The play by R.C. Sheriff on which Saul Dibb’s film is based was first staged in 1928 (with a young Laurence Olivier in the lead). It was wildly successful, and first adapted for the screen by James Whale and Colin Clive in 1930, shortly before their far more famous collaboration on “Frankenstein.”
As Dibb’s new version demonstrates, though, while it’s set during World War I “Journey’s End” is no mere period piece. Even after nearly a century, the story of men awaiting almost certain death in the trenches on the western front incisively conveys the horrifying human cost of war, however much soldiers’ manners might have changed in the intervening years.
The tale is set over less than a week in March, 1918, near St. Quentin in northern France. We are introduced to the English-manned trench there through the eyes of green, just-out-of-training Second Lieutenant Jimmy Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, radiating wide-eyed naïveté), who has asked to be posted to the dangerous place in order to serve under Captain Denis Stanhope (Sam Claflin), his former head-boy at their private school and prospective brother-in-law.
Unfortunately, Stanhope has been much changed by his experience in the field. Continuously surly and quickly exhausting the company’s supply of whiskey, he’s not at all pleased to see Raleigh, who reminds him of his former life, and keeps the young man at arm’s length. Raleigh instead finds some solace in a kindly reception from Stanhope’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a mild-mannered teacher. The other officers are of very different temperaments: Trotter (Stephen Graham) is gregarious and apparently carefree, while Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) is a nervous wreck, feigning illness to be sent to the rear. Serving the command’s needs is Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who is often the target of the officers’ barbs.
Hibbert’s desperation is understandable, since intelligence indicates that the long-expected German assault that will come to be known the Spring (or Kaiserschlacht, or Ludendorff) Offensive—a last-ditch attempt to win the war before U.S. forces can be fully engaged–is imminent, and that St. Quentin is where it will begin, with the so-called Michael Offensive. To get more information on the precise time of the attack, the unseen general orders a contingent from the company to cross no man’s land and abduct a German soldier—a mission which Osborne, Raleigh, and ten privates will undertake at considerable cost. It merely confirms that the assault will come shortly, and the company is ordered to hold its ground as long as it can without hope of reinforcement. All the men are, in effect, being condemned to death.
Sheriff’s play had obvious relevance in its day, coming only a decade after the events against which it is set. But at a time when warfare continues across the globe and the inclination to use military force remains strong among those in power, its portrayal of how soldiers can be considered expendable in furthering overarching national goals remains cogent. In essence the point made by “Journey’s End,” both in 1928 and now, is the same one made by another fine World War I film, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Though the soldiers in that instance were French, they were treated in much the same way as the English men depicted here, though Kubrick allowed a note of hopefulness at the end that Dibb—or Sheriff—does not.
It is, in fact, the playwright’s work that remains the strong spine of the film; the screenplay by Simon Reade (who also served as one of the producers) streamlines the dialogue somewhat, but on the whole is extremely faithful, while Dibb and his team of craftsmen—production designer Kristian Milsted, costumer Anushia Nieradzik, cinematographer Laurie Rose, and editor Tania Reddin—have fashioned an atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread even as they keep things moving and manage effective, if small-scaled, action sequences. The unobtrusively mournful score by Hildur Gudnadottir and Natalie Holt adds to the mood of despair.
And the cast is uniformly excellent. Claflin, in the role originated by Olivier, captures Stanhope’s simmering fury well, contrasting him effectively with Butterfield’s anxious, untested Raleigh. Bettany brings a poignantly understated calm to Osborne, and conveys beautifully the combination of fear and resignation he feels when assigned to lead what will likely be a suicide mission. Graham and Jones add a note of stressed normalcy that is welcome, while Sturridge deals as best as one might hope with what is perhaps the most difficult role, of a psychologically damaged man struggling to do what he’s told is his duty in an impossible situation. The lesser roles are all well taken as well.
Like “Paths of Glory,” “Journey’s End” proves that the lessons taught by one of the most destructive wars in human history remain potent today, at least when as well delivered as they are here.