I can’t say I was ever the greatest fan of the play Journey’s End – I wasn’t ever and still am not the remotest fan of the Doctor Who story of the same title – but not because I didn’t recognise the quality of RC Sheriff’s piece. Even as a whatever-year-old. Having to read it and reread it as a set text at school, awash with unremitting despair and hopelessness – even with the more overtly comic characters, who rather went to underline than relieve – surmounted any positives after a while. I was very glad never to have to set eyes on a copy once exams were over. And then, it showed up in Withnail & I (it’s the part Marwood has to cut his hair for); like Withnail, I thought he must have been mad to take the part. But time can be a restorative, and thirty years later, the work’s considerable merits are fully in evidence in Saul Dibb’s film version.
Curiously, we were never shown James Whale’s 1930 adaptation (Whale earned his big break directing it on stage, with a fresh-faced Laurence Olivier as Stanhope), although I was familiar with the aeronautically transposed Aces High. Simon Reade’s screenplay, as is the habit of adaptations from the stage, expands the action from the confines of the officers’ dugout. We’re escorted through the trenches, visit HQ and experience the crucial raid; we’re even left in no doubt as to the aftermath of the German attack at the conclusion.
Reade utilised Sheriff’s novelisation, written with Vernon Bartlett, although it’s been suggested this was largely Bartlett’s effort, much of the opening part relating to the school experiences of Stanhope and Raleigh prior to a more perfunctory rehashing of the play once the WWI section is reached.
As such, Dibb has shot an introductory section before C Company returns to the frontline and includes a scene where Raleigh asks his uncle to post him to Stanhope’s company. Also notable is access to the cook’s quarters and staff (Toby Jones as Private Mason, overseeing the grub), and in an effort to muddy up the palate, additional swearing in passing from the men in the trenches (while not out of place per se, this still seems gratuitous).
Dibb ensures these expansions don’t impact the material’s claustrophobic intensity. Indeed, when it comes to the raid, he resists the urge to provide an overview – although that may as much have been a budgetary decision – following the men at foot level and then at a crawl, emphasising the confusion rather than the clarity. Commendable too that he didn’t take the opportunity to depict Osbourne’s death, even if we see the scenario leading to it.
I was less sure about the need to feature Raleigh’s sister receiving his letter at the end, and whether the motive was to illustrate how false impressions of the reality of war get passed on, or simply a get-out in not having the downer of absolutely everyone dead, come the credits (in which case, it’s rather desperate and doesn’t work).
The producer threw about big names like Cumberbatch, Hiddleston and Redmayne as ideal casting, but Dibbs’ choices are perfect. Superlatives abound for Paul Bettany’s kindly, reflective Lieutenant “Uncle” Osborne, fiercely loyal to his alcoholic captain while attempting to show the fresh-faced and naively eager Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) the ropes. Witness the scene where Osborne tries to keep Raleigh’s mind off the imminent raid; Bettany imbues a palpable sense of a man keeping a lid on his own fear in order to lead by example. When he’s gone, you entirely miss his presence in a way I don’t recall the play quite achieving, and that has to be put squarely down to the actor.
Sam Claflin is also exactly what you’d hope for from a Captain Stanhope, combustible and raw, treating wide-eyed Butterfield contemptibly but also understandably; his desire to do right by his men is best illustrated by his summons to a meal with Robert Glenister’s colonel, where he can barely disguise his disgust at their remoteness and detachment. I’ve never been too sure of Butterfield previously, certainly as a lead, where he usually seems rather ineffectual; that quality makes him perfect casting here; you feel for the character, hopelessly out of his depth at every turn.
Stephen Graham’s Second Lieutenant Trotter is less comic relief, such that Stanhope seems all the more the arse for laying into him; he still likes his food – Sheriff calling the character Trotter wasn’t the subtlest cue – but Graham affords him more perceptiveness than you might expect (“It must be nice to be you, Trotter. You never get sick of anything” says Stanhope dismissively at one point; “If only you knew” he replies under his breath).
Then there’s Tom Sturridge as “bloody little funk” Second Lieutenant Hibbert, whose malaises are a major bone of contention for Stanhope; Sturridge is good, but I recall Hibbert casting a more pervasive blight on the play than he does here, and I wondered if there shouldn’t have been an edge to the scene where Stanhope talks him down and says he feels exactly the same way (particularly so, given the later drunken fracas between them).
The best compliment you can pay Dibb and Reade is that they ensure the play’s power remains intact, encapsulating the futility and horror of war without diverting into invective. Journey’s End is as impactful as ever, and since it appears that it’s still taught at GCSE, this film version will doubtless become an essential instructive tool. And, dare I say, a standard crib (as long as the kids don’t make the mistake of assuming it hasn’t been embellished).