1917: Is Tom Blake Based on a Real British WWI Soldier?

In the World War I-centric film ‘1917,’ the narrative revolves around Tom Blake and his fellow Lance Corporal, Will Schofield. The two soldiers remain each other’s sole companions in their foray into enemy territory as crucial messengers for the British army. Although their mission is simple at first glance— delivering the General’s withdrawal commands to a Colonel— the pathway paved for them by the German forces’ abrupt retreat promises a dangerous journey ahead. Nevertheless, as Blake and Schofield hold the fates of hundreds of British soldiers— including the former’s older brother— in their hands, the duo dedicate themselves to their orders despite their various encounters with near-death.

Through Blake and Schofield’s shared experiences, the film charts a journey through a moment in history that realistically reflects WWI’s tragedy. Therefore, since Blake’s narrative remains crucial to the film’s make-up, viewers must wonder about the soldier’s ties to real life. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Tom Blake’s Narrative Blends Reality With Fictional Storytelling

Tom Blake, the central character from ‘1917,’ is an original character created in service of the film. Even so, due to the film’s connections to reality, Blake ends up sharing tangible roots in a real-life counterpart, Alfred Hubert Mendes, whose contribution to the on-screen soldier’s character creation remains evident. Alfred, who served in the British Army during World War I, was the grandfather of Sam Mendes, the director and co-writer behind ‘1917.’ Reportedly, Mendes mined inspiration for his film from the stories he heard from his grandfather about the latter’s time in the army.

In 1916, Alfred received the task of carrying a message across a no man’s land in the dead of winter’s dusk. Years later, after the man shared his account of the same experience— alongside other war stories— it struck a chord with Mendes, who realized he wanted to tell that story to a bigger audience. As such, when it came time for the filmmaker to helm this project, he took inspiration from Alfred’s past to shape his film’s narrative. Consequently, even though Blake’s journey remains distinguished from Alfred’s— from motivations to the outcome— a thread connects the two, cementing the former’s narrative in reality.

Likewise, the reality of the German’s retreat from Northern France to the Hindenberg Line allows Blake’s story to remain harmonious with history even outside of his relation to Alfred. Thus, despite their shared experiences, Blake retains a level of separation from Mendes’ real-life grandfather. As a result of the same, the character gains the ability to reflect a broader reality of the countless WWI soldiers whose names aren’t remembered in the pages of history. Filmmaker Mendes spoke about the same in a conversation with NPR.

“This is a war that finished— that ended over 100 years ago, and we are still so aware of it, and that the generation of men that went missing,” said Mendes. “If you go to the Somme [river in France], you go to these places which are very, very moving — these beautifully kept memorials to the fallen [soldiers]— the number of unmarked graves is what strikes you, just white crosses everywhere. And it struck me as very appropriate, therefore, that the two men [Blake and Schofield] we should follow are unknown, in a sense.”

Consequently, the character’s sense of realism doesn’t remain limited to the aspects of his story that tie him to Alfred. Instead, his narrative becomes reminiscent of the greater unnamed loss and tragedy that the population experienced in the Great War’s aftermath. Notably, a part of the same stems from Actor Dean-Charles Chapman’s preparation for the performance. Alongside his co-stars, Chapman underwent a six-month-long rehearsal due to the film’s fabricated one-shot filming style.

During this time, Chapman and Schofield’s actor George MacKay partook in military and armory training with weapons. As such, the actor’s trained body language adds to his performance, allowing Blake to appear as an authentic soldier. Ultimately, the character maintains his sense of realism through a culmination of these elements. Therefore, despite his fictionality as a character, Tom Blake retains roots in reality.

Read More: Where Was 1917 Filmed?