Journey’s End depicts the biggest casualties of war to still be those who practice it for bureaucrats with agendas; rather than leaders with dignity.
Considered by many to be the quintessential depiction of wartime tragedy, R C Sheriff’s play Journey’s End, adapted here by screenwriter Simon Reade and director Saul Dibb for a new generation, comes packed with raw emotion. Brought to life by an excellent cast of character actors who include Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham and Toby Jones, it illustrates the best and worst of humanity in times of conflict.
Set over the six days prior to Russia’s Summer Offensive which began in July 1918, it follows a platoon led by Claflin’s Captain Stanhope as they await that first bombardment. Through a combination of claustrophobic cinematography and bone crunching sound design, there is an immediacy which complements the acting chops on display. There is an ominous feeling which hangs over the whole film which is only intensified when Stanhope makes his irregular trips to command headquarters for instruction.
Bettany and Claflin display an innate chemistry as one nurses the other through post-traumatic stress, hides his alcoholic medication from the men and holds himself together as battle looms large. Statistics are terrifying things and no more so than the stark reality of millions of lives lost on both sides over such a small stretch of land. Endless battalions being sent to certain death in the search for victory. Through stripped back set design and low level lighting techniques, director Saul Dibb shows the mental strain on these men as their trenches gradually close in around them.
There are those including Toby Jones in an understated role who convey that sense of fear, duty and futility through very few scenes, while Asa Butterfield goes from optimist to empty shell in a matter of minutes. Desertion is briefly considered, threats of execution metered out and loss of life only fuels that sense of pressure being applied. More heart breaking than any of those things however is the stoic acceptance illustrated by all. Orders however ridiculous were to be followed, sacrifices needed to be made and honour meant nothing beside duty.
Journey’s End is no war film and bears no comparison to Hollywood blockbusters, small budget search and rescue movies or such superficial fare as Where Eagles Dare. This film is about war itself and those who fought in it, those who died defending an ideal and ultimately why we remember. Conflicts should never be ventured into lightly and campaigns, incursions and sorties still represent something to be considered carefully. The Great War should be remembered with more dignity, which is why monuments exist and days of national reflection are encouraged.
In cinematic terms this adaptation portrays that loss of innocence, that inherent lack of humanity and illustrates the immediacy of war. Writer Simon Reade could not have wished for a more charismatic ensemble to breathe life into this certified classic. Hard hitting, understated but savagely relevant even today, Journey’s End depicts the biggest casualties of war to still be those who practice it for bureaucrats with agendas; rather than leaders with dignity.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Written by: Simon Reade
Starring: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones
Journey’s End was released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 4.