst to Mendes at the time, is a self-proclaimed “history nerd” and was ideally suited to the material, and their journey began.

When Mendes was choosing the actors to portray his young lead soldiers, it was crucial to him that audiences experience the story with relative newcomers. George MacKay, supporting player of Captain Fantastic, was cast as Lance Corporal Schofield, and Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman became Lance Corporal Blake.

A scene from 1917. When director Sam Mendes was choosing the actors to portray his young lead soldiers, it was crucial to him that audiences experience the story with relative newcomers.

“The movie is based around the journey of two young and, at first glance, unremarkable soldiers, and ideally I wanted an audience to have no prior relationship with them,” Mendes says.

“It was a real luxury, with the unstinting support of the studio, to make a movie on this scale with two actors in the central roles who really are, relatively speaking, new to the game.”

As the majority of Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay exists in the exteriors, and no location through which the two principal characters move repeats on screen, the enormity of the challenge in front of Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner and his colleagues was obvious to all involved.

With the landscapes came the inescapable and unpredictable British weather.

Because the story is linear, the weather needed to consistently match from scene to scene. While the production could control many aspects of the shoot, weather would never be one of them.

Armed with a Farmer’s Almanac and weather.com, Gassner examined multiple weather forecasts, from long range to daily and hourly. At the mercy of the sun, clouds, rain, sleet and snow, the indefatigable crewmembers crossed their fingers and said respective prayers every night before the next shooting day.

“You’ve never seen a group of people so happy for bad weather,” George MacKay says. “You get a bit of cloud of and everyone will be like, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ We’re going to get two shots today!’”

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