World War I may have spawned a larger and more robust body of anti-war literature than any conflict in human history. During and after the Great War, the misery of combat was memorialized by the men who experienced it: poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, novelists like Erich Maria Remarque and Ford Madox Ford, and memoirists like Robert Graves. Writer R.C. Sherriff adapted his harrowing experiences as a British officer into a play, Journey’s End, which would become a massive hit in its day and a mainstay of the British stage. And for good reason: Sherriff’s work makes something so viable, tense, and compelling out of the anxious boredom of trench warfare.
Confined almost entirely to a trench in the days leading up to the 1918 Spring Offensive—during which the Germans attempted to break through the Allied lines—Saul Dibb’s film adaptation opens as Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wide-eyed young officer fresh out of training, joins up with a unit dispatched to the front line. There, he finds men struggling to cope with their trauma and fear: Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) attempts to evade his duties by playing sick; Trotter (Stephen Graham) never stops eating and talking; and Osborne (Paul Bettany) does his best to forget a war’s going on at all. But the terror of battle falls hardest on Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who’s taken to drinking and gripped by self-loathing. Raleigh had known and looked up to Stanhope at school—the latter was even dating the former’s sister (Rose Reade)—and now he finds him completely changed by combat: surly, sullen, quick-tempered.
Dibb has infused his adaptation of Sherriff’s play with a striking sense of urgency. Working from a screenplay by Simon Reade, Dibb “opens up” the text, creating a few new characters, pulling several scenes out of the trench, dropping in some lyrical dream sequences and flashbacks, and incorporating scenes of combat, including a dramatic raid on the German line led by Raleigh and Osborne. Elegant and thought through, these changes enhance Sherriff’s text rather than simply embellish it. The film’s chaotic, dizzying battle sequences in particular are true to the spirit of the play, depicting the terrifying confusion of bombs dropping, bullets whizzing, and bodies flying, rather than the clarity of troop movements or the excitement of killing.
The actors, so sensitive and unshowy, are no less impressive. As Raleigh, Butterfield embodies baby-faced naïveté without trading in easy sentimentality; Bettany brings a calm, avuncular warmth to his turn as Osborne; and Toby Jones deftly underplays a comic supporting role as the unit’s Baldrick-like cook. Stanhope, the tortured heart of the narrative, is the film’s trickiest part, and if Claflin’s performance occasionally seems slightly aimless, the actor nevertheless manages to capture the sense of decency that’s stifled beneath Stanhope’s veil of drunkenness and rage.
Journey’s End is set to be released in America almost exactly 100 years to the day after the events it depicts. In that time, the logistics of war have changed immensely. In our age of drones and asymmetric warfare, the idea of amassing troops in straight lines on some barren field is inconceivable. Dibb avoids doing anything to lend this story an air of contemporary relevance; even the film’s visual bleached-out color palette serves to enhance the sense that the events depicted throughout are all very much rooted in the past. Given how its story is so intimately tied up in the specifics of WWI-era trench warfare, the film often feels as much an exercise in historical preservation as a work aimed at the hearts of a modern audience. Dibb’s reserved style and faithfulness to his source material tends to keep us at something of a distance, emphasizing the gulf between the world of a century ago and our own modern era. Consequently, the film’s emotions, though potent, are also muted, like a striking old photograph whose colors have now faded.