Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
- Sam Mendes’ 1917 takes place during the closing years of World War I
- The film finds two soldiers venturing across No Man’s Land on the Western Front
- Their advance was based a reaction to the real-life German retreat known as “Operation Alberich”
1917 chronicles the epic, Dante-like journey of two British soldiers, sent across the battlefield to deliver a message warning of ambush.
Sam Mendes got the idea from his grandfather who had served in the First World War at the age of 17. One day at dusk, he was ordered to run a letter across No Man’s Land, the barren, body-strewn strip separating the German and British frontlines. Mendes was 10 when he first heard the story, and the image captivated him. Four decades later, Mendes was inspired to co-write a film based on this journey. He needed an event to make the journey possible, something during the war that might have led two soldiers across an empty battlefield and into enemy lines. Mendes chose Operation Alberich. Date: February 9, 1917.
By this time in the war, the frontlines had changed little. Four-hundred miles of No Man’s Land ran north-south between the British and German forces. At some places, the width was a couple miles. At others, a couple NFL first downs.
Operation Alberich was a retreat. The Germans, who had a year earlier refused to peace terms proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, planned to withdraw 25 miles to a more easily defensible formation called the “Hindenburg Line.” By then, they were outnumbered and playing a defensive strategy in the war.
The German withdrawal took four days, leaving empty trenches and fortified positions and making it more difficult for the British to advance closer to the line. The British were mostly taken by surprise despite early reconnaissance that may have indicated the Germans building a new line behind the front. The German retreat would ultimately slow the British advance, which they had planned for that spring.
It was at that moment, when British forces were still uncertain about German positions, that 1917 begins. The fictionalized soldiers Blake and Schoffield “go over the top” and into No Man’s Land, advancing on an empty German front line. They are the soldiers who discover the German’s new position and signal the retreat.
Though their delivery of an ambush warning may be fictional, the death and carnage they see across No Man’s Land certainly is not. It’s what makes 1917, and its quieter, battlefield-crossing moments, so haunting and powerful.