1917: anthem for doomed youth
Forget Firth and Cumberbatch. Sam Mendes’s award-winning First World War blockbuster is all about the young actors on a life-or-death mission between the trenches – and Dean-Charles Chapman is the Essex lad leading from the front.
Dean-Charles Chapman knows all about family trauma and teenage death. Of course he does: he was in Game of Thrones.
In the blockbuster fantasy series the Essex-born actor played wan young prince Tommen, son of incestuous parents Cersei and Jaime Lannister, and junior sibling of evil twat Joffrey and doomed sap Myrcella.
Chapman starred on the show between the ages of 15 and 18 and, over the course of 16 episodes, watched his siblings peg it (both poisoned). He also witnessed the death of his wife Margaery Tyrell. She had been his brother’s widow, which was rather awkward. Even more so when his mum incinerated Margaery – alongside a priest or ten – in a wildfire explosion. As honeymoon periods go, Tommen’s was brutally short.
Less than pleased at mommie dearest’s treatment of his new bride, Tommen threw himself out of a window. And they all lived unhappily ever after (especially after watching GoT’s final series).
“Do you know what?” begins a frowning Chapman as he reflects on his sudden exit from the show. “I didn’t know how it was gonna go until I got that episode. At first I was a little bit gutted. I thought: ‘I fucking wish it was better.’ I thought it was shit. When I first read [the script] I thought: ‘What the fuck?’”
He adds that he wanted “more” for Tommen’s character – death by combat or, at least, keep up family tradition and succumb to death by poisoned wine or kiss.
“But that was who he was – he was a bit of a pussy and he didn’t get things done. But after filming, I was just so depressed and I felt like a bitch. I was like, what the fuck? And then later on, now I’ve done other stuff. I realise that’s what acting is.”
To be fair to the cheerful, broadly Essex-accented 22-year-old, he’d already done plenty of “other stuff”. Aged 10 he was starring in London’s West End, appearing in the stage musical Billy Elliot, a rotating gig he had till he was 14. In 2012 Chapman also had the lead role in CBBC series The Revolting World of Stanley Brown.
But it’s his latest “other stuff” that really showed him what acting is, what death is, and the true – not fantasy – nature of carnage.
In epic new British film 1917 Chapman plays a teenage British soldier, Blake, stuck, like millions of other young men, in the muddy trenches of the Western Front in war-torn France. He’s dispatched on a do-or-die mission by a general (Colin Firth): deliver a message to a colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s about to lead 1600 men into a German trap. One of those men is a lieutenant (Richard Madden) who happens to be Blake’s brother.
Blake must cross perilous no man’s land accompanied by a fellow lance-corporal, played by fellow English rising star George MacKay. On the way they encounter more officers played by more hefty Brit thesps: Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Danny Mays.
But the film, and the story, is about the two youngsters. This First World War drama, directed by Sam Mendes (he did the last two Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre) is obviously brutal and obviously brilliant. The sense of ticking-clock jeopardy is amplified by 1917’s being shot – or, more accurately, being seen to be shot – in one continuous take.
Chapman spoke to us in London a few weeks before 1917 took the two big honours at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles (Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama). He talked about the challenges of playing an 18-year-old soldier who, only a few weeks previously, was working on his family’s farm, and about the realities of warfare a century ago (ill-fitting helmets, shin splints and stinky woollen shirts were only the half of it). And he explained what he’d learned about the horrors faced by teenage squaddies caught up in mechanised slaughter that killed some 20 million mostly young men.
Going into 1917, did you read up on what guys your age had faced in France?
“Yes, 100 per cent. Before I started this film, the only thing I knew about the First World War was the trenches. I knew more about the Second World War, actually. But the research on it – you could probably spend your whole life looking at diaries and letters and video footage and pictures.
“I read a book called The Western Front Diaries, which is snippets of diary entries from the soldiers. They’re very truthful – they’re literally writing about the smallest of things, even if it’s just about how hungry they are, or missing home.”
They were conscripts and they were mummy’s boys…
“Yes. And that’s what shocked me about the whole thing: how young they were. If I’d been born then, I’d have gone to war, you would have gone to war, everybody was a part of it. And generations were wiped out. Streets of men were just gone. So it’s important to remember the men who fought. And in that book, my great-great-grandfather had a diary entry.”
And you didn’t know that?
“No. His name’s David Henry Pierce. But what I done is, I asked my mum and dad about our ancestors. They asked the question to my grandad and that’s how we found out. They didn’t even know his entry is in that book. He talks about how he fought in the cavalry. He mentions that he got shot and paralysed when he was in no man’s land. And he laid out in no man’s land for four days… Anyway, he survived the war and worked in the first poppy factory that opened, in Richmond, until he died. And having that connection, knowing the story of my ancestors made me connect it more to my character and the story we were trying to tell.”
How old was he?
“I think he was 24. There’s pictures in there of him and his family. But that’s one thing I hope people take away from watching this film: I hope it inspires them to look at their ancestors. It’s important to know and that shouldn’t be lost in history, it should be remembered – every war, but particularly the First World War. It was so brutal and it was only kids.”
Did you and George do research together?
“Yeah, we went to France and Belgium, looking at all the war graves. You’d be walking through and see the ages: 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. You’d think: ‘I’m fucking 22. I wouldn’t have the balls to do what they did and they were fucking younger than me.’”
And you thought filming Game of Thrones was tough…
“Yeah! But you know what, there were obviously tough days filming this – I had shin splints during filming. I was in agony. I’ve got flat arches anyway, and the boots that the soldiers wore were so flat, they had no support and had really hard soles.”
The production was that authentic?
“Yes, everything. Everything in that costume was legit. And it was the impact of running around on the mud, so slippy, you could barely get your bearings to try to walk. And that gave me shin splints, and I’ve still got it. It kills me. But you couldn’t complain during the filming because you’ve got it a million times easier from what the boys had it.”
Is it true that these days people’s heads are bigger, so the authentic army helmets you initially had didn’t fit?
“Yeah. I didn’t even know that until the other day. Things like that you wouldn’t think of, and you can’t really see it on screen, it just looks normal.”
So people were smaller, and the conscripts were far from the professional, ripped, kitted-out soldiers we see today.
“No, they weren’t. I mean, compared to the soldiers today. We had a military advisor, Paul Biddiss, who helped us with training and military drills. He must be 6ft [he’s six-foot-two and an ex-Para – Military Advisor Ed]. He’s built like a house – you think, God, wouldn’t want to try it! But as you say, compared to them boys… And literally, all they had on them was the rifle they got given. They weren’t marksmen. They were just young boys with their kit, all their ammo. And what blew me away with them outfits that they wore, they would have everything on them: the salt, pepper, knife, forks, dinner plates, mess tins. You think: why would you send a soldier over the top with all that? They’ve got enough weight as it is! Why would you send them out of the trenches with dinner plates as well?”
And their uniforms were cloth, which soaked up the rain and mud and blood…
“And it smelt! I don’t think George had it but I had a woollen jumper that was real wool, and it stank. It literally stunk of sheep! It smelt like it had just been knitted. But even that smell as an actor, being in the trench and seeing all the extras with all their gear on as well, it automatically puts you in that zone.
“It just helps your performance so much. It makes you stand a certain way, act a certain way. Never did we feel like we were making a film because the nine- or 10-minute long takes we were doing, you’d just get completely lost in that story and in the character. It wasn’t until I watched the final cut of the film that I thought: Ah, that’s what we were doing.”
Why, in 2020, should an 18-year-old like Blake, or a 22-year-old like you, go and see a war film set 103 years ago?
“It’s not like any other movie. You genuinely feel like you’re there with these men. Also, the First World War: people should remember it. But it’s not an educational film – it’s this story told on a very human level. And I think any age, especially the younger generation, will connect with it because people their age were in that war. People mine and George’s ages. But I think any age people will connect with it [because] of the themes. It’s about friendship, death, life and death and sacrifice. And because of the way Sam shot it, it’s an immersive experience.”
Have your mum and dad seen it?
“They watched it at the London premiere the other night.”
What was their reaction?
“They were very, very sad. And my mum said: ‘I feel depressed after watching that.’ But it’s because you’re so caught up in the whole rollercoaster. It’s a lot to take. But nothing like what it was for them lads going through it.”
1917 is in UK cinemas on Friday 10th January