Steven Spielberg & Sam Mendes to Direct WWI Film Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

 
 
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Sam Mendes is working on a new film based on World War I. Titled 1917, it was recently announced that it will star Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden. Spielberg is set to be the film’s producer.

Previously announced as appearing in the movie were George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman who will both play British soldiers in the movie.

However, the title, the release date, and the cast are pretty much all we know about this movie. The storyline remains a closely guarded secret.

What has been revealed is the information that the plot is going to follow British soldiers during a single day at the apex of WWI, but there were so many crucial battles in WWI, it’s anyone’s guess which day and which battle might form the basis of the movie.

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).
A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).

The Imperial War Museum lists ten battles that were the most significant ones in the First World War. Given that the title of the movie is 1917, we can rule out any that happened earlier.

So, it definitely won’t focus on Gallipoli which ended in January 1916, and it won’t be set during the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of WWI which ran from February to December 1916. The Battle of the Somme is also ruled out since, despite being key conflict, it finished in November 1916.

 

It’s also unlikely to deal with the German Spring Offensives, the Battle of Amiens, or the Battle of Megiddo, since all of them took place in 1918.

Our money is one day from the Third Battle of Ypres which ran from July 31 to November 10, 1917, most likely the final battle at the village of Passchendaele.

Battle of Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele

Sir Douglas Haig was in charge of this offensive. His key goal was to capture an important rail junction at Roulers. Taking this strategic position would not only threaten the German position in Flanders but it would also undermine the serious U-boat threat that was plaguing Britain at that time.

Although his men managed to take Passchendaele Ridge on November 10, they were still unable to secure that all important railway prize. The offensive was ultimately called off, and faith in Haig hit a national low point. Many soldiers were demoralized at having fought so hard for little strategic gain.

While the battle at Passchendaele is probably the most well-known battle of 1917, there are still several others which might serve as a backdrop to Mendes’s film.

British Vickers machine gun crew during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, World War I.
British Vickers machine gun crew during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, World War I.

Before Passchendaele, the British fought the Battle of Messines, trying to capture the German defences on the ridge which gave commanding views of the British defenses. Nineteen mines were detonated beneath German lines, devestating the German defenses above. Such a scene, filled with tension and special effects, is surely going to appeal to a director like Mendes.

Then there’s the Battle of Arras running from April 9 to May 16, 1917. Although it ended in a stalemate, it started out with the British achieving the longest advance since trench warfare had begun. Such success followed by such frustrating failure to advance further sounds like the perfect psychological setting for a war movie.

The Battle of Arras, April-may 1917.
The Battle of Arras, April-may 1917.

The Battle of Arras also started with the Battle of Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917. However, the main heroes of this were the Canadian Corps in the First Army, rather than the British. Given the stellar British cast, it wouldn’t seem politic for Mendes to chose this encounter as the basis of his movie. Furthermore, the precious few details suggest the focus will be on British soldiers.

While we might not know the exact setting, we know the cast list and some of the crew details of the movie. Given the line up both in front of and behind the camera, this period of history is going to be in good hands.

Canadian machine gunners on the plateau above VImy Ridge
Canadian machine gunners on the plateau above VImy Ridge

The movie was written by Mendes with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and also stars Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Nabhaan Rizwan, and Claire Duburcq. Principal photography begins next week with shooting locations in England and Scotland.

The composer will be Thomas Newman who previously scored the films Skyfall, Road to Perdition, and American Beauty. The film is being produced by Mendes, Pippa Harris (Mendes’s partner at Neal Street Productions), Jayne-Ann Tenggren, and Callum McDougall.

British infantry moving forward near Mailly-Maillet to meet the German advance during the German Spring Offensive.
British infantry moving forward near Mailly-Maillet to meet the German advance during the German Spring Offensive.

Mendes’s first feature film was American Beauty which was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Pictures through their Dreamworks label along with his films Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. 1917 marks his return to Dreamworks. This will be his second war movie after 2005’s Jarhead.

Sam Mendes. Photo: Richard Goldschmidt / CC BY 3.0
Sam Mendes. Photo: Richard Goldschmidt / CC BY 3.0

Mendes may be hoping for some luck in returning to Dreamworks. American Beauty won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It is one of the rare times a director won for his first film. Only five others have accomplished the feat: Delbert Mann, Jerome Robbins, Robert Redford, James L. Brooks, and Kevin Costner.

Steven Spielberg. Photo: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0
Steven Spielberg. Photo: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0

Mendes is also known for having directed the last two James Bond movies, Skyfall in 2012 and Spectre in 2015.

Mendes began his directing career in stage productions. He directed Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard and won a Critics Circle Award for Best Newcomer. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company where he directed Ralph Fiennes in Troilus and Cressida.

When the Donmar Warehouse reopened in London, he became the artistic director. He directed a revival of Cabaret there which won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.

In 2000, he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C. B. E.) for his services in the area of drama.

Read another story from us: Rin Tin Tin: The WW1 Dog Who Became a Film Star.

Benedict Cumberbatch will be familiar to viewers after his starring role in the Sherlock series and portraying Dr. Strange in the Marvel movies. Fans of Sherlock will, of course, also be familiar with the name of Andrew Scott, who played Jim Moriarty in the BBC series.

Benedict Cumberbatch joins the movie. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Benedict Cumberbatch joins the movie. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Colin Firth won the 2011 Best Lead Actor Oscar for his work in The King’s Speech. He has also appeared in the Kingsman movies and Mary Poppins Returns.

Colin Firth joins the WWI movie. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Colin Firth joins the WWI movie. Photo: Gage Skidmore

George MacKay was previously in Captain Fantastic and Ophelia. Dean-Charles Chapman appeared in Into the Badlands and in the Game of Thrones series where he played the ill-fated Tommen Baratheon.

The film is expected to receive a limited release in the US on December 25, 2019, with a full release on January 10, 2020. It will be released in the UK in January 2020. The release is timed to awards season which gives the movie a chance to pick up some recognition of its own.

Richard Madden will join the movie. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-Sa 2.0
Richard Madden will join the movie. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-Sa 2.0

Which battle do you think is going to be the focus of this much-anticipated movie? If it is the Battle of Passchendaele, which of the cast would you think would make the best Haig?

Read another story from us: WWI Band of Brothers: The Semi-Autobiographical Book on the Desk of Anonymous Movie Director

Colin Firth is the stereotypical Englishman, but perhaps Cumberbatch would be more suited to playing a man who is facing defeat and the destruction of his dreams. Firth might be a better choice as David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister of the time.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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