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Posts Tagged ‘Journey’s End’

The First World War shows no signs of losing its grip on our collective imagination, even as it inevitably recedes beyond the realm of living memory. Part of this may be due to the fact that we are currently living through the centenary of the war, with regular reminders in terms of the specific commemorations of individual battles and other events, but it may also be because the war in a way marked the death of a particular notion of how the world was, and the birth of another. And there is the fact that it is popularly remembered as the archetypal example of a futile, pointless war, whereas the Second World War is virtually celebrated as the proof that such a thing as a just war is possible. In other words, if you want to make an anti-war war movie, you’re probably going to set it in the trenches, and this is certainly the case with Saul Dibb’s new adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s famous play Journey’s End.

The film is set in early 1918, with British soldiers on the western front living in anticipation of a major German offensive, intended to break the deadlock between the two sides. Each company of soldiers is required to spend five days a month on the actual front line, and scheduled to be there when the German attack is expected is the company of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope has been worn down almost to nothing by the stresses of command and the war, and is drinking heavily, relying on the counsel of his older second-in-command Osborne (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany). He is less than delighted when his fiancee’s young brother Jimmy (Asa Butterfield) has himself posted to his company as a second lieutenant.

Nevertheless, the company takes up its position in the front line trenches – squalid, dangerous, horrible – and is settling into a kind of routine when word comes down from the top: the German offensive will be coming in a couple of days, on their watch, and no help will be available. Adding to this, Stanhope is ordered to launch a dangerous raid on the German lines just a few yards away, in order to secure a prisoner for intelligence purposes. Being considered too valuable to risk himself, Stanhope is obliged to send Osborne and Raleigh on this insanely perilous and poorly-planned mission – but is there really any point to it…?

So, to coin a phrase, not a lot of laughs in this one – although there is a welcome touch of rather black humour courtesy of Toby Jones’ somewhat put-upon trench chef. The danger here, of course, is that any jokes about dubious cooking in this kind of context will invariably remind audiences of a certain ilk of Blackadder Goes Forth. Is it too much to say that this sitcom played a major role in reinforcing perceptions of the First World War for a whole generation of viewers in Britain and beyond? I’m not sure, but what this film really seems to suggest is that Blackadder Goes Forth is, at heart, a rather liberal adaptation of Journey’s End with a lot of jokes added to it.

The danger here is that the movie might appear to be simply dealing in the tropes of this kind of story, when the truth is that the original stage play (first put on in 1928) probably played a significant role in creating them in the first place. All the stereotypes are here – careworn protagonists, bright-eyed newcomers (a useful device for introducing the set-up to an audience), unfeeling top brass, and so on. This movie actually does a heroic job of keeping you invested in the characters and emotions of the piece, especially when so many of the actual moments are so firmly at odds with our more emotional times: the various characters restrict themselves to simply saying a stolid ‘cheerio’ as they prepare to await the enemy onslaught, for instance.

There are moments when the story and the manner of its telling can seem rather familiar – the callousness of senior officers is made clear when it is established the raid is to take place in daylight, when it is horrendously dangerous, simply because this is less likely to interfere with the dinner plans of the generals who will be considering the intelligence it provides – but on the whole this is a film which manages to feel contemporary and relevant rather than something too dry or retrospective. Mostly this is because of the quality of the performances, which are uniformly extremely good – none of the acting is particularly showy, but the characters come to life, and you are drawn into the story. The build-up to the crucial raid creates a queasy sense of dread which is genuinely uncomfortable, while the action itself is staccato, confusing; characters simply disappear in the chaos and are never seen again. If I have a criticism it’s that the film’s decision to go for a box office-friendly certification means the battle sequences are relatively anodyne – this is the kind of film where a touch more gruelling horror would not have felt out of place.

This is a highly impressive film, well-performed and written, and not showing obvious signs of what one assumes must have been a fairly modest budget. And I suspect the tendency will still be to dismiss it as another piece of heritage film-making, a period piece or a kind of heritage movie. Partly this is down to the subject matter, while the fact that virtually every speaking role is played by a white male means it might also feel a little out of step with the modern world. I’m not really sure what to say about this: it’s a film about British army officers in the First World War, so how diverse can it realistically be? Does its attempt to be authentic make it necessarily flawed?

It would be ironic if Journey’s End didn’t reach an audience solely because it is perceived to be about a vanished milieu that has little in common with the world today. This film does work on a personal level, and bravery, compassion, fear, and all the other human strengths and frailties with which it is concerned are still very much with us. Maybe anti-war films are old-fashioned and redundant today, even ones as well-made as this one. But there are things which I think we will always need to be reminded of, and this film discharges that duty in a highly commendable manner.

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