Is 1917 based on a real story?

Find out how much of Sam Mendes' WW1 epic is a true tale – and what was invented for the film

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From Blackadder to Birdsong and They Shall Not Grow Old, a host of shows and films have portrayed the grim reality of the First World War. But none have done it quite like 1917.

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Filmed to look like one continuous take, the movie from James Bond director Sam Mendes delves into the story of two young British soldiers, Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are dealt a deadly job by superiors. Their task: deliver warning of a German ambush, a message that could save thousands of lives.

But did this extraordinary mission this really take place? Here’s everything you need to know about the accuracy of 1917.

Is 1917 a true story?

In short: sort of. In a bit longer: 1917 is loosely based on a story Mendes was told by his grandfather – Alfred H Mendes, who served in the war – as a child.

During the conflict, Alfred was awarded a Military Medal for volunteering as a runner during 1917’s Battle of Poelcappelle, weaving through machine gun fire to deliver messages.

Writing in his memoirs, Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991, Alfred wrote: “In spite of the snipers, the machine-gunners and the shells, I arrived back at C Company’s shell hole without a scratch but with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.”

“The story of 1917 was inspired not only by my own family history, but also by many others,” Mendes confirmed to The Times about the film.

The film’s setting is well-grounded in history, taking place on April 6th 1917 during Operation Alberich, the German plan to retreat to the fortified Hindenberg line.

To counter this operation, allied troops had to rely on runners to pass on key communications. Although there were some telephone lines across the Western front, officers had to mostly rely on messengers, be it human or pigeon.

Benedict Cumberbatch in 1917
Benedict Cumberbatch in 1917

Interestingly, it was also on April 6th 1917 that the USA formally entered the war, battling the Germans and the Central Powers.

Are Blake and Schofield in 1917 based on real people?

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No. Although both characters are loosely based on Mendes’ grandfather, both were invented for the film. All other characters – like those played by Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch – were also not real soldiers.

“The movie is a fiction based on a fact, like all of my favourite war literature movies. Like Apocalypse Now and All Quiet on the Western Front. These are historically accurate but the characters are creations,” Mendes previously told Deadline.

“The characters George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play are not my grandfather. But the spirit of what he told me and the central idea of a man carrying a message wouldn’t leave me. It just clung on in there somehow, for the last 50 years.”

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1917 is in cinemas now