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Why ‘1917’ Director Sam Mendes Warns Against Forgetting the Lessons of WWI

Though Sam Mendes’ epic war drama “1917” was largely inspired by the real-life experiences of his paternal grandfather, a World War I veteran, the director was driven by a greater motivation when telling the film’s story. Mendes explained that he feared WWI, once deemed “the war to end all wars,” and the lessons learned from the tragedy might be lost to history.

“There’s a feeling about this war, that it is in danger of being forgotten,” Mendes told Variety at the film’s premiere Wednesday night at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood. “It was a vast war. 16 million people died in it and the winds that blew before that war are blowing again in Europe. I think there is a feeling that these men were fighting for a free and unified Europe and we would do well to remember that in our country.”

While Mendes alluded to the current uncertain geopolitical landscape in Britain and the European Union, he denied that “1917” is an overtly political film. “It’s about the tragedy of the war. It’s not about the Brits were right and the Germans were terrible,” Mendes elaborated. “It’s about the chaos and the cataclysm that was that war at a time when the boundaries of Europe were being redrawn.”

“1917” has already been met with critical acclaim and received three Golden Globes nominations, including a Best Director nod for Mendes. In response to the awards recognition and his own potential frontrunner status heading into the Oscars race, Mendes said, “I’m delighted. It’s not easy selling a movie of this scale and trying to persuade people to come out to the cinemas to watch a movie with two relatively young actors in the leads and these days particularly.”

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“We need all the help we can get,” Mendes continued. “For me, some of these people forget, but awards are to encourage people to go to the cinema in order to have an opinion about what their movie of the year is. All I want is for people to see it.”

The film follows the perilous journey of two young British soldiers Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they embark on a mission to warn a battalion of 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother, of an impending ambush. One of the two-hour feature’s defining aspects is that it was shot to appear as one continuous take, an artistic decision that made filming particularly challenging for the actors.

“The biggest challenge was the unrelenting nature,” MacKay told Variety. “We would go again and again and again during these long sequences. And because there is no edit, you can’t go home unless it is absolutely perfect.”

“It was something that I have never experienced before on a film,” Chapman said. “Sometimes we were going up to about nine minutes long in a scene. As an actor, you genuinely get lost in that. There were times when they called cut and I couldn’t stop crying because whatever the scene was entailing, I just couldn’t get out of that. And I’ve never had that before. It sort of played in my mind a little bit after filming. But it was an amazing experience. I loved every minute of it.”

The immersive production design also served as its own test for the actors. “Physically, the No Man’s Land sequence early on was pretty tough,” MacKay said. “The physicality of it. The terrain was as real as they could make it. Physically, it was tough but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what those men would have gone through.”

Chapman, who told Variety he suffered from shin splints during the shoot, concurred. “It never once felt like we were stepping onto set. We genuinely felt like we were stepping in the trenches, genuinely into No Man’s Land. It felt like very real conditions.”

The significance of preserving WWI’s memory, more than a century after the war’s conclusion, was noted by the actors. “It’s important to remember the stories,” Chapman said. “It’s the first World War. I don’t think it’s something we should ever forget. It’s important to remember what those men did. That sacrifice and they were so young. A whole generation just completely wiped out. That should never be forgotten.”

George MacKay (L) and Dean Charles-Chapman (R) pose on the red carpet prior to the premiere of the film '1917' at the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, California, USA, 18 December 2019. The movie will be released in US theaters on 18 December.Premiere of '1917' in Los Angeles, USA - 18 Dec 2019
CREDIT: DAVID SWANSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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