With its starry pedigree – it’s directed by Skyfall and American Beauty director Sam Mendes, after all – 1917 would probably have generated plenty of hype even if it was a conventional war film. But it is not a conventional war film. A simple, brutally stripped-down story of two young soldiers (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) sent on a perilous mission to halt the advance of a British regiment into certain death, it plays out in real-time, in what looks like a continuous take.
Stitching together long sequences to make the film look like a seamless, fluid, epic odyssey through the hellscape of No Man’s Land was a tricky technological challenge. A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had to make innovative and bold use of cameras and remain hyper-vigilant about potential continuity issues, as each take had to perfectly align with the next one. Even the weather was nerve-racking, as it had to stay consistent during the scenes. ‘I didn’t want to be in a situation where you’re shooting a shot and the actors are giving it their all and suddenly the sun comes out,’ he later said in an interview with CNN.
That tiny man in the midst of that vast expanse of death
The story of 1917 isn’t based on any one specific incident. Instead, it was inspired by Sam Mendes’ childhood memories of his Trinidadian grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who was famous in his own right as a novelist of the 1930s. Alfred Mendes was a veteran of the trenches and a master storyteller, whose memoirs vividly described the tortured terrain of World War One as an 'area in which countless men, the flower of Britain and Germany, lost their lives, an area into which countless shells plunged destroying whatever tree, plant, bush, or grass there was and left behind a surface of moon-like desolation, many shell craters as traps for sucking in live men and drowning them – to this sector we came in 1917.'
Alfred’s words stayed with Sam Mendes, who particularly remembered a ‘fragment’ of a tale his grandfather told, about a ‘messenger who has a message to carry.’ This was the seed from which the film 1917 would grow. Alfred Mendes himself had been tasked with a daredevil mission to rescue stranded soldiers in October 1917 – a fact which also influenced Sam Mendes’ imagination. ‘That tiny man in the midst of that vast expanse of death,’ the filmmaker explained, ‘that was the thing I could never get out of my mind.’
Mendes needed the right, real-life context for a story about soldiers embarking on a lonely quest into the unknown. That context was provided when he read about Operation Alberich, a dynamic, German military retreat that took place in early 1917, and which has been largely forgotten by most people who think of World War One purely in terms of the static stalemate of trench warfare.
By 1917, the grinding ordeal of battling on the Western Front had taken a severe toll on the Germans. Knowing they had to change tactics, the leadership decided that a fortified defensive line should be created in France, to which their troops could withdraw, thus shortening the overall length of the frontline and allowing the Germans to regroup in a better position. This was the Hindenburg Line, named after legendary German general Paul von Hindenburg, who would later become notorious for his key role in Hitler’s rise to power. To the Germans, the largest section of the line was known as the Siegfriedstellung, or Siegfried Position, named after the figure from German mythology, and consisting of deep trenches reinforced with concrete.
German troops didn’t merely retreat to this new line – they also ravaged the countryside they moved through, enacting a scorched earth policy which saw villages demolished, trees uprooted and roads were flooded and ripped apart. Booby traps were also left, including bombs rigged to respond to pressure, trip wires connected to hand grenades, and mines fashioned from artillery shells, buried and poised to blow up any approaching vehicles. It was a treacherous, unnerving and lethal landscape for their enemies to enter.
Allied forces came after them in fits and starts, becoming embroiled in deadly skirmishes with the counter-attacking Germans. The Germans weren’t a beaten, fleeing foe – it was a controlled, well-executed withdrawal which allowed them to fight back to devastating effect while also consolidating their overall position.
The Hindenburg Line would eventually be overwhelmed by the Allies in 1918, and the story of the audacious German retreat – and the transformation of swathes of France into a bleak, barren wasteland – has faded from popular memory. Sam Mendes’ new film should put that right, and remind viewers of the murky, bloody complexity of the year 1917.