1917: Sam Mendes’ Personal War Epic?

Sam Mendes’ 1917, a war film that holds personal meaning for the director, is his best feature since American Beauty, which won the best Picture Oscar exactly two decades ago, in 1999.

Based on a solid $90 million budget, 500 extras, two relatively unknown actors, three stars in bit parts, and one extremely long continuous shot, Mendes depicts a harrowing tale of the trenches during World War I that unfolds in real time.

Back when Mendes was a boy in the U.K., he would sometimes visit his grandfather at his home in Trinidad. Sitting on a porch with some of his cousins, Mendes would listen as the old man spun harrowing tales of his time in the trenches during World War I. “His stories were pretty anti-romantic and unsentimental,” recalls Mendes, now 54. “There was no heroism or bravery. They were all stories about luck and chance.”

After marinating in the filmmaker’s imagination for 40-some years, those stories are now the basis of Mendes’ latest film, 1917, a World War I movie that Universal opens on Christmas Day. Its plot is simplicity itself: Two British soldiers — played by relative newcomers George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman — are sent on a suicide mission to warn a fellow battalion of an impending German ambush. But there’s a high-concept twist: The soldiers only have hours to save their comrades — navigating snipers, trip wires, land mines and even flesh-eating rodents — with the action unfolding in real time, as if in one long, continuous shot

“I had this thought, ‘Why don’t we lock the audience into the men’s experiences in a way that feels completely unbroken, in a movie that resembles a ticking-clock thriller in which we experience every second passing in real time?’ ” Mendes says. “It seemed like a natural way of telling the story. Albeit difficult.”

The first pages of 1917 were written in 2017 at Mendes’ home in London between diaper changes and bottle feedings. Mendes’ wife, classical trumpet player Alison Balsom, had just given birth to their daughter Phoebe, while he had given birth to Spectre, his second James Bond movie, just two years earlier.

“I didn’t want to leave the house because those are the precious weeks and months,” he says. “So I thought I’d occupy myself by reading and writing.” By February 2018, he’d done enough reading and writing to produce 20 rough pages that included the bones of a real-time World War I movie, but not much else. He realized he needed help and enlisted Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a Scottish writer with whom he’d collaborated on Penny Dreadful, the TV series he’d produced for Showtime.

“When Sam told me it was all going to be one shot, which was our very first call, I went and looked for [war] films that were one shot or scripts that were one shot,” says Wilson-Cairns. “I couldn’t actually find any. I couldn’t find a precedent, so we had to invent this structure and this narrative as we were going along. It’s a hero’s journey, but it doesn’t really adhere to any of those traditional beats.”

Wilson-Cairns spent weeks digging around in the Imperial War Museum in London, reading letters and diaries that had been written in the trenches. She toured northern France, where the film takes place, visited cemeteries where thousands of soldiers were buried and studied 1929’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the definitive World War I novel. By April 2018, she had knocked out a first draft of the script, four weeks after Mendes had handed her his pages. “Someone asked me the other day if I was aware that I was the first woman to write a big war movie,” she says. “I guess there’s an archaic notion that war movies are men’s stories.”