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R.C. Sheriff’s warhorse drama Journey’s End debuted on the London stage in 1928, a decade after the end of World War I, and now the release of Saul Dibb’s new screen version has been timed to mark the centenary of the so-called Great War early next year. Although well made and acted, the real question surrounding this microscopic look at men enduring the severe pressure of trench warfare is what relevance it may have for a modern audience. The answer is, probably not much. If anything, the film serves to illuminate how very different the British army — or any army — was then, with its class distinctions and comparatively polite conversational modes, and how differently wars are now fought. Not much can be expected of this in theatrical release.
While faithful to its source and catching all the nuances of the differences among its virtually all-male characters, Simon Reade’s sturdy adaptation nudges things along with more velocity than did the evocative but static 1930 film directed by James Whale, just arrived in Hollywood from London after having mounted the original stage production.
Although the end of the war is close at hand, in March of 1918 there is no way to know this for the men of the infantry division sequestered in a dismal foxhole at Mont Saint-Quentin in northern France, where the Brits await a German offensive due to begin, they’re quite certain, in a very few days.
Joining the company just in time for action is baby-faced Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who could have been posted somewhere safer but, due to a school connection, asks to be assigned to the command of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a well-respected officer who’s now succumbing to drink. The third key and senior figure is Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a bookishly intelligent chap who’s just joined the unit and seems by far the steadiest, most reassuring hand around.
Most of this talky and necessarily claustrophobic piece focuses upon how, with the war in its third year, the men try to keep their nerves steady when they know what awaits them above ground on the barbed-wire-strewn edge of the no-man’s-land between them and the Kaiser’s forces. Constant drinking and smoking are practically a given, and then there’s talk and lots of it, sometimes about matters at hand, at others about almost anything else.
What’s most striking to modern ears and sensibilities is how thoroughly antiquated the modes of speech seem. There is a politeness, reserve and implicit acknowledgment of class differences that truly do belong to another world compared to the brash vulgarity and macho bluster of soldiers as depicted onscreen at least from the Vietnam War onward. Add to that the built-in aspect of social structure as defined by the way Britons speak and you have, at least from an American point of view, an odd army hierarchy more seemingly defined by economic background than by rank.
Whatever power and universality Journey’s End possesses today is embedded in its view of all soldiers as mere cannon fodder, mortals sent out to die over arbitrary boundaries due to the delusions of leaders and the imperative of doing your duty to your country. It was never an anti-war play in the most overt and comprehensive pacifist sense, but it does express an unmistakable sense of the tragic dimension of waste in terms of human life, which is where resides its residual continuing poignance.
This is most vividly felt in the character of Osborne, a thoughtful and altogether admirable fellow wonderfully played in an uncharacteristically low-key performance by Bettany. Butterfield has little choice but to play it earnest as the well-off young man too naive to know what he’s in for, while Claflin, in the role originated by a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier onstage, is quite on the nose portraying an intelligent man steadily cracking under pressure, bottle in hand. Toby Jones provides modest humorous relief as the unit’s cook
The claustrophobia is occasionally relieved, if that is the right word, by precarious ventures above ground, one of which costs half the company’s men. Then, inevitably, the long-awaited onslaught arrives and, no matter the outcome, it can only result in massive casualties. Col. Kurtz had a word for it — ”The horror” — but, in this case, the only possible response is, “The waste.”
Director Dibb, production designer Kristian Milsted, cinematographer Laurie Rose and all other production hands combine to convey as strong a sense of the dismal, muddy, smoky and cramped circumstances contributing to the men’s misery. Natalie Holt’s score is very fine, distinctively different than the norm.
Production company: Fluidity Films
Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham, Robert Glenister
Director: Saul Dibb
Screenwriter: Simon Reade, based on the play by R.C. Sherriff
Producers: Guy de Beaujeu, Simon Reade,
Executive producers: Anthony Seldon, Mary Burke, Steve Milne, Christian Eisenbeiss, Adrian Politowski, Bastien Sirodot
Director of photography: Kristian Milsted
Costume designer: Anushia Nieradzik
Editor: Tania Reddin
Music: Natalie Holt
Casting: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
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