Saul Dibb’s latest proves an alarmingly relevant release in the centenary year of the end of the First World War.
Journey’s End, a play penned in 1919 by World War One veteran RC Sherriff, was first performed just over a decade after the armistice. Back then, the play’s focus on the psychological ravages of war and the sheer nonsensicality of its human losses had, like the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, stood out as a radical corrective to the rose tint that colored popular reception of the war. Saul Dibb’s new film adaptation — which will be released in March to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Spring Offensive (during which it’s set) — is equally forthright in its anti-war sentiment.
Rumored to have been put into production after intervention from the UK’s Prince Andrew, Dibb’s version, adapted by Simon Reade (Private Peaceful), marks one of the first cinematic re-tellings of the story since a 1931 German adaptation starring anti-Nazi protestor Conrad Veidt, which was banned in its country of production following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
Journey’s End keeps the features of Sherriff’s work that the Nazis found so disagreeable 85 years ago: its historically accurate depiction of life in combat and an accompanying sweeping anti-war message. It’s fair to say screenwriter Reade hasn’t put the film’s source material through anything like the kind of plot modernization mills that so many movies based on century-old sources are often subject to. There is, after all, much sense in not tampering with a piece of work that remains as popular and persistently affecting as the play and accompanying novel.
Journey’s End follows the uneasy reunion of two childhood friends — the young Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) and the older Stanhope (Sam Claflin) — in the last year of the First World War. We meet Raleigh first, who looks far too young to be in the Army (as so many soldiers tragically were at the time). Soon, we learn that he’s as green behind the ears as appearances would suggest. When he arrives in France having never served in combat before, Raleigh asks a high-ranking uncle of his to pull some strings and have him placed with Stanhope (now a captain), whose company are just about to fulfill their monthly duty of serving on the front line for six days. After his uncle gently hints that now wouldn’t be a good time to join a front line company — the British Army is expecting a big German attack anytime soon — Raleigh chirpily insists that that’s just the sort of action he’s looking for.
Nearly a century after the armistice and countless films later, we have been made well aware that youthful naivety was one of the first casualties of World War One. Raleigh comes face to face with this reality in his first meeting with Stanhope, whom he finds a changed man (for the worse). The arrival of an old friend ought to put Stanhope at ease, but Raleigh’s surprise appearance has the opposite effect. There’s something that terrifies Stanhope more than German bombs, and Raleigh’s presence threatens to bring it to light. What begins as a bad temper problem for Stanhope soon becomes unbridled paranoia, with Butterfield doing particularly well at conveying his character’s innocent bewilderment at the reaction he’s provoked.
The Captain is nearly always drunk, although several compassionate scenes in which he proves himself a responsible leader for his men demonstrate that there’s a strong moral character somewhere beneath the currents of whiskey drowning him from the inside out. Claflin does well in the role (which was, at one point, tipped to be filled by Benedict Cumberbatch), playing his character like an overworked muscle in a soldier’s uniform: all taut and tense, and prone to unpredictable paroxysms at any given moment.
The reason for his erratic mood is that Stanhope’s company have arrived at the front to find their assigned trenches in a shambolic state. Heavy damage has left them prone to collapse, and everything of value (crucial lanterns included) has been requisitioned by other companies. Deft camerawork from Laurie Rose emphasizes this unspoken metaphor: the trenches are a pitch-dark and lonely place, where soldiers are sent to carry out the unrealistic demands of middle-aged men who are safely cloistered out of harm’s way.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Stanhope and his men have been left without pepper to help make their dubious meals of mystery meat and “yellow flavor” soup remotely palatable. Likeable head chef Mason (Toby Jones) does his best to buoy up the officers — including an excellent Paul Bettany as the tragic “Uncle” figure and Stephen Graham as the easy-going Trotter — with as many home comforts as he can, including a never-ending stream of that classic English curative: tea. (Even if it does taste a bit “oniony.”)
There isn’t much action to speak of in Journey’s End, which is striking for a war film. But this is a movie about time and the nerve-shredding, claustrophobic nature of waiting. In the end, the horror to come is only marginally worse than the interminable build-up. Stretching 100-plus minutes over just four days of action, Reade’s screenplay maintains a smart sense of theatricality that feels both authentic to its original medium and right for this new form. There’s a lot of atmosphere-building required to pull this off, and thanks to a neurotic performance from Claflin and several solid supporting turns (Bettany’s being a standout), Dibb’s movie is dramatic without ever feeling too stagey. Rose’s mud-caked cinematography also pairs nicely with ominous music from Hildur Guðnadóttir and Natalie Holt, replicating in sight and sound the nervous tension the men feel in their long wait for the Germans’ attack.
As a product of the burgeoning anti-war counterculture of its period, Sherriff’s play was decades ahead of its time, and probably would be if it was written today, too. Saul Dibb’s film version works similarly as both a historical document and as a contemporary caution, although some of its more dated elements — such as cruel jokes made by well-spoken officers at the expense of working-class characters — do come off as casualties of the movie’s faithful approach to its source material. Whatever its flaws, however, Journey’s End proves a scarily (if depressingly) pertinent release in the centenary year of the First World War’s conclusion.
Journey’s End opens in US theaters on March 16.