Mud and guts in breathtaking portrait of war
Set over four crucial days before an attack that saw 700,000 people killed, Journey’s End is British cinema at its very finest
02 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Soldiers preparing to go over the top in Journey’s End
Directed by Saul Dibb
BASED on events taking place 100 years ago, Saul Dibb’s film version of the RC Sherriff novel and play is breathtaking, suffocating, heartbreaking, and one of the most moving cinematic experiences I have had in a long time.
We meet a company of British soldiers sent up to the front line in early 1918, as the last big German offensive is about to break over the mud of northern France.
New officer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) has come from the training grounds of Salisbury Plain and asks to be placed under the leadership of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin).
Stanhope was three years older than him at school, is his sister’s beau, and in England has earned a reputation as an outstanding leader of men. But three years at war has hollowed him out – only huge tumblers of whiskey can keep him from full-blown insanity, and the appearance of a face from back home in a muddy dug-out with death about to arrive is almost too much for him to bear.
Alongside him is Mason (Toby Jones), a cook who finds some solace in providing sustenance in such conditions, as if the memory of food can block out what is gong on around them. Jones, as ever, is magnificent.
Standing as aloof as can be possible from the mud and terror is Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), who acts as trench sage, a man whose own shell shock has taken the form of trying to find his own humanity and share it with those who are going through the same horror as he is.
Based over four crucial days before an attack that saw 700,000 people murdered, this is a well-crafted polemic on the unbearable nature of war. It touches on an idea of masculinity and the ludicrous concept of keeping a stiff upper lip when the world has collective insanity.
RC Sherriff based it on his experiences and it stands alongside the memoirs and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, the post-war reflections of Robert Graves, and the downplayed but haunting passages in An English Journey by JB Priestley of the loss and grief his generation faced.
The Great War still exerts a powerful hold, the use of our technical ingenuity to slaughter other humans with whom we have no personal quarrel must still make all of full of fury for what our grandparents and great-grandparents faced. It’s a memory that must be kept alive, in the slim hope we as a species may one day learn from it. Completely haunting, this is British cinema at its very finest.