“They sent us here to die”: this is the austere notion behind the heavyweight film Journey’s End. This sense of doom renders it distinct from recent contemporary film adaptations such as the heroic Dunkirk (2017) or even noble War Horse (2011). Journey’s End is about the Great War to End all Wars, a title which it had to relinquish ironically and tragically, when Europe fell again to yet another world war just twenty years later.
WWI is often construed as a bleaker affair altogether; it was not the ‘moral’ war of WWII and it did not have such a clear-cut evil to defeat. Rather it was an arms race, a war for the sake of war. The British insistence on adhering to 19th century Empire military techniques and weapons against machine guns and tanks had a lunacy that teetered on hilarity (as encapsulated in Blackadder) but the suicidal consequences – the lions lead by mice – were all too tragic. This is what we find ourselves in the midst of Journey’s End: a parade of unnecessary death and slaughter of a generation of men, offensives scheduled around the dinner plans of the gluttonous generals who played god with the lives of the many.
The film is an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 pacifist play, based on his own experiences as an officer on the Western Front. The setting is on the eve of the great German ‘Spring Offensive’ of March 1918, during which period each company was required to serve six days on the front. For months, a German offensive has been imminent and C Company has arrived just in time for the brunt of it. The company has a new recruit to join them in these six days, the young and naïve Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who had requested to join the company to find his old family friend and sister’s lover, Captain Stanhope (Sam Clafin). The ability to sign up with friends or people from your village or town – a practice which was unique to WWI – was introduced to encourage men and boys to join the effort. All too often, it resulted in an entire village’s men being killed in one fell swoop.
The film excels at making its audience feel on edge through intense close-ups and lingering long shots that force the audience into the scene. We walk with the men, following so closely that we can almost touch their muddied collars as they head towards the front: our feet are heavy with theirs. We are as ignorant and confused and unprepared as the young lieutenants that hang to each of the words of their officers. We witness, with C Company, the previous occupants of the trench rush to pack up their things and flee like rats from a sinking ship. We can almost feel the dread in the air before we are told of the expected German attack. Silence is used here incredibly well; most deafening is what is not said. The brutal reality of the situation is the unbearable injustice of soldiers being sent to their deaths on the back of lies and weak formulated justifications. This truth stings, especially with Private Mason’s (Toby Jones) offhand comment about the pluckiness and excitement of the young boys. We are here shown first-hand the reality of trench warfare: trenches built on the bodies of the dead and reinforced by them too.
The cinematography throughout the film has a focus on the strong strokes of light that come with the beginning of each day. However, somehow the dread simply increases with the dawning of each day, which has an incredible emotional effect. Director Saul Dibb excels in staying true to the reality of the conflict – we see boys who cannot yet shave awkwardly holding guns while asking for their mothers. Raleigh, in his innocence and lack of knowledge, is a stand in for all those boys fresh from school, playing dress up, thrown into a world they should never have been part of.
The horror of Captain Stanhope at the arrival of the innocent and naïve Lieutenant Raleigh works as an echo of our own dismay and agony over the many young men just like Raleigh that were sent to the slaughter without even knowing what they had signed up for. Stanhope acts as the everyman in this moment; he has been beaten down by the war and is suffering greatly due to PTSD, and now he has the guilt of yet another young life that has come to follow him into the darkness. Sam Clafin strides ahead in his complex portrayal of the struggle and the agony of Captain Stanhope, a character plagued by hallucinations. However, the true star that steals each moment is Paul Bettany’s Lieutenant ‘Uncle’ Osborne who, with such gentle and genuine heart, comforts and guides the other men. With his humble temperance and utterly compelling acceptance of the foreboding future to help support the agonising souls around him, he acts as the moral centre of the film.
Something unique that stands out about the Journey’s End is that there are no great heroes to save the soldiers – they are alone. It is not a heroic or glorious war film. Rather, we know that the young men at the front are futile sacrifices, and in this the film relishes. It is rough and harrowing watching them go through it, but it carries a message that is perhaps more potent than that of other recent war films: this is a film that shows us the humans behind this historical event, and in turn one which humanises the countless dead. We know them, we are there in the trenches with them and we acknowledge them.
In the end, we are witness to the shadows of the nameless men who fought, who were given the false hope that every action will end the war, that each sacrifice of life will end the war. But their deaths are too frequent, too common and too wasteful. The film succeeds at keeping the spirit of Sherriff’s play and, ultimately, the spirit of the conflict. Those men that died did indeed, at such a high personal cost, “put on a good show” for people they would never know.