‘Journey’s End’ delivers an affecting, timeless war story
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Written by: Simon Reade, based on the novel by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
Starring: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, and Toby Jones
“Journey’s End” – “Most war films tend to be about men, and this, I think, is about how men deal with fear.” – Saul Dibb
Since “Journey’s End” is a war film, the title implies that the on-screen soldiers’ story will most likely conclude on the battlefield. They might rise in victory or suffer agony (or worse) in defeat, and judging from the first few minutes of director Saul Dibb’s movie, an ominous silent drumbeat points to the latter.
Set in 1918 France, World War I will soon end, although the British soldiers - dug into trenches on their distinct border of No man’s land – do not own a crystal ball or deal tarot cards, so the future resolution is currently unknown.
Their job is to wait for orders. Wait in the mud. Wait in the cold. Wait in a dank wooden bunker.
The soldiers, however, are not wooden. Far from it. They are filled with emotion, but unfortunately, their foundations are composed of fear. Led by a discouraged and bitter Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) - and yes, his name is soaked in irony – no good news has blessed this particular company in recent weeks and months. Under gray skies, too many of his men have stepped foot into the abyss and cruelly died via bullets, bombs or poison gas, or survived and now reliving the horrors in safe quarters.
Today, this affliction is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but in 1918, there was no name for it. Dibb, however, shines a light on PTSD in full view within tight spaces.
“Journey’s End” was also a play and the movie-version feels like one as well, as large set pieces and epic battle scenes are void from view. Instead, the men mostly engage in intricate exchanges during the movie’s 1-hour 47-minute runtime. At times, the tired, battle weary soldiers just avoid discussing the war in order to feel normal under abnormal circumstances. Ones in which German artillery – sitting 60 yards away - could rip through them in a second. Stanhope knows this all too well. All of the men do, but they handle the trauma in different ways.
Osborne (Paul Bettany) - Stanhope’s best friend – attempts to conceal his emotional turmoil like a business professional managing a crisis. He projects good-natured optimism but - nonetheless – remains completely aware of the dire predicament. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), on the other hand, newly arrives, and this fresh-faced kid has not experienced a lick of combat.
Raleigh’s eager-to-serve persona serves as a stark contrast between the other glum, shell-shocked men who occasionally enter and exit the screen. Although a kid like Raleigh exists in just about every war film, since the picture works as a close-knit character study, the before/after disparity between this said rookie and the weary soldiers smashes the audience with emotional gut punches. These blows deliver the message that war can wear down one’s humanity and bliss over repeated episodes or immediately strip it in an instant of chaos.
Dibb and writer Simon Reade only give us small glimpses of this chaos, but do so very effectively. Other than a lone – and very short - drone shot, Dibb keeps his camera only a few feet from the bedlam. Without a clear view of the actions on the battlefield, the audience feels the soldiers’ confusion, and this bitter taste of war helps clarify the lingering, miserable atmosphere within the trenches. The only reprieve that we receive is from a cook named Mason (Toby Jones), who usually explains the latest bland meal with deadpan wit. For instance, Stanhope asks Mason about today’s soup, and he responds, “Yellow.”
Mason is a most-welcome gift as the sole provider of the movie’s very, very few light moments.
“Journey’s End” is a grim, affecting picture that does not shy away from the colorless life of trench warfare: waiting for horribly long stretches and then suddenly stepping into suicide missions composed of mud and gunfire. The movie is set exactly 100 years in the past, and this particular critic wondered if these men could imagine war in 2018. Can we imagine war in 2118? Well, today’s drone technology would make 1918 trench warfare tactics completely obsolete. Then again, war is war, and soldiers coping with fear and emotional scars unfortunately remain timeless tragedies.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.