The Great War (World War I) is often overshadowed by World War II. What’s forgotten is not just the legacy and sacrifices of European soldiers, but also the struggles of multi-ethnic laborers and troops (from India, South East Asia, and Africa). Perhaps it is so because the Great War didn’t have a clearly drawn distinction between good and evil, compared to the easily detestable figures of Hitler and Mussolini in World War II. Or may be the death toll statistics (37 million + vs 56 million +) makes us highlight the squalor and inhumanity of one over the other. With four years of brutal trench warfare and use of deadly chemical warfare agent, the destruction and horror World War I brought upon human race was unprecedented. And from a cinematic perspective, the conflict of The Great War is harder to tackle or make it work in dramatic ways, although there have been numerous painstakingly detailed literature and personal accounts. R.C. Sheriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End is one of the classic works of WWI literature, which depicts the daily routines of a platoon of British Soldiers stationed on the horrendous Western Front as they wait for an impending German assault.
Sheriff’s play was well renowned in its time which was first performed in London with Laurence Olivier in the cast. A film version was also made by James Whale in 1930 (shortly before he made his classic work ‘Frankenstein’). Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Francaise) has now brought it back to the big screen for the first time in nearly 90 years. Furthermore it’s a well-crafted adaption that (working from a script by Simon Reade), if not a masterpiece, at least deserves a place in the list of hard-hitting movies tackling the subject of trench warfare. Starting from Abel Gance’s ‘I Accuse’ (1919; which he remade it in 1938), Lewis Milestone’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) and Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’ (1981), the cinematic trenches and dugouts have powerfully told the tales of suffering and undying human spirit. Although it’s been nearly a centennial since the events depicted in Journey’s End occurred, the wounds not simmering and raw, its immersive vision of young and old generations of men caught in the purgatorial landscape deeply conveys the human costs of war, unlike any informational type videos and detailed wikipedia articles.
Journey’s End follows soldiers preparing for battle. It’s a study of their pervasive sense of dread that always soaring in the claustrophobic, rat-infested hell-hole. The narrative focuses on imparting a lived-in experience to the viewers rather than displaying the thrill of battle. It’s very low on bloodletting and there are no images of mutilated, limbless bodies. The sheer unpleasantness confronted in Journey’s End is purely psychological. It’s a compilation of deeply felt exchanges between men who know they are going to die soon; not simply die, but eviscerated by machine guns and shells. That could have been easily turned into a cliché, or the script simply may have failed to elevate the material from its theatrical roots to cinematic medium. But thanks to the tremendous casting and performances, the film rarely seems stagey or boxed-in.
Journey’s End opens few days before what would be later known as ‘Spring Offensive’, the last push by the German to emerge victorious, which of course failed and cost the lives of 800,000 men on both sides. In March 1918, the members of C Company, led by young Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), marched into a muddy trench, somewhere in Northern France. They are to wait there for six days, and if no German offensive takes place another Company would take their place. But the intelligence says the enemy's advance is coming very soon. The handsome but broken Stanhope had been tirelessly working from the beginning of war to protect his men and represses his PTSD symptoms with whisky. He flies into rage over every little thing. However, Stanhope is often assuaged by the presence of his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a former schoolteacher, who maintains his grace even amidst the squalidness and terror. The men belovedly address him as ‘Uncle’.
Fresh-faced officer James Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who is eager to get into the action gets himself assigned to the C Company. He is also friends with Stanhope, whose sweetheart is Raleigh’s elder sister. He is dashing and wants to savor the ‘spectacle’ of battlefield. But he is harshly brought back to earth after witnessing Stanhope’s gradual mental breakdown. Stanhope largely ignores Raleigh, fearing that Raleigh’s sister will know about his sorry state. Rounding up this company’s officer crew are the cheery and resolute Trotter (Stephan Graham) and shell-shocked, mentally-afflicted Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). Another pivotal member occupying the officer quarters in the trenches is docile cook Mason (Toby Jones). The deadline of German attack is fast dwindling. And these soldiers like cancer-ridden patients at a hospice wait for the inevitable; some with a steely nerve and some with a barely concealed rage.
Journey’s End is easily director Saul Dibb’s career best work and far great than his previous cloying war drama 'Suite Francaise' (2014). Raede’s impressive script and Dibb’s visual acuity never makes the action feel stagy, although it mostly takes place inside a single setting. The eventual daylight raid in the play allows Raede to sharply illustrate the nonchalance of the officer class members of the army. When the old Patrician General asks Captain Stanhope to finish the raid before it gets dark and says he wants the results before in time for dinner, the fury kindled within us doesn’t associate wickedness only with the 'foreign' enemy. Even though Sheriff’s play doesn’t include a prominent private soldier character, the whole atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety sadly notes the imminent senseless slaughter of the common soldiers (not just British; even the captured German private remains antsy). Films like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), in attempting to portray the senseless deaths in the battlefield somehow turned the same into a spectacle (with its video-game violence). But Journey’s End purely conveys the psychological unrest of wandering through the mud-squelching trenches. The de-saturated exterior color palette, the gorgeous candle-lit interiors, and the good use of shallow focus close-ups by Dibb and cinematographer Laurie Rose (Ben Wheatley’s regular DP) perfectly embodies the hopelessness of war and the unnerving emotions it brings to surface (also aided by Natalie Holt’s unsettling orchestral score).
There are few stretches in the movie that may feel a bit of a drag for a casual viewer, but for those interested in World War I history (like me) it feels captivating right to the end. There might be nothing surprising in the narrative, and the frustration, pain, and madness of war may have been more supremely depicted in other works of cinematic masters. Yet it’s outstanding cast, and earnest efforts to avoid sentimentality makes Journey’s End one of the profound war-experience cinema in recent times. Stanhope is probably Sam Claflin’s best role. Look out for the scene, where he sends his men to their deaths, his eyes showcase a gamut of emotions within few minutes. To Claflin’s credit, there’s not a tinge of melodrama in his characters’ downward spiral. Paul Bettany’s Osborne is the gently swaying candlelight flame to Stanhope’s forest-fire-like rage. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch Bettany calmly preparing for the worse, while retaining his amicable nature even in the face of futility. The duo genuinely wrings out tears from our eyes, not just for their characters, but also for the countless men who were really thrown to their deaths by the posh officers. Eventually, Journey’s End (107 minutes) isn’t just a dense catalog of battlefront horrors. It also pays tribute to the strength and endurance of human spirit, which naturally outlasts the despicably archaic worldview of apathetic Generals. Altogether, it’s a topnotch war drama sans grandiose spectacle.