Is ‘1917’ Based On a True Story? Director Sam Mendes Says Some Of It Is

1917 was a big hit when it opened nationwide Jan. 10 and won three Oscars for cinematography, visual effects and sound mixing. The World War I drama is now available to watch on digital VOD formats. When it comes to 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 24, bonus features will take fans behind the scenes with director Sam Mendes, the cast and crew.

Sam Mendes directs 1917
L-R: Dean-Charles Chapman, Sam Mendes, George MacKay | Universal Studios

Showbiz Cheat Sheet got an early copy of the 1917 Blu-ray so we watched the bonus features and listened to Mendes’ audio commentary track to learn more about the film. In interviews and commentary, Mendes explains just how much of 1917 is a true story. 

You don’t need to know any history before watching ‘1917’

Mendes is clear that he’s not trying to teach viewers about history. You can watch 1917 fresh.

“An audience needed to know nothing about the First World War in order to watch it,” Mendes said. “It was never intended in any way as a history lesson. All they need to know is the day on which it takes place.”

Mendes did feel a responsibility to keep the history of World War I alive.

Filming 1917
Filming 1917 | Universal Studios

“I feel that it’s the duty of one generation to hand on the stories of the previous generation so that we understand history,” Mendes said. “I take that very seriously because this generation sacrificed for something larger than themselves. The nature of that is behind everything. That’s really what the story is.”

Sam Mendes’ grandfather inspired ‘1917’

Mendes grew up with his grandfather, Alfred Hubert Mendes, telling him stories about his service in WWI. Some of Brigadier Mendes’ war stories ended up in 1917.

George MacKay in '1917'
George MacKay in ‘1917’ | Universal Studios

“This movie is based on a fragment of story my grandfather told me when I was sitting at his feet.” He fought in the First World War. His name is Alfred Hubert Mendes. He went to war in 1917. He was a messenger on the front lines and he was given the job of carrying a message from post to post along the front line because he was 5’4” and the mist on No Man’s Land hung at five and a half feet so he couldn’t be seen above the mist when he ran. I started with this fragment really.”

Sam Mendes found other true stories while researching World War I

Mendes cowrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. They discovered more true details they could include in the film.

“One of the many, many hundreds of striking details Krysty Wilson-Cairns and I stumbled across when making and writing this film was that they would bury body parts in sand bags,” Mendes said. “So many men in this war went unburied or in unmarked graves partly because if they were hit by shells or killed out in No Man’s Lan and people couldn’t retrieve their bodies, they would simply rot and disappear into the land.”

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay
L-R: Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay | Universal Studios

Some of the dialogue between Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) is based on real World War I stories too.

“Blake is telling Schofield the story about his friend Wilco and the story about the rat biting his ear off,” Mendes said. “That comes straight out of a first person account of the War that was read by Kristy. Many of the first person accounts do find their way into the movie. That sense that you get reading first person accounts that the grunts, the boys on the ground, kind of hero worshipped and adored the air service. For them, it was a kind of romantic vision, a kind of idealized part of the way.”

The names in ‘1917’ are real

Mendes and Wilson-Cairns named many characters in 1917 after real people, although those names did not come from World War I.

“Many of the character names in this movie are people from my school days, people from cricket teams I’ve played in and in the case of the back of the truck, even the current England cricket team,” Mendes said. “Or, the current England Cricket team as was when I wrote the script. So Cook, Butler, Stokes, they are straight out of the English cricket team.”