1917 war movie branded ‘greatest’ battle epic since Saving Private Ryan
It's been hailed as one of the greatest war films in years.
The epic 1917 tells the tale of two soldiers in World War One sent on a suicide mission to deliver a message across No Man’s Land in a bid to prevent another unit being wiped out by a German trap.
But for one of the two main stars, researching the role uncovered his own real-life connection to the Great War.
Dean-Charles Chapman, who plays Lance Corporal Blake, discovered his great-great grandfather had been shot in No Man’s Land.
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He says: “I read a book called The Western Front Diaries and it’s snippets of diary entries from the soldiers in the First World War.
“I actually found my great-great grandfather had a diary entry. He talks about how he fought in the First World War and was part of the cavalry – he got shot, was wounded in No Man’s Land and survived out there for four days.
“He ended up surviving the war and working in the first poppy factory that opened in Richmond in London.
“So I read that to get in the head-space for stepping on to set.”
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Chapman, who played King Tommen in Game Of Thrones, also made off with a souvenir from the film set – the rings worn by his character, which helped him get in the frame of mind of a young Tommy.
He says: “In the costume department of Shepperton Studios, there was a big wall of photographs, including one of three soldiers.
“There was one in particular who was just so relaxed, leaning up against a truck, his shirt was undone, his jacket was half hanging off and he had two rings, one on the middle finger, one on the little finger. That relaxed mannerism he had, I just thought: ‘I like that’.
“So I had Blake wear the middle ring and the pinky ring and I actually nicked that from set and I’ve got it in my bedroom.”
Chapman’s co-star in the film is Sunshine On Leith star George MacKay, but 1917 is packed with A-listers.
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They include Dr Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch, Kingsman’s Colin Firth, Bodyguard actor Richard Madden, Dad’s Army star Daniel Mays and Fleabag’s Andrew Scott.
It is directed by Sam Mendes, who was inspired by the story his own grandfather told him about carrying a message in World War One. At first the Skyfall director thought the nature of the war – the fight over a small piece of ground – meant it would be impossible to tell.
He says: “The First World War was a war where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives over a tiny stretch of land. There seemed to be a story possible to tell in this epic journey these two soldiers could take.”
The film was shot as one take – meaning scenes are not separate and audiences follow the two characters without a break in the action.
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But that meant there was little room for mistakes as Andrew Scott, who plays battle-hardened Lieutenant Leslie discovered when his cigarette lighter failed to ignite and they had to redo his scene.
He says: “The great challenge is you don’t want to mess it up. If you’re doing a scene six minutes long and if you make a mistake in minute four or five, you can’t just do that bit again, you have to start from the beginning.”
Mendes adds: “Andrew in his only scene made more mistakes than anyone else! It was Lighter-gate.
“You can have seven minutes of magic and then if someone trips or a lighter doesn’t work or if they forget half a line you have to start again and none of it is usable. There were some really tough days.”
The film is astounding, stuffed with tense moments and brutal scenes showing the horror of the war. It is being called the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.
Mendes insists he didn’t want to make a history lesson, but instead hoped to show the reality of what happened through the eyes of two normal soldiers faced with a horrendous experience.
He says: “I think most of us know how the war ended but I felt this movie could have just as easily been two German soldiers or two Belgian soldiers. It’s about the experience of war rather than the historical moment.
“Through two men’s experiences you see the panorama of death and destruction that was the Great War.
“My way of honouring the men and civilians who fell on all sides was to tell the story of these two men in just over two hours. For me it’s about the human connection.”
● 1917 is out on January 10.
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