One of the best-known descriptions of war – variously attributed – is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”. Yet boredom has to travel to terror somehow, and Journey’s End – Saul Dibb’s film of the First World War play by RC Sherriff – spends the bulk of its time in a prolonged state somewhere in between: that of nauseous, coagulating anticipation.
The film is set over four days in March, 1918, in the trenches of northern France: C-company is bracing itself for an expected German offensive. The company is led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) a volatile, saturnine soldier who is hitting the whisky increasingly hard as the pressures of war intensify. His emotions grow more complex when a rookie officer called Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) shows up, having sought out Stanhope’s company. Stanhope was not only Raleigh’s housemaster at school, but is also the suitor of his sister Margaret.
At Raleigh’s arrival, Stanhope is cold and furious. The youth’s rose-tinted vision of war and his old friend are about to be radically altered, and the tormented Stanhope knows it: like a trusting puppy, the lad has trailed him into hell. There in the officer’s dugout already are the wise, stoic Osborne (Paul Bettany), kindly Trotter (Stephen Graham), loud-mouthed, disintegrating Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) and the indefatigable cook, Private Mason (Toby Jones). Each hankers for his own kind of heaven: where Hibbert brags boozily of nights out with “tarts”, Osborne talks about working on his rockery at home with his wife and children. There isn’t a dud performance among them.
Sherriff – who fought at Vimy Ridge and was severely wounded at Passchendaele – knew whereof he wrote. The play’s first production, in 1928, starred a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier. Thereafter it was staged frequently, and was first made into a film in 1930. Film can give us views that the stage cannot: here, the cinematographer’s palette is composed of sludgy greys and browns, in a cheerless landscape of thickening mud and low-hanging clouds. In the dugout the officers talk in heated detail about trivialities – the type of tinned fruit, the pepper missing from the soup – in order to avoid the most serious topic of all, the proximity of death. As Stanhope, Claflin skilfully conveys how his character’s nerves are shredded in the run-up to battle, yet can still somehow be pulled together in a moment to sustain his men: riddled with despair, he retains both courage and charm.
Each day, the hour of the expected German attack moves nearer. A small, morale-boosting raid on German positions is ordered from C-company – two officers, ten men – leaving Stanhope queasy at who might be lost to gain so little. Yet the rigid British army command structure cannot be challenged, as it pastes over the trap with bluff greetings and battle clichés (Siegfried Sassoon’s lines in “The General” come to mind: “‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack/As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack./But he did for them both with his plan of attack.”)
Both Osborne and the inexperienced Raleigh are selected for the raid. In one perfectly pitched scene Osborne – sensitively played by Bettany – gently keeps Raleigh talking about mundanities before they must leave the dugout, to prevent the younger man from sliding into a raw funk. What unfurls in their conversation is not mundane at all, but a little lament for the beauties of peacetime, as Raleigh remembers wistfully how he, his sister and Stanhope “would spend days and days walking in the forest”.
Simon Reade’s screenplay is sorrowfully understated, drawing on much of the original play while opening out the action with some added scenes. The character types – the sage veteran, the boyish romantic – may now be familiar, but they still ring true.
For much of Journey’s End the action is enclosed in the dugout, a setting that feels more theatrical than cinematic. On the occasions when it erupts into battle above ground, an audience still reeling from the visual assault of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk might feel that Dibb could have used film with greater daring to convey the chaos of war. Yet this work is more about claustrophobia than panorama – not the thick of battle, but what is stirred in its approach and aftermath. By that measure, Journey’s End is charged with electricity: I have rarely seen a war film that conveys so powerfully the pained tenderness of comrades, and the insidious creep of fear.
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration