JOURNEY’S END, UK, 2017. Starring Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Asa Butterfield, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones. Directed by Saul Dibb. 107 minutes. No rating available.
Journey’s End was first performed on the London stage in 1928, 10 years after the events that it portrayed, six days in the trenches in March, 1918.
The play was written by R.C.Sheriff who also novelised the play with Vernon Bartlett. In fact, a film version of the play was made in 1930, directed by James to 6 who had directed the play on stage (with Laurence Olivier in the central role – but who was not available for the film version). Whale was to go on to make Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Showboat.
This version comes almost 80 years after the play. The occasion is the centenary of the last year of World War I, once again the events being in March 1918, the expected assault by the Germans in northern France and its being reversed by the Allied troops, leading to the Armistice of November 11, 1918.
There have been a number of striking films about World War I, the psychological trauma effect in King and Country and Regeneration, the incompetency of the authorities in Paths of Glory, the trenches in Turkey in Gallipoli and The Water Diviner, and the Oscar-winning film that came out in the same year as the original Journey’s End, All Quiet on the Western Front.
As regards the portrayal of life in the trenches, this film can take an honourable place. While the opening takes place in San Quentin, in northern France, the British troops at an inn, their assembling and marching towards the trenches (“We’re Here because We’re Here”), going to the one six days, the allotted period for a squad to remain in the trenches before being replaced.
The production design for the trenches is quite powerful, the soldiers walking in the mud and slush, the height of the walls, some of the wood rotting after several years, designed to protect the men from snipers, the paths, the beds and bunks, the officers’ mess and kitchen. The audience is immersed in the trenches along with the men.
This film focuses on a group of officers although the men are seen assembled and, eventually, a squad of ordinary soldiers have to go over the top on a mission to capture a German soldier from their trenches in order to interrogate him and get information about the expected German assault.
We are introduced to a genial older officer, Osborne, who explains to the new recruit, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), just come from school, asking his uncle, a general, to be assigned to the squad of the prefect that he admired at school, that most of the men call him Uncle. He is played very sympathetically by Paul Bettany – a listener, a man who can calm situations. However, the central character whom we have already seen marching at the head of his men out of the village is Stanhope, three years on service in France, brooding, the victim of wear and tear and responsibility, drinking heavily. He is dismayed that Raleigh, whose sister he had courted, should come and be a witness to his deterioration. Sam Claflin gives a powerful performance.
There are some intense scenes with Stanhope and his clashes with Raleigh, his demands on a fearful officer, Hibbard (Tom Sturridge), being supported by Osborne. However, there is some real light relief for the audience as well as the officers, including Stanhope, with the ever-ready cook, coping with the supplies (mysterious couplets and tins of pineapple which actually contain apricots), a likeable performance by Toby Jones.
The screenplay contains a great deal of the dialogue from the play and the 1930s film version (which is far more talkative and runs longer than this version). But, the action does come, Osborne and Raleigh chosen to go over the top to capture the German, heavy fire, heavy casualties though mission accomplished.
While there is a moment of peace as the audience sees Raleigh’s sister at home reading his complimentary letter about Stanhope, the final image is aerial, over the devastation and destruction of the trenches, the information about the German advance, its being repelled, the memory of the horrifying statistics of so many millions, allies and Germans, killed during World War II.
Direction is by Saul Dibb who made the entertaining historical film, The Duchess as well as a gritty story of East London, Bullet Boy.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.