Thursday, December 26, 2019

How Sam Mendes Made '1917'

I'd go see this one, but it's in limited release until January.

I love war films.


When the director Sam Mendes was a young boy, he and his father often traveled to the West Indies to visit his grandfather Alfred Mendes, a novelist. Sam, who had been brought up in North London, found his grandfather to be quite exotic: The small and wiry World War I veteran would sing opera in a booming Trinidadian accent, traipse around his creaky Colonial house in shorts and flip-flops and vigorously greet each morning with a pre-dawn plunge into the sea.

Alfred Mendes also had a tendency to obsessively wash his hands, always for several minutes at a time, to the point where Sam and his cousins noticed that above all his other quirks. “We would laugh at him,” the director recalled, “until I asked my dad, ‘Why does Granddad Alfie wash his hands so much?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he remembers the mud of the trenches during the war, and the fact that he could never get clean.’”

That’s when the boys stopped laughing at their grandfather. It’s also when they began asking what happened when, at age 19, Alfred Mendes enlisted and fought on behalf of Britain in what would become one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.

“We expected, I suppose, conventional stories of heroism and bravery,” Mendes said. “We certainly didn’t expect what he told us, which was unbelievably shocking and quite graphic tales of utter futility and chaos.”

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 that Alfred Mendes volunteered for on Oct. 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’s mind, that didn’t mean making a movie like this came easily...