In the credits at the end of the movie 1917, Alfred H. Mendes is mentioned and thanked for his stories. A Wikipedia search tells me that he was Sam Mendes, the director’s, grandfather. He was a writer — he joined up to serve in World War I when he was seventeen. This film is presumably based on stories of incredible acts of bravery and compassion during a brutal war that surely we will never forget. On 6th April 1917, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake must take a crucial message to British troops on the other side of enemy territory. This British regiment wrongly thinks that the Germans (the Boche) have withdrawn. No – it is a strategic withdrawal and the Boche are lying in wait. If the message doesn’t get there by sunrise, vast numbers of British troops, including Blake’s brother, will be slaughtered.
Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield
By making the filming appear to be one continuous take, we travel with the two young Lance Corporals on their frightening journey – the whole film is from the point of view of one or other of them.
In abandoned German trenches
Fantastic depiction of the trenches. All we needed was the smell. Amazing scenery – particularly fiery shots in a bombed-out church.
Others who have seen this film describe it as ‘nail-biting’ and that they were on the edge of their seats most of the time. Well – maybe I’ve seen too many WWI movies. So many depictions of sublime pastoral landscapes that are suddenly sullied – turned into grisly quagmires, so many brutally wounded fresh-faced, terrified soldiers with bloodied stumps for limbs.
One thing that stood out in this film was the humanity of these young fighters. Blake is killed as a result of trying to assist a German pilot whose legs are still burning after his plane crashes. Schofield has managed to fill his caddy with milk found at an abandoned farm-house. He is exhausted and hungry, but gives the whole caddy to a young woman who is caring for a baby she has rescued. There are many close-ups of the soldiers’ innocent faces. Before a section of a regiment faces up to battle, a young man sings to them with superb clarity and purity The Wayfaring Stranger.
I can imagine that all of the incidents that make up the horrific odyssey of the young men’s journey to avert catastrophe may have been pieced together from the observations and experiences of Alfred H. Mendes. From the beginning I was pretty sure that at least one of the young Lance Corporals would survive – otherwise, why tell the story?
For me, there were too many coincidences: part of a British regiment turns up in trucks and is able to give Schofield a lift some of the way after he leaves an abandoned farm house, devastated by the death of his companion, who was killed by the German he’d tried to help. When Schofield comes across a young woman caring for a desperately starving baby, it just so happens that Schofield has milk in his canteen. Schofield has used a swiftly flowing river for his escape from an occupied bombed-out village. He climbs out, a whole lot of dead bodies provide gruesome foot-holds; he has left the river at the very spot where the regiment he needs to contact is based. And the music – beautiful – at one time reminding me of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – tends to anticipate the action. As Schofield dodges his way through ruins in an early dawn, we correctly anticipate that a German soldier will be around the corner…
The soldiers who were saved by Schofield and Blake’s courageous mission
World War I is hugely significant to our modern world. So many were killed. So many social changes resulted from those four atrocious years. Some political and economic changes that were fought for were short-lasting but in other ways the world we live in was shaped irrevocably. We should keep telling the stories from it and keep making and watching movies such as 1917.