Journey’s End – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Saul Dibb
Writers: Simon Reade (screenplay), R.C. Sherriff (novel)
Stars: Paul Bettany, Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones
In recent months we have seen two major film commemorating pivotal events of the Second World War – John Wright’s “The Darkest Hour” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”. Now, on the hundred anniversary of the major German Spring Offensive during the First World War, Saul Dibb’s film tells the story of a British battalion waiting in the trenches near Saint-Quentin in France for the attack to begin. Based on the 1928 play by R. C. Sheriff, the story has already been seen on the big screen, most memorably in the 1976 film “Aces High” starring Malcolm McDowell and Peter Firth and was recently revived with great success on the London stage.
Taking place over a period of five days, the story follows Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a naive young officer just out of basic training, who arrives in France eager for his first taste of combat. He asks to be sent to a battalion commanded by Captain Stanhope (Sam Clafin) who was head-prefect in his public school and is his sister’s fiancé. Stanhope, by reputation one of the best officers in the army, is in fact a shell-shocked, broken man, able to survive the horrors he faces daily only with the help of alcohol. He is furious when Raleigh arrives, ashamed of what he has become and fearing that the truth of his situation will get back to his fiancée.
There is little action in the first half of the film but that does not mean that it is in any way boring. Instead we get a real feeling of how daily life must have been in the trenches, the appalling living conditions, lack of privacy and forced camaraderie of a group of strangers. Stanhope’s main support in helping maintain morale is his second-in-command, former schoolteacher Osborne (Paul Bettany), who the men know as ‘Uncle’ and who takes young Raleigh under his wing. Together they try to encourage Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), a panic-stricken officer, who tries everything to avoid fighting.
With strong performances and a sense of authenticity, Journey’s End is a serious film that captures the tedium of waiting and the terror of fighting in “the war to end all wars”. Taking place mainly in the single set of an army dug-out, it evokes the claustrophobic world of this small group of men as they await orders for what they know will almost certainly be their destruction. Their grim existence is only slightly eased by the quips of the friendly cook, Mason (Toby Jones), but Dibb’s film, like the play on which it is based, is not meant simply to entertain. Instead, it is genuinely moving and gives us an insight into a chapter of our history that should never be forgotten.