There was the wounded soldier his grandfather carried back to the trench under enemy fire, only to discover once he arrived that the man was dead, his body having absorbed a bullet meant for Alfred. Another story involved a German soldier whose head was lost in an explosion, though his body somehow carried on running.
And then there was the mission Alfred Mendes volunteered for on October 12, 1917, after nearly a third of the men in his battalion had been killed in the Battle of Poelcappelle. The survivors were stranded across many miles, and Alfred, who had been trained as a signaler, was sent to rescue them and lead them back to his camp.
“That tiny man in the midst of that vast expanse of death, that was the thing I could never get out of my mind,” said Mendes.
It is the image that inspired the new film 1917, directed and co-written by Mendes, about two British lance corporals who must make their way across miles of battleground to deliver an urgent message that could save 1,600 of their fellow soldiers from a massacre. Still, though the stories his grandfather told him had never been far from Mendes’ mind, that didn’t mean making a movie like this came easily.
“People say, ‘Oh, you must’ve wanted to tell the story for years,’ and actually, I didn’t,” said Mendes, 54, whose career has encompassed big-screen projects like American Beauty as well as a long list of stage credits, including The Ferryman and the 1990s revival of Cabaret.
“The truth was, it never felt like my story to tell,” he said. “It felt like it was my granddad’s story, and I didn’t own it.”
Mendes was also aware that while Hollywood has made many a World War II movie about hero soldiers fighting Nazis, the more muddled motivations and trench-warfare stalemates of World War I would require a different kind of storytelling. “That war was just a chaos of mismanagement and human tragedy on a vast scale,” he said. “You could kill someone at 1,000 yards with a machine gun, but you couldn’t communicate with a soldier 20 yards away.”
After directing the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre, Mendes was having trouble mounting a new film project. His agent Beth Swofford suggested he explore the World War I stories he had once told her. In 2017, a year after the Brexit vote, Mendes found further inspiration. “I’m afraid that the winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again,” he said. “There was this generation of men fighting then for a free and unified Europe, which we would do well to remember.”
Once Mendes began mulling the screenplay with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, he quickly laid down three rules. Instead of adapting his grandfather’s own story, Mendes would follow two relatively anonymous soldiers whose heroism would be accidental. The story would take place in the spring of 1917, when the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line and left a trail of devastation and traps in their wake.
And there was one other artistic inspiration that would turn out to be the film’s defining feature. Mendes wrote it on the screenplay’s first page: 1917 would be presented as if shot in one take.
“It was absolutely a given that was what excited me about it,” said Mendes. “There’s a great danger that once you’ve got used to making films, you get lazy with the way you shoot them. ‘Oh yeah, I know: close-up, over the shoulder, two-shot, moving shot, fancy shot every three scenes.’ You can kind of read it in other people’s movies.”
But to film 1917 in robust long takes and stitch those separate pieces together in nearly invisible ways would pose a unique challenge. “For the first few scenes in the draft, I would feel like I was wearing a straitjacket,” admitted Wilson-Cairns. “It’s a real bummer, the loss of moving around in time and space. But in exchange for that, you get to move around the film landscape the way we do in reality, and what that gives you as a writer is the ultimate ability to disappear.”
Mendes began filming 1917 in April at Bovingdon Airfield in England. He was locked into a Christmas Day release, giving him an unusually short window to complete a film of this scale. And though Mendes had rehearsed the film extensively with his cast and assembled an Oscar-winning team of behind-the-scenes collaborators, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith, any little thing that went wrong during all of those long takes could scuttle the work of hundreds of people.
“There were times when I thought, ‘I’m using every fibre of everything I know about theatre and film combined,” Mendes said. “I was pushed to the limit to try and find solutions.”
He didn’t make it easy on himself. Though the shots were planned with the utmost precision, what happened within the frame was often subject to change depending on the weather, the ability of the actors to hit their marks in the mud, or how the more capricious members of the cast — including several animals and a baby — would react to the camera. When George MacKay, who plays one of the main characters, was accidentally knocked to the ground by another actor during a perilous sprint, Mendes kept it in the movie.
“I wanted to lock the audience in with the characters,” said Mendes. “The audience reacts to those scenes in a different way because they know they’re not going to get out of it unless the men get out of it. You have a level of association that perhaps would not exist if we shot it conventionally.”
Mendes finished the film a few days before Thanksgiving, and since then he has been on a whirlwind media tour meant to give 1917 a late award-season push. So far, so good: The Golden Globes nominated Mendes for best director and the film for best drama. Still, he has hardly had time to take a breath. “I find talking about the movie is my gradual goodbye to it,” he said.
It’s also a chance to reflect further on the grandfather who helped inspire it. Mendes recalled that when he was 12, Alfred Mendes asked him to sign a contract the older man had written out by hand, in which the young boy promised he would write his first novel by the age of 18. “He told me, ‘You’re going to tell stories. This is what you have to do.'”
Still, Alfred Mendes could hardly have imagined that one day, that grandson would go on to tell a story drawn so vividly from the tales he spun in that great drafty house in the West Indies. Now, with 1917 finally complete, Mendes is reminded of the quote from philosopher Albert Camus, that “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”.
“And I think that is true of those stories,” Mendes said. “I think, for whatever reason, my heart first opened in those moments.”
1917 opens in Australian on January 16
New York Times