Following previous adaptations in 1930, ’31, ’76 and ’88, Journey’s End marks the fifth time R.C. Sheriff’s tale of shell-shocked British officers has been committed to film. No doubt the choice to keep the focus on the dialogue in the dugouts rather than the battlefield was originally a constraint of the medium, but now, some eighty-odd years later, the restrained perspective ensures Journey’s End is (in my humble opinion) the best kind of war film; one that doesn’t focus on what people do to win a war, but on what trying to win a war does to people.
Set in Aisne, France toward the end of the First World War, Journey’s End puts us in the trenches with a group of British officers trying to hold the line under the leadership of the determined, but emotionally shattered, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Through the support of his close friend and confidant Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), Stanhope has been able avoid falling into complete despair. But when his girlfriend’s younger brother, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), turns up ready for duty as a Second Lieutenant in the final days before Germany’s last big offensive, Stanhope’s nihilism begins to finally take hold.
It’s clear this is a film that’s been adapted from a play, and the budget can be seen along some of the movie’s seams, but it never really feels like the story is being constricted by its limitations. While most of the war rages on above their quarters or off-camera over the line, we do fortunately get enough of a taste of what’s happening that it never slips into feeling like it’s a made-for-TV movie shot on some backlot. Though there’s only one brief operation that you would really label as an action sequence (suspenseful though it was), director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) does such an amazing job of building the atmosphere that Journey’s End always feels like it’s in the middle of the battle. Between Laurie Rose’s gritty cinematography, hearing the thud of bullets and mortars hitting the wood and mud outside, and just the sheer defeat in the eyes of the cast create a powerful sense of dread that says more than any of the dialogue ever could.
As wonderful a job as the movie does in creating its tone, it can be a pretty tiring thing to have wash over you for just shy of two hours. War is a mother****er at the best of times, and trench warfare is a particularly awful human invention, but as interesting as it can be to see these young men trying to hold the weight of the world on their shoulders, Journey’s End isn’t necessarily saying anything about war (this one or in general) that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. It’s a story that’s dated by its very nature, and as strong an argument as it’s making, the only response it’s likely to elicit is a sympathetic “yeah, I know”.
Fighting the good fight against unoriginality is Journey’s End‘s small but strong cast. The threat of death hangs heavy over everyone in the trenches, but it’s the vastly different effects it has on the film’s three main characters that gives this story the edge it needs. Claflin definitely gets the showiest role as the irreparably broken Stanhope. He’s clearly been driven past the edge and understands the futility of his situation, but despite the drinking, the night-terrors and him barely able to look others in the eye, Stanhope is still completely duty-bound and has no patience for anyone not willing to throw their lives away on what could very well be a lost cause.
On the other end of the spectrum is Butterfield’s so-young-he’s-almost-prepubescent Raleigh, who’s wide-eyed and fresh out of training. With no concept of the horrors of war, he’s talked his way into what’s essentially a death sentence, because he thought it would be neat to join the war under the leadership of his good-natured buddy Stanhope. The logical reaction to this kid coming in at the last minute (as an officer no less) would be for the men to treat his obliviousness with disdain, but everyone with the exception of Stanhope treats him with encouragement and respect, which is a heart-warming thing to watch, but probably reinforces Raleigh’s deluded perspective.
Holding it altogether though is Bettany’s Osborne, who’s both Stanhope’s second in charge, and a father figure to the men. Despite his gentle voice and infinite patience, Osborne clearly knows he’s doomed. But rather than languishing on what can’t be changed, he does everything he can to sooth his comrades, keep Raleigh feeling safe, and stopping Stanhope from falling completely apart. It’s hard to see what could be worth all the death, or what there is left for these men to accomplish given the pending onslaught, but Bettany provides a critical sense of humanity that focuses what the film is portraying with the rest of its cast.
Ultimately it’s that sense of humanity that gives Journey’s End all its power. There are plenty of stories about the futility of war, and more often than not when a movie is about a hopeless situation it can be difficult to justify your investment. But what makes Journey’s End special is the knowledge that it’s not what they were doing when they died we should remember, it’s the people themselves.