How stars of Sam Mendes’ First World War film 1917 had to survive brutal real-life boot camp


For such an epic film made on a such an impressive scale, director Sam Mendes has revealed it was the small historical details that were just as important for his hotly-anticipated First World War drama 1917 – right down to ensuring his actors were put through their paces in a real-life boot camp before the cameras even started rolling.   

Predicted to sweep the boards at next year’s Oscars, the monumental war drama – which has drawn comparisons to Saving Private Ryan – follows the story of two British corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are sent on a suicide mission to warn comrades about a looming ambush by the Germans during the spring of 1917.

Blake and Schofield embark on a riveting race against the clock as they cut through No Man’s Land in northern France and into enemy territory to deliver the message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Feeling the part: More than 800 extras were put through their paces during a six-month boot camp led by military expert Paul Biddiss, to help them feel, look and think like soldiers

Ex-paratrooper Paul Biddiss left no detail to chance during the shooting of Sam Mendes' 1917

Ex-paratrooper Paul Biddiss left no detail to chance during the shooting of Sam Mendes’ 1917

Their intention is to help stop the attack and prevent the slaughter of 1,600 British troops, one of them Blake’s brother (Richard Madden).

The gripping two-hour film was shot all in one take and is based in part on an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather Alfred Mendes, who served as a message carrier during the Great War.  

For Mendes, who directed, produced and co-wrote the film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the historical accuracy of the film was just as vital as the breathtaking drama.

The 54-year old turned to historical advisers Andy Robertshaw and Peter Barton to ensure the overall look and landscape of the battlefield were correct, while military adviser Paul Biddiss was called on to provide hands-on training to the actors for the open-air scenes.

Sam Mendes, pictured on the set of 1917, wanted his epic drama to be historically accurate

Sam Mendes, pictured on the set of 1917, wanted his epic drama to be historically accurate

Shot on location in Oxfordshire, Glasgow, Hertfordshire, Darlington and Salisbury Plain, Biddiss ensured every detail had been considered, right down to every helmet, buckle and pair of hobnail boots. 

For the Salisbury shoot, the film crew advertised for local men aged 16 to 35 to audition to become soldiers. 

Biddiss revealed 500 out of the 800 extras recruited were used for the scenes shot at Salisbury alone. 

Over six months and gruelling 12-hour days, the military expert taught them everything from checking their ammunition before they moved off, to thinking and feeling like a soldier fighting from the trenches. 

George MacKay as Schofield, one of two soldiers sent to warn of approaching German troops

George MacKay as Schofield, one of two soldiers sent to warn of approaching German troops

They even looked like First World War fighters, with Mendes asking many of them to grow moustaches – though beards were strictly off-limits.

Speaking to The Guardian, Biddiss, an ex-paratrooper, said: ‘When I watched the footage back each day I tried to find any slip that I possibly could, such as undone ammunition pouches.

‘I also taught them not to put their fingers on the trigger of their guns. Soldiers are trained to do that only when about to fire.’ 

The gripping war drama, out in January, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel MacKenzie

The gripping war drama, out in January, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel MacKenzie

Colin Firth stars as General Erinmore in 1917, which depicts the events of the Great War

Colin Firth stars as General Erinmore in 1917, which depicts the events of the Great War

The ‘soldiers’ were also taught the importance of looking after their boots, as well as the near-fatal consequences for real-life soldiers of the time who developed dreaded conditions, such as trench foot. 

Like Mendes, Biddiss revealed that he too had a relative in the Great War – Lance Corporal Robert Victor Biddiss – who died in battle in December 1917.

He added: ‘It was important for all of us to get it right, not just for Sam, because we all have relatives who fought.’

Director Sam Mendes with actor Andrew Scott, who stars as Lieutenant Leslie in the drama

Director Sam Mendes with actor Andrew Scott, who stars as Lieutenant Leslie in the drama

1917 will be released in the US on December 25, in Australia on January 7, 2020, and in the UK on January 10, 2020.

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22, 2020. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk