I was born at the tail end of the period of classic British war films that occasionally do the rounds on TV. Some of them have attained an iconic status while others are only remembered by devotees of the genre. These movies have dated quite a bit but retain a period charm difficult to replicate in the modern world. They come from the decade after World War 2 when there was quite an appetite for war movies at a time when the British film industry was both prolific and in good shape.
It was reported recently that the industry is not in such good health at the moment where perennial worries over money sit alongside concerns about maintaining skills, facilities, etc. This has, however, been a bit of a bumper year for British war film fans. Dunkirk came and went with a great deal of hoopla and justly so. I saw it twice and it improved on the second viewing
Now, we go back further in history to World War One and a cinematic version of RC Sherriff’s classic play Journey’s End, the story of four brooding days with a company of the 9th East Surreys holding the front line in March 1918 just as the storm of the German spring offensive, Michael, is set to break over them like a tsunami. The author knew his business and wrote from hard earned experience. His play appeared ten years after the events it depicts and his audience will have been filled with men who recognised themselves and the world they had inhabited. It is not a pretty one.
This film by Saul Dibb is faithful to RC Sherriff and the additional book he wrote with another veteran, Vernon Bartlett. There is no superfluous nonsense attempting to offer a skewed interpretation of the Great War experience but there is a big slice of genuine futility. Happily this is not the sort manufactured by people with axes to grind from the revisionism of the 1960s, but the real thing Sherriff and his comrades witnessed. They saw people die, sometimes pointlessly, for minimal or no gain. This element oozes through the film while we watch the main protagonist falling apart. The other characters are as tragic as they are believable.
The central relationships between Captain Stanhope, played by Sam Claflin, his second in command, Osborne – Paul Bettany and the young Raleigh – Asa Butterfield; are a joy to watch. It is good to see Stephen Graham using his own accent, playing an officer promoted from the ranks; a jovial Scouser lumped in with a bunch of Londoners. His major concerns are food and staying alive. These things happened and the relationships between officers and men are true to the mores of the time. Tom Sturridge’s Hibbert is by turn pathetic and irritating; just as he should be. Toby Jones as Mason is brilliant. The film has no “comedy” Germans or other distractions, what humour there is stems from the inherent truth in Sherriff’s characters.
Claflin’s Stanhope is a man on the edge of the abyss. He has the world on his shoulders as he attempts to hold his men and his own self-discipline together in the face of impending disaster. Understrength and out on a limb, his company have no place to go. Despite past heroics he is on the brink of a breakdown. The very last thing he needs is having his girlfriend’s gung-ho little brother on the scene. The younger man venerates him and struggles with the awful reality his hero is a burnt out shell dependant on whisky to get through his day. Stanhope’s effort to supress his fears see him clash with fellow officers as he lashes out at all and sundry.
The real joy of the movie is its theatrical feel. Vistas are narrow and claustrophobic. There are no glorious wide shots or tricks. We see things in real time and space. Every scene closes in around the viewer as they stand at the shoulder of the character in question taking in what he can really see beyond the parapet and through the wire. While there is plenty of sentiment it is not phoney. The resignation of men about to die is powerful and might make your stiff upper lip quiver. I know people who would blub at this stuff and warn them to take plenty of hankies when they go to see the movie.
The camera work is brilliant. Again, it is all essential; there are no silly effects or diversions. When the German hurricane bombardment commences you are there in the mud almost paralysed by the concussion and the shock of it all. The key scenes inside the officers’ dugout offer all the images of a dark and dingy fug we have seen nicked for laughs in Blackadder but this is no pastiche. The atmosphere is oppressive. If you’ve ever been in any recreations of the standard used in this movie, you will be aware of just how small you become inside them. The pace is quickened at appropriate moments when it moves out into an unwelcoming daylight. There is menace in the sound of German troop trains squealing to a noisy halt in the distance and the presence of sudden death pervades. We know the sniper’s bullet is coming, but it still makes us jump.
The spine of the movie is a three act play on celluloid. A few additional characters are introduced to help things along but they are a minimal presence in a cluster of superb performances. Exterior scenes broaden the scope just enough to make the film work for a modern audience. What you won’t see is endlessly hectic violence. The depth is in the relationships of men who had seen and done enough confronted with the high minded idealism of a shiny newly minted second lieutenant.
Michael began on 21st March 1918 and burst over Hubert Gough’s thinly spread 5th Army like a torrent. The British knew it was coming but the chronic need for reinforcements was blighted by the prejudice of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George who held up sending crucial reserves as he sought to undermine the position of General Sir Douglas Haig in the wake of Third Ypres. All the sense of foreboding this brought to men at the front who knew they were in for it comes across in this excellent film. The settings are accurate and the dress and conventions of the British Army of 1918 are as good as I’ve seen. Rats, mud, sweat and grime linger without becoming exaggerated. It is nice to see a film where the military adviser appears to have been listened to. Authenticity matters and I’ve known people to dismiss a great drama because so-and-so had the wrong buttons on his tunic. I am convinced there will be no such issues with this film. But these trifles shouldn’t negate from a genuinely superb experience.
Because RC Sherriff’s experience was both raw and real when he wrote his play, the wise decision to be faithful to him offers rewards you won’t find from adaptations such as Aces High from 1976. The ensemble cast make it so real, so sad; so bewildering. Sherriff also wrote the screenplay for a genuine sacred cow, The Dam Busters, and while there is nothing like a heroic ending here, with a fair wind this film, albeit very different, could become just as admired and I expect it will stand the test of time. I grew up loving Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and the cheesy hoots that are The Blue Max and Zeppelin but they are purely fictional stories whereas much of what we see here is biographical. This makes a big difference. I came out of the cinema onto a cold London street and exhaled. The last war film to really hit me like that was Saving Private Ryan, a very different animal in every sense except in its intensity, but American Sniper came close. We live in a time when the Great War offers a backdrop for the fantasy world of Wonder Woman and even Battlefield One but if you seek something more tangible then this movie might be as close to the reality of the Western Front as you can get for less than a couple of hours of your busy lives. I cannot recommend this new version of Journey’s End highly enough.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online