"It was extraordinary and terrible"

Sam Mendes: I suppose it was based on these stories my grandfather told me and one of them just wouldn't let me go, and I just feel like this war has always been sort of affected me since he told me these stories and I wanted to go back in and tell the story of two men who could have been two amongst two million, until somehow the worm's-eye view of just a brief moment in a war for them and through this keyhole show the vastness of that landscape of destruction that was the Great War.

The whole Imperial War Museum archive is a remarkable resource and we used it to the fullest extent, because this particular war the truth of the war resides in first-person accounts, letters, interviews and things like that and so, so much of it was inspired by those voices and you know it's impossible to articulate how important that whole thing was for this film, I don't think it could have existed in this way. So many tiny incidents are remarked on come from first-person accounts but not just that
photo photographs, you know, details that you know the movie is trying to not slavishly and dryly but make this period live again and it's details and textures and trying to find new ways to express what happened there that is gonna make it live.

I mean it's over a hundred years now since the Great War ended and it still throws a big shadow. You walk into any village or town and the UK and there's the memorial to the fallen of the first war and you know we wear our poppies on Remembrance Day and all of those things, but I think there's a danger that it becomes more and more distant and it seems less and less relevant and for me you know I made the movie in a way that wants an audience to feel like it happened yesterday. It's a contemporary film, you know, it's made with all the contemporary bells and whistles of a big movie and and obviously I hope that this somehow enriches people's understanding of what these men went through because it was extraordinary and terrible.

Flm: "Mike. Pick a man bring your kit".

Sam Mendes: I wanted to feel locked together with these characters so you live every moment with them, the seconds tick by in this race against time and you begin unconsciously to realize you can't escape from that, and it's only two hours of real-time but you know through those tiny little keyhole you can see something of the scale of it all as well, and that feeling of you just know that there's no escape, I think that was very important part of the film.

Sam Mendes grew up hearing stories of the First World War from his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Lance Corporal who served as a messenger on the Western Front.

The director’s film 1917 draws upon the stories passed down from his grandfather and personal accounts of people who witnessed the conflict, including those held in IWM’s collections. It tells the fictional story of two Lance Corporals sent on a mission to deliver an important message, racing against time to get there before an attack on German forces begins.

‘I made the movie in a way that wants the audience to feel like it happened yesterday, it’s a contemporary film. It’s made with all the contemporary bells and whistles of a big movie and obviously I hope this somehow enriches people’s understanding of what these men went through, because it was extraordinary and terrible.’

Both cast and crew drew upon IWM’s First World War collection in their preparation for the film, including lead actors George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman who visited IWM London and the First World War Galleries.

‘The whole Imperial War Museum archive is a remarkable resource and we used it to the fullest extent,’ says Mendes.

Find out more

First World War Galleries
Permanent Gallery

First World War Galleries

IWM London

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First World War

The making of 1917

Hear actors Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Daniel Mays (Sgt Sanders) and Andrew Scott (Lieut. Leslie) describe how they prepared for their roles in the film – and how film can help us connect with a conflict that took place more than 100 years ago.

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First World War

Preparing for 1917 with George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman

Learning about the personal stories of those who fought in the First World War and visiting IWM London’s First World War Galleries helped actors Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay prepare for their roles as soldiers in the new film 1917.