The Real History of 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns

The screenwriter walks us through real events that inspired 1917, and her thoughts on supposed Lord of the Rings allusions.

Real History of 1917 World War I Movie

Krysty Wilson-Cairns is quick to describe herself as a history nerd. She happily said as much when we first met several months ago to discuss 1917, and she recalled childhood afternoons watching World War documentaries in her grandfather’s Glasgow den. Yet this interest is more than just a passing curiosity.

When director Sam Mendes called Wilson-Cairns with the idea for 1917—a First World War film that he already knew would be filmed to appear as a single, uninterrupted shot—her next stop was obvious: the personal storage space filled with World War I history books and journals that she’d been meaning to dive back into for years. And after that the Imperial War Museum in London. All of it would come to inform the brief but harrowing epic she and Mendes would co-write together.

Speaking to her again in December, after seeing 1917’s taut terror for ourselves, that passion for the past that first caught Mendes’ attention is obvious. Prior to 1917, Wilson-Cairns was a staff writer on Penny Dreadful, the Victorian horror series on Showtime. In a way it makes for an interesting companion piece to 1917, which documents the end of the world presented in that more fantastical series. But as Wilson-Cairns is quick to point out, those who draw parallels between fantasy and history—like the many reviews that have noted 1917 faintly resembles Lord of the Rings due to J.R.R. Tolkien’s own WWI service—are attempting to deny how real these events are. We talk about that and more, including her next film with Edgar Wright, Last Night in Soho, which is set in the swinging London of the 1960s, below. 

When we last spoke, you said you needed to run out to your storage space to get your collection of World War I books. Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m curious what specifically were you looking for in order to tell this story?

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Krysty Wilson-Cairns: So the things I was looking for were the firsthand accounts, essential war diaries, basically what it was like from a single person’s point-of-view by surviving the First World War. So I knew the history, I knew the kind of big moves the countries had made, and the battalions had made, but what I was really looking for were specifics for what it was like to be there as a human being.

I know at that point in the writing process, Sam had written his ideas for the film on something like napkins or post-it notes. How were you able to come into that kind of a free-flowing process and give it both order and narrative depth?

Sam is very collaborative, so he brought loads of ideas and I brought loads of ideas, and then we sat down and we picked the best one. And then together we crafted the story and chose the characters, and what we were really trying to do was tell a very intimate character driven story in the backdrop of this huge, massive, ghastly war. So our mission statement was to make it as intimate as possible, to make it as firsthand as possible. In a way we wanted the script, and then eventually the film, to feel like 108 minutes in someone else’s life.

I know that Sam says the film isn’t directly based on his own grandfather’s experiences, but did the two of you ever discuss stories he remembered hearing as a child and use those as an inspiration?

Oh yeah, massively. I mean even though this isn’t a film about Sam’s grandfather, it’s not based on Sam’s grandfather’s life, it was massively inspired by what LCpl Alfred Mendes went through. So much of the ideas and images and you know, scenes in Sam’s head were drawn from those stories he heard when he was a young boy, and then of course he shared all of them with me so that I could have this unique understanding of it. It was my job to help it be realized.

Do you remember picking something specifically out of those stories and incorporating it into the script?

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No, we never really took anything directly from the stories. It was more a character that we took from the stories. I suppose the one image that Sam had was this overriding idea that back in 1917 he had an image of a man carrying a letter through No Man’s Land, and that sort of was the beginning of this movie for Sam. And of course when I [came aboard], it was the beginning of understanding what the movie would be for me.

read more: 1917 Review – A War Movie Like No Other

You say No Man’s Land, and to me that was one of the most chilling sequences. I’m thinking of when George sticks his hand in a corpse with rats in it. Do you view death itself as kind of a character in this film?

Yeah, even though it’s a very real film, it is entirely based in reality, there’s a lot. Nature’s a character, death is a character, luck is a character. Time is an antagonist. There’s a lot of metaphorical explorations of what it was to be a soldier, of what the enemy was, of what you were fighting against, of what you are fighting for. So even though it takes place in real time, and though it is a very kind of clear action film, we have to just deliver this letter and save these lives, there is a lot of richness and texture to it that we were allowed to play with because we were very ruthless with the plot and how it would be made.

I understand the film is partially inspired by a real military maneuver that occurred.

The retreat to the Hindenburg Line, yes. And that all happened that way. Basically on April 6th, 1917, the British army woke up to find the German army gone. And so, that’s all true. That existed. The German army had planned for many months, if not longer, to withdraw, to fallback. And this was a war where you’ll say that they died over inches, yards of land. And the Germans one day woke up and retreated over 17 miles in places to go back to a better position, strategically, a stronger position.

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And they took what was essentially, to put this in its absolutely simplest terms, many, many miles of lights and guns and men, and put them all into one very tight mile or so concentration of fire force of people that had never been seen before in the war.

Did this lead to a division being wiped out or an English division being endangered if they were giving chase?

It led to much confusion across the board. What happens in the film is fictitious, Sam and I invented it. There was no messenger sent to stop the [2nd Infantry Division]. That’s all invented by us to tell a story in that landscape.

There are moments that you’re touching on here, that look like the veritable end of the world in the movie, like when George runs through the burning village. Do you view the First World War as an apocalypse of sorts for what human civilization had been up until then?

Of course, yes. I mean the First World War was human catastrophe. It was complete human failure that resulted in unimaginable horror. It was the apocalypse in so many senses. Where I grew up in Glasgow, a whole generation of men were lost, so much so that women actually began to work in the shipyards. That is the death toll that we’re talking about, an entire generation. There’s a very famous quote by a writer called [Nancy Cooper] who was an artist in the First World War, she said “Every boy I’d ever danced with was dead.”

Wow.

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And the toll of the war, it was a war of attrition. It was a war that was won by the blood of men and soil. I am not exaggerating when I say that men died over inches. If you look at things like Hill 60 in Belgium where the Canadians suffered horrible loss for empty, meaningless land in a way. Land that was empty fields. And you know, thousands of people died trying to take a hill that you and I could walk off in three minutes. The First World War was awful, it was the worst thing that humanity had done really, and it was the worst thing they had done up to that point. It was a huge colossal mistake that involved the death of millions.

There’s still parts of France a hundred years later that are empty and abandoned called Zone Rouge because too much munitions and chemicals and bodies were dumped over such a small area. A hundred kilometers from Paris, there’s acres that you can’t even access now, that won’t be livable for thousands of years.

I want to go and see it now.

I want to go see it as well but it’s still deadly. You can’t go inside it. [Laughs]

read more: 1917 – Roger Deakins Confronts His One-Take Challenge

What are your thoughts on people who have been drawing parallels between the soldiers in your film and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sam and Frodo going on their mission?

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I mean, I think they are both journey films. I think the difference to me is that what Blake and Schofield go through, soldiers lived through. It really happened, it isn’t fantasy. And even though we, as a society, would like it to feel as if it’s fantasy, to feel like we can flip that far away from humanity, that’s not the case. So the real difference between 1917 and Lord of the Rings is Lord of the Rings is a story, and 1917 is based on real events.

As a change of pace though, how exciting is it to go from 1917 and dive into the swinging London ‘60s in Last Night in Soho?

It’s the favorite part of my job as a writer, you can just flip through time and through space, through reality. It’s really something special. I’m very excited about both of these movies. 1917 I’m so proud of, it’s getting great reviews, and I can’t wait for the world to see Last Night in Soho because it blew me away when I saw some of the sequences. I’m really so happy with it.

Do you consider Last Night in Soho a horror movie?

It’s a tricky question. I’m going to take the Fifth and not answer it. [Laughs]

1917 is in select cities on Christmas Day and opens nationwide on Jan. 10.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.