With a storied history dating back to the Napoleonic Wars (the Walcheren campaign of 1809), the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment risks sending 1,600 troops to their deaths. To avert disaster, two messengers—Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay)—must carry General Erinmore’s (Colin Firth) message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the front.
“Sarge tells me you’re good with maps,” says Erinmore to Blake. Of Colonel Mackenzie, Erinmore warns, “He’s convinced that if we break the line, we will turn the tide. He is wrong.”
A nine mile journey, Schofield and Blake estimate it’ll take between six to eight hours on foot. From here, the 117-minute running length sprints in well-paced, 20 minute segments. Apropos, I timed the segments with a mechanical wristwatch—a century-old technology that’s been in my hands for at least a quarter that length. Today we transmit messages across the globe in milliseconds; the concept of two messengers without radios or GPS disorients us.
Directed and written by Sam Mendes, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 follows Blake and Schofield through trenches, across enemy fire, into Northern France and the Western Front. Based on the date, April 6, and their initial destination—Écoust-Saint-Mein—it’s likely that the story takes place just before the Battle of Arras led to over a quarter million combined casualties—160,000 British and 125,000 German. This little piece of the British Expeditionary Forces’ offensive is inspired by a story related to a young Sam by his grandfather and British novelist, Alfred Mendes, who fought in the 1st Rifle Brigade.
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