A potential contender in the 2019–2020 awards race, director Sam Mendes’ World War I movie, 1917, looks to be as technically impressive as it is dramatically heavy, telling the story of two soldiers (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) attempting to deliver a message that will save a huge number of lives, including one of their brothers. It’s a story that has audiences asking a very important question.
Is 1917 Based on a True Story?
With a story centered around the real-life conflict that saw a very modern jump on how wars were fought, 1917 feels like it would be based off of some real-life exploits that the world may not have heard of yet. As it turns out, Mendes, who co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns as well as directed it, wrote the film as a total fabrication. Though, the idea behind this story came from a very real source.
During a New York Comic-Con panel promoting the movie, Sam Mendes revealed the following inspiration:
I think the first time I even understood the idea of war of any sort was when my grandfather told me about his experiences in the First World War. I couldn't have been more than 10 or 11. He fought in the war from 1916 to 1918. As an 18 year old, he arrived on the front. And he told us stories when we were kids, sitting at his feet. He told me a story about carrying a message, and that fragment always stayed with me. I always thought that kernel of that [idea] would make something extraordinary.
Much like classic WWI movies of its ilk, 1917 has spun a creative narrative around some of the realities that were present during what is known as "The Great War." Only this time, the real-life inspiration came from Mendes' grandfather, Alfred.
The Real-Life Inspiration for 1917
Alfred Mendes served as a signaler after spending time in the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade. His duties provided the inspiration for 1917 and its characters. Meanwhile, the film itself actually covers Operation Alberich, the moment that saw the retreat of the German army in order to take a new position on the Hindenburg Line, which provided an easier position for their ranks to defend.
Who Plays Sam Mendes’ Grandfather?
While Alfred Mendes inspired Sam to create 1917, Alfred doesn't appear as a character in the film. Further along in his explanation at New York Comic-Con about the inspiration for 1917, Sam explained why he really wanted to tell this story in his latest film:
It’s not a story about my grandfather; it’s not based on him. George [MacKay] is not playing him. These are two entirely created characters. But the spirit of it, what those men went through and the sacrifices they made, the selflessness, the sense of believing in something bigger than themselves, that’s something that stayed with me and I’ve always felt lucky to have been born in peace time. But the generations that came before us were not. So, for me it was something very important, very personal, a passion project really.
Alfred Mendes may not be a character in 1917, and the film may not be telling his personal story, but Sam Mendes’ movie is very much inspired by his true heroism. What we’re left with is a heart-stopping film you can take a peek at in the trailer below:
You can see 1917 in all of its glory when the film opens in limited release on December 25 as part of the AMC Artisan Films series!