A report by David Sanderson for the London Times.
A century later his wartime role has inspired his grandson, Sam Mendes, to create his First World War epic, 1917.
The Oscar-winning director revealed yesterday how his grandfather would run through the mist, which drifted across no man’s land at approximately 5ft 6in, to take messages from post to post. Mendes said that he had then struggled to find a story involving a message that he could explore on film in 1917, which is due for release in Britain next month.
“The story my grandfather told me was about carrying a message but the problem with the First World War generally is that it is a war of paralysis,” Mendes said. “One of the reasons it is not as represented in movies as the Second World War is that the nature of war was quite static.”
During his research at the Imperial War Museum archives he encountered the 1917 German retreat to the Hindenburg Line which meant, according to Mendes, that the “British were cut adrift in a land they had literally spent years fighting over”.
The director enlisted Krysty Wilson-Cairns as co-writer, the cinematographer Roger Deakins and an ensemble cast including Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden.
The film is presented as one continuous shot, although Deakins conceded yesterday that the longest single take was about nine minutes.
The production team revealed some of the more unexpected problems they encountered, including that the size of people’s heads has increased during the past century.
Pippa Harris, Mendes’s long-time collaborator, said that for authenticity they wanted to have hundreds of extras wear Brodie helmets.
“There are very few of those left and clearly you are not going to put them on a bunch of extras in a film,” she said. “The costume department had to make them but when they did they realised that people now are so much bigger. When you put these helmets on their head, they look all out of proportion. They had to scan the original helmets and then scale them up.”
Then there were the difficulties that Scott had in using a cigarette lighter during his three-minute cameo, which had to be shot in one take. Describing it as “lighter-gate,” Mendes said: “Andrew, in his only scene, made more mistakes than anyone else. You can have seven minutes of magic but if someone trips or the lighter does not work, then you have to start again.”
While the ensemble includes acting heavyweights such as Cumberbatch and Firth, the lead roles are taken by the relative unknowns George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.
Mendes said the casting coupled with the cost — increased by the desire for the feel of a single, continuous shot — made it a risky venture.
Chapman said that a photograph of a soldier with “a relaxed mannerism” that he had seen on a studio wall inspired his depiction of his character. Mark Strong, who plays a captain, said he had been inspired to use a stick after seeing a photograph of another soldier using one in the same studio.
Mendes said that while his grandfather’s stories had inspired him, he had wanted to “honour the men and civilians who fell on all sides”.
“It happened to be two British soldiers but could have easily been two German soldiers,” he said of the characters. “It was about he experience of war and not the historical moment. Through the micro you only begin to understand the macro, the detail of one man’s experience, you see the panorama of death and destruction.”