1917 Director Sam Mendes Explains Why War Movies Are Always So Popular

William Schofield (George MacKay) standing and watching an explosion in 1917

As the Oscars approach, there’s been considerable buzz surrounding 1917, and the increasing likelihood that it may pick up some of the night’s biggest awards. The momentum has translated into box office success for the World War I movie, too. And director Sam Mendes has a pretty good idea what’s driving 1917’s popularity.

Thus far, much of the conversation surrounding 1917 has been focused on its unique cinematic feats. Namely, the fact that it unfolds as though it’s been filmed in one continuous take, aka the one-shot approach. Sam Mendes has spoken to why the movie chose this approach, as well as how the creative team was able to make it happen. He’s also alluded to the personal inspiration he tapped into when deciding to make 1917. And in a recent interview with Kino+, he explained why he thinks his Golden Globe-winning film is striking a chord with audiences:

The reason, I suppose, that you make a war movie or you go and see a war movie is because it’s one of the few situations where human beings are pushed to the absolute extreme of what they are capable of doing. You’re looking to try to find a way to define the human condition. And this is human beings at their most naked, their most stripped away. Not only that, but millions of men in this war had the same experience. So it seems that if you’re any kind of an artist you have a sort of duty to try and answer the big questions: Why these things happened and perhaps make an audience understand in a visceral way-- feel it rather than just think about it.

If Hollywood history is anything to go by, Sam Mendes may be onto something. 1917 recently crossed the $100 million threshold domestically, and joined a host of other war films like Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper, Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down in finding tremendous box office success. These movies run the gamut in terms of the wars they cover, which definitely speaks to Sam Mendes’ theory that war movies have a universal appeal because they all represent a very real, human experience.

The director made a conscious choice to tap into that feeling when he was casting 1917. He purposely chose actors that were not well known to play the main characters so that the audience would be able to get invested in those characters without seeing them, first and foremost, as movie stars. That seems to further prove his point, because 1917 has become a hit despite its minimal Hollywood star power.

1917 is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. We’ll find out if the visceral impact Sam Mendes strived for made an impact on Oscar voters when the ceremony airs on February 9, 2020.

Katherine Webb