Few films about the First World War can match the bathos and comedic horror and plumb the depths of sadness quite as well as the last scene of Blackadder Goes Forth but Journey’s End comes close.
It is a film of browns – brown hair and moustaches, brown uniforms, the brown wood shoring up the brown trenches, the endless brown mud squelching beneath the brown boot shod feet of the soldiers, the gloomy dark brown of the dug-out sheltered behind brown curtains, populated with brown rats and brown, oniony tea and brown cutlets that might or might not be liver, the brown funk that Captain Stanhope has fallen into, brown skies and brown eyes, brown sheets on brown beds. There are few splashes of colour. ‘What is this soup?’ one officer asks the cook (Toby Jones). ‘It’s yellow soup, sir,’ he replies.
The film is directed by Saul Dibb, from a screenplay by Simon Reade, based on RC Sherriff’s play and novel. There is not much to the story. A group of soldiers are at the front line, counting down the days in a week in March, awaiting an anticipated German attack. There are the stoic tommies, the gruff but kindly Sergeant-Major and the officers – Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), nerves ajangle, succumbing to whiskey to blot out the horrors, kindly Captain Osborne, known as Uncle (Paul Bettany) with his pipe and glasses, bluff cockney Trotter (Stephen Graham), Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), suffering from shell-shock and pleading (in vain) to be sent back down the line, and wet behind the ears Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), just out of officer school, desperate for action who pleads with his uncle, the General, to be sent to the front to Captain Stanhope, beau of Raleigh’s sister, Margaret.
The first half of the film didn’t really come alive for me – the dialogue seemed stilted and disconnected, I didn’t warm to the characters and it seemed like we had seen it all before. But this changed when 2 officers and 10 men were instructed to launch a (probably futile) raid (in daylight) to the German lines to ‘grab the first soldier’ and bring him back so that the Generals could gather further intelligence. The raid is beautifully handled – there is not much violence, it doesn’t last long but the explosions are deafening, the mud is deep and wet and brown, the confusion is clear and it perfectly captures how close the two sides were to each other – 60 yards. As you’d expect, not all the soldiers and officers survive but I won’t spoil it by telling you who – you can probably work it out.
And then on Thursday, the Germans launch their attack. The title of the film rather gives away the ending but it is no less shocking, surprising or sad when it comes and by this time I had developed a real feel and affection for the characters; unlike many films about the war this one has no happy ending, no triumphant return from the front, no leaping into the arms of the patient, weeping Margaret.
Toby Jones steals the film and is simply superb as the world-weary cook Mason, toiling away making tea and yellow soup for the officers and keeping Stanhope plied with whiskey.
The film gives away its stage origins but never in an obvious way; the music by Hildur Guonadottir and Natalie Holt is sombre and perfectly judged, the brown, claustrophobic, dead body filled trenches are perfectly realised and the film knows when and how and how soon to finish. And the senior officers are well-drawn; so often the senior officers and Generals in these films are shown as silly caricatures, blithely sending men to their deaths, but here they are shown as being trapped, as they are all trapped, in the fog and madness of the war, but still trying to do their jobs. ‘Hold the line, Stanhope,’ says the General. ‘Can I expect reinforcements Sir?’ ‘No.’
In this centenary year of the events depicted in the film, Journey’s End is a fine addition to the art of the war and a deeply moving portrait of men who gave their lives so that we could vote to get out of Europe.