Lionsgate, 2017, 103 minutes
Cast: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge and Robert Glenister
Screenplay: Simon Reade
Based on Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff
Producer: Guy de Beaujeu and Simon Reade
Director: Saul Dibb
When WWI started, the size of the German army and its strategy of marching through Belgium took the French and the British by surprise. The German army had nearly reached Paris when a counter-attack caught it over-extended and it was forced to retreat. After a month and a half of desperate fighting, the Allies and the Germans built massive lines of fortifications that stretched across Europe from Switzerland to the Belgian coast. Four years of bloody attacks had produced terrifying casualties but had failed to end the stalemate, leaving the lines little changed. The German government’s decision to return to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 forced the United States to abandon its neutrality and enter the war. The Russian Empire collapsed in the spring of 1917, and the October Revolution led to the formation of Soviet Russia. When the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918 between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and Soviet Russia, Germany no longer had to fight on two fronts, and was able to transfer nearly fifty divisions to the Western Front, giving it numerical superiority. Hoping to achieve victory before the United States could ship over enough soldiers to tip the balance on the side of the Allies, Germany launched a series of offensives in the spring of 1918, beginning on March 21.
Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) leads his company to start a six-day rotation at the front, and it soon becomes clear that this will not be an ordinary tour when Stanhope’s men pass the company they are relieving and notice that the soldiers are carrying everything not nailed down. Meanwhile, Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), fresh from England, arrives at Amiens and convinces his uncle, a general, to assign him to Stanhope’s battalion. Shocked to see Raleigh, Stanhope is not welcoming. Raleigh’s sister is Stanhope’s girlfriend but he refuses to go home on leave because she would discover that his nerves are shot and he drinks to cope with the terror. While Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), the second-in-command of the company, is devoted to Stanhope, he is clearly strained dealing with his frequently drunk CO. Stanhope’s mood does not improve when he is informed by the battalion CO that an attack is coming on the 21st, and they won’t receive much help but must hold on. Later, the company is assigned to make a raid on the enemy trenches to obtain a prisoner, but the raid has a horrible cost. When the attack occurs on Thursday morning as expected, the Germans threaten to overwhelm the company.
The film opens with the words that the war on the Western Front has entered stalemate after four years. There are rumors of an impending German offensive. Every company spends six days of every month at the front. Wondering whether the attack will come during their time.
Those few lines are an excellent summary of the situation. Since the Germans remained on the defensive after the failed Verdun Offensive (February-December 1916), Allied troops on the Western Front battled a mixture of boredom and terror. Realizing that the troops could not bear the pressure of the front lines for long periods of time, companies were rotated through the trenches, serving on the front line, then in reserve, and finally in rest areas behind the front lines.
The lengthy handover scene sets the tone. The stretch of line has not seen any action for a year, but an attack is expected in the next few days, so the relieved company takes away everything, even the lights. A sense of underlying dread is visible among the soldiers and officers of the company, understandably since they hear the German troop trains every night, bringing fresh troops for the coming offensive.
When the German assault finally occurs, the troops struggle to endure the hellish shelling. While it is a suitably nightmarish scene, it is a mistake to show that the troops remain in the trenches during a lengthy bombardment, since they would have been in the dugouts. That’s what they were for.
The film does not give the senior commanders a favorable treatment. The artillery officer chooses to attend a dinner rather than supervise the bombardment of the enemy wire to open several holes for the raid, but an error by his subordinates makes the raid much more dangerous. The raid has to proceed anyway, because the generals need the information before dinner. Refusing to display any sympathy for Stanhope’s company, the colonel can not even make the effort to face the men who will make the raid. While the colonel is not shown as caring much about his men, everybody, even the colonel, is clearly near the breaking point.
Sent to the front after only eight weeks of training, Raleigh is barely old enough to shave. Raleigh’s schoolboy chipperness fades as he moves closer to the front and sees the piles of wooden crosses waiting amidst the rubble.
Private Mason, the officers’ cook, is played by Toby Jones, who breathes life into a supporting role meant as comedic relief. At one point, Stanhope reacts badly to the news that Mason forgot to pack pepper, and threatens to put him back up top, filling the cook with fear. The movie shows that while the officers can appear in control of the situation in front of the men, the kitchen is basically separated from the officer’s quarters by a curtain, so the kitchen staff hear everything, all too aware that the officers are nearly overwhelmed by the pressure.
The script added many new scenes, all to the better of the movie. The original focused almost completely on Stanhope, but this version pays more attention to the men of the company. Honestly, all of the new scenes are superior to the scenes taken from the original play. In particular, the first few minutes are new, showing the officers’ barely concealed fear as they savor their last few seconds of safety. Actually, the scene establishes the characters of the four officers: Second Lieutenant Hibbert’s (Tom Sturridge) repulsive nature appears when drunk, Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham) is rough-edged but reliable and well-intentioned, whiskey enables Stanhope to function, barely, and Osborne is deservedly called uncle, since he is the mature bedrock that keeps the company operating. Furthermore, an excellent script ensures that the characters sound like humans.
Another standout scene occurs before the raid as Osborne forces Raleigh to talk about anything else. Director Saul Dibb’s choice of camera angles livens up a film that was based on a play, especially the decision to only show Osborne’s boots trudging through the mud as the soldiers wish him good luck before the raid, stressing his importance to the company.
The only unnecessary addition to the film is a scene of Raleigh’s sister reading his letter. Interesting, this version is thirteen minutes shorter than the original. I had commented that ten to twenty minutes of dialogue could be cut from the original version, and it looks like the screenwriter cut even more, keeping just enough scenes from the original to serve as a framework. Aside from the original version, the basic story was transferred to the war in the air in Aces High (1976).
Although tame compared to the anti-war WWI movies made in the 1930s, Journey’s End is a brutal look at grinding effect of trench warfare, and one of the better films on WWI.