Synopsis – Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, it is the story of a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, as they await their fate.
My Take – As a war film buff myself, it’s surprising to realize that there have not been many films based on WWI, especially considering how its successor has been a topic of storytelling for a vast variety of filmmakers around the globe. While Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory remains a highlight, it’s been a while since The Great War was shown in full scope, beyond its serving as a slightly queasy backdrop for last year’s blockbuster DC film Wonder Woman.
Here, the film in discussion is based on a play originally written in 1928 by World War One veteran R.C. Sherriff, whose shared his own experiences of the trenches and provided a revealing account of the men who fought in terrible, oppressive conditions, and the bond they forged. Back then, the play’s focus on the psychological ravages of war and the sheer human losses that stood out as a radical real portrayal to the earlier colored popular reception of the war. However, director Saul Dibb’s film, the fifth film adaptation of the play, following Journey’s End (1930), The Other Side (1931), Aces High (1976), and a 1988 BBC TV film, takes a different approach to last year’s Dunkirk, focusing on the intimate, more personal impact of war, rather than the grander scope, all the while being equally forthright in its anti-war sentiment.
The smoke, the dirt, and the filth of the set and area immediately immerse you into the film, and really make you feel like you’re right there experiencing it. The actors are superb, the sets unsettlingly authentic and with a spellbinding screenplay, despite taking place mainly in a wartime trench, showcases the effects a war can have on a person’s mental state. The plot is quite simple.
Set in the spring of 1918, the story follows Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a squeaky-keen young recruit, who arrives in France having never served in combat before, and requests his high-ranking uncle to pull some strings and have him placed in the company of his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), whose sweetheart is Raleigh’s sister. But when he arrives in the trenches, he finds that Stanhope isn’t the man he remembers.
Hardened to stone by the years of war, he’s a spiky mess who drinks through the day, and who’s furious to see his former pal, mainly as he is leading his company which includes his second in command and former schoolteacher Osborne (Paul Bettany), who the men know as ‘Uncle’; cheery Northerner Trotter (Stephen Graham), semi-competent cook Mason (Toby Jones), and Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who’s even more of a drink-sodden, shell-shocked mess than his commanding officer, into their mandatory six-day tour of positioning in the British trenches of Saint-Quentin in Northern France, with the news that a German attack could come at any moment in the next three days.
Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure, the battalion awaits their certain annihilation, in a battle that kicked off the Spring Offensive, a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides. Here, director Sean Dibb has delivered a tense and very well-executed film that portrays the absolute horror of war and ably demonstrates the weak whiskey-soaked psychosis of men under the most unbearable stress imaginable. In some cases, adaptations of plays are fraught with difficulties and they never transcend the staged nature of the piece, but in this case director Saul Dibb has done an excellent job of using the setup to his advantage. We see the cramped quarters and the mud ridden trenches, with only brief views of the No Man’s Land between the opposing forces, but this is perfect for showing the true nature of the men’s experience as they await their fate.
The feel is appropriately gritty and filthy, and a true sense of how dismal conditions must have been has been captured. Yes, the film is quite a slow burn as it takes time to develop its characters all the while leading up to an inevitable and dreaded battle, especially the final 20 minutes that are absolutely terrifying. The death of innocence, duty and the futility of it all are well explored themes here and the film doesn’t get caught up in the wider picture of the war, but focuses on these personal impacts, showing the true cost, and the loss of a generation. Not just from the sheer number of casualties, but also from the crushing of hopes, dreams and the impact of sheer horror on youthful enthusiasm, as the film expertly weaves tension in its story of a fresh, quite young, officer who proves to be utterly brilliant, yet is dead within his first five days.
The claustrophobia of the trench environment is vividly conveyed not only by the physical surroundings themselves, but by director Dibb’s heavy use of shallow focus close-ups that isolate characters while simultaneously bringing their emotions into acute relief. This is not a film to be dismissed for having a familiar message, considering the different perspectives and varied characterizations (shell-shocked and conflicted captain, loyal and voice of reason “uncle” figure, the somewhat naïve youth, the coward, the comic relief) there is so much more to the film than just saying that, war is hell, far too simplistic a description for what it’s trying to say.
Another good thing about the film was the script, courtesy of Simon Reade. It’s simple and gets everything across but most importantly it creates tension and drama. It is the human drama here that grabs the viewer and won’t let go. It is palpable in its intersection of brutality and humanity. For example, when Raleigh comes face to face with this reality in his first meeting with Stanhope, he finds a changed man. The arrival of an old friend ought to put someone 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. 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.
They know reinforcements, or their only chance is not coming, and worse, they know the enemy is massing for an all-out assault on a particular day. There isn’t much action to speak of in the film, which is striking for a war film. But this is a film 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 around 107 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, with loud, giant explosions and men’s terrible screams, it really gets across the horror of war. Also, evocative and handsome in design, bleakly atmospheric in how things are lit and color scheme and there is a suitably claustrophobic dynamic to the camera work that opens up the action and captures the full horrors of this period.
The music is suitably urgent and melancholic, didn’t find it that intrusive personally. It’s when the film goes over the top that it falls flat. It’s loyal to the play in its underground sequences, but when it finally gets the chance to be properly cinematic, it fails to impress. In the sense, the underground sequences may seem too boxy for an audience looking for battle sequences only. Nevertheless, thanks to the convincing performances by the three lead actors, and indeed the whole cast, the film is successful in creating a fear that is conveyed convincingly to the viewer all while creating a balanced contradiction between the delicacy of the protagonists and the unfiltered rawness of war.
‘The Hunger Games’ star Sam Claflin definitely puts up a strong act. In a brooding and heartfelt performance as Stanhope, Clafin displays a very conflicted character with plenty of meat to him, who despite being pretty unlikeable, plays him to the uttermost of his acting ability and shows us what a powerful and versatile actor he is. Asa Butterfield too does a good job, in a bog-standard loss of innocence role that’s reminder of how young most casualties of war are. Paul Bettany is also wonderful here as the moral compass of the men, someone who’s held on to himself in the face of horror, but overflows with empathy for those who haven’t managed the same. In supporting roles, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham and Tom Sturridge are also quite effective. On the year, ‘Journey’s End’ is a dark and powerful film that is a refreshingly claustrophobic and tragic.
Directed – Saul Dibb
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes