RC Sherriff’s 90-year old play remains one of the most striking and poignant representation of war, despite the familiarity created by its permanent place on the school curriculum and regular staging. Journey’s End has also spawned several film versions, but few as stark and compassionate as Saul Dibb’s new version, commissioned to commemorate 100 years since the ultimately futile German advance in the Spring of 1918 that proved to be their last attempt to win the war.
Journey’s End was written at the height of post-war disillusionment with the outcomes of the war, and in 1928 was one of the most enduring literary pieces in a wave of memoirs, novels and treatises that flowed from disappointed veterans between 1925 and 1933. And, Sherriff’s play is one of the most emotional and influential depictions of war, with stage productions often romanticising the characters, and emphasising the inevitable disillusionment of men under fire. But, Sherriff’s text, and the co-written novel which accompanies it, are actually far more nuanced than these readings often suggest, getting right to the heart of the fear and frustration of the men living in horrendous conditions while maintaining a will to continue, unpicking the small bonds of duty and affection that kept them motivated.
Saul Dibb’s new film shows these nuances with an interesting lack of sentimentality, and while there is a growing sense of inevitability, this is a study of the subtle ties of comradeship in the full glare of war, exposing the almost paternal care between junior officers and their men, and the love it fostered, as well as the deep rooted but fragile friendships that existed between individuals sharing a confined space for long periods of inactivity. And this is crucial, while there are some action sequences later in the film, men were not in battle for the entirety of the war, these were brief engagements in seemingly endless periods of waiting and watching, which Dibb’s film accurately recognises and acknowledges.
In March 1918 the Company led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is moved into the Front Line for its 6-day rotation, and as the men prepare their temporary home, the officers set-up in a dugout beneath the trenches. This is also the day that Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a fresh-faced and newly qualified Officer, joins Stanhope’s team eager to be close to the school-boy hero who is engaged to his sister. But Stanhope is no longer the man he was, alcoholic and broken by three years of war, held together by the love of his men, the gentle ministrations of his closet friend Osborne (Paul Bettany) and the knowledge that fighting-on is the right thing to do. Resenting Raleigh’s presence, Stanhope must command the men knowing an imminent attack will test their already tattered endurance, and try to keep them safe for 6 more days.
Journey’s End is a film about the various bonds of loyalty that men form with one another under extreme conditions, and, as Stanhope’s Company move into their new section of trench, Dibb takes the opportunity to show the audience that this dedication is based around personal knowledge of the men you’re fighting alongside. Cleverly, we see the previous Company vacating the area taking everything with them, even the light bulbs, which forces Stanhope’s dugout into a gloomy candle-lit darkness instead. Similarly, as Stanhope inspects the trench structure he comments on the poor-quality workmanship, despairing of his predecessor’s lack of rigour, and later in the film, in an almost throw-away line, Stanhope insists his men build barricades to their left and right because he doesn’t trust his neighbours to hold the line when the attack comes and possibly endangering his own men trapped in the middle.
Instantly, and subtly, Dibb is creating a picture of how trust and devotion were formed in the trenches, not based on reputation or achieved automatically because you’re all on the same side, but by hard-won personal knowledge and interaction with the men under your command. Stanhope doesn’t rely on the nearby Companies because the long experience of war has taught him that the limited power he has is with the men he sees daily, everyone else is unknown and untested. He uses the condemnation of other soldiers to help unite his men, to show them that others are slovenly and less skilled, so his own men will feel superior. And they love him for it.
Sam Claflin’s Raleigh is a beautiful portrait of young man damaged by war and using every ounce of strength to drag himself through each day. Sidestepping the usual caricatured portrayals of snobbish privately educated officers with nasal voices, Claflin is well-spoken but not obscured by his background, a true living breathing man in the most complicated position possible, desperately holding his own nerves and fears in check while motivating his men who rely on him entirely for sustenance.
In his hard-drinking Captain, Claflin performance is a study in the damaging effects of war, a man clinging on by his fingertips in private but putting on a brave and paternal face for the soldiers who rely on his stability in the trenches. But down in the dugout, Claflin’s Stanhope has an interesting self-awareness that is not only open about his weakness and dependence on whiskey, but is conscious enough to be embarrassed by it in front of someone from his past. Throughout the film, Claflin must walk a difficult line between repulsion and sympathy, aware the audience will dislike his harsh treatment of Raleigh, but knowing it comes from his own inability to cope with the duality of his position. And Claflin is excellent at keeping the viewer onside, he’s softened by gently and comfortingly patting the legs of his men going over the top with an affectionate father’s care, while bringing real pathos to the later scenes as events overwhelm him in what becomes an increasingly moving struggle for self-control.
Paul Bettany is very well-cast as the gentle Osborne, a calming and steadfast presence who welcomes the new recruit while providing sage advice to the longstanding officers. He is a gentle soul, and Bettany’s restrained performance implies a Regular whose soldierly experience pre-dates the war he’s currently fighting, and so is outwardly able to cope more quietly than the other men. Yet Bettany takes the chance to reveal his silent fear when asked to lead a raiding party in an intimate private moment that unveils the charged human emotion under the deliberately placid surface.
Surrounding them are a believable group of Officers and men who feel like a close and trusted unit. Asa Butterfield’s Raleigh is suitably wide-eyed and excitable, in what now seems the most cliched role (a cliché Sherriff helped to invent of course), and although he has less to do than the senior soldiers in terms of his inner struggle, charts the rapid disillusionment with the war and his hero well. The ever-excellent Toby Jones adds texture as the cook, grasping much of the film’s bewildered humour, while Tom Sturridge does what he does well playing a young officer who’s reached the limit of what he can bear.
In fractionally opening-up the film to include the trenches, it adds necessary context to Sherriff’s original play, and Dibb manages the transition between cast interaction and the spare war scenes extremely effectively. Spurious comparisons have been made with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but Journey’s End is a different kind of film, character-led rather than action-based like Dunkirk, which lends the two fighting sequences greater tension having invested in the people first.
Designer Kristian Milsted has avoided an obviously distressed setting which often makes First World War trench systems look a little artificial on stage and screen, and instead with Laurie Rose’s stark cinematography, has created something that looks genuinely worn, full of damp wood, years of disrepair and the kind of realistic mud that makes you think the actors might genuinely get trench foot.
This version of Journey’s End is ultimately about comradely love, about true bravery and the process of disillusionment not just with the experience of war but with the unreal heroes of youth. Dibb’s key accomplishment is to show that the romanticised version of valorous men being sacrificed for an inch of land is less than half the story; instead the First World War was full of flawed and complex humanity, suffering physically and emotionally, struggling to get through each day. With wonderful central performances from Sam Claflin and Paul Bettany the true experience of the Great War soldiers is writ large on the screen, and finally bringing the full meaning of Sherriff’s seminal text to life.
Journey’s End was premiered at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on the 2 February 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1