Journey’s End started life in 1928 as an anti-war play by English playwright RC Sherriff. I watched the latest film adaptation of it at The Barn in Dartington, a cinema with a historical link to the original play.
In 1927 Dartington’s co-founders, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, befriended the actor and producer Maurice Browne. Together, they founded Maurice Browne Ltd, a West End theatrical company which put on a variety of plays between 1929 and 1935.
Their biggest success was Journey's End and part of its proceeds were said to have been used at Dartington to convert its medieval barn into the Barn Theatre. The Dartington Hall Trust Archive still possesses a plaster model of the original set design for the play.
The 2018 film version, directed by Saul Dibb, doesn’t especially offer any new perspectives or insight into the agonies of life in the trenches during the Great War that haven’t already been covered before. However, the uniformly superb cast deliver the harrowing emotion of Sherriff’s play to devastating effect.
The story follows naïve new recruit Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who’s pulled strings to join his childhood hero Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) on the frontline in France. However, on arrival Raleigh is dismayed to discover that Stanhope, deeply traumatised by his experiences, is far from pleased to see him.
The kindly figure of Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany) offers Raleigh some respite from the bullying Stanhope, but it doesn’t take Raleigh long to discover for himself how a man could become so changed. Indeed, there is a memorable scene in which you witness the ‘penny drop’ on Raleigh’s face that this definitely isn’t the romantic situation he thought he’d signed up for.
The claustrophobia and misery of living in the trenches is vividly brought to life. Everyday tasks take place as ‘normally’ as they can in the circumstances, but across every single face there is an unspoken resignation that near-certain death is just around the corner.
The film addresses the ludicrousness of the class system on the frontline (again, a theme covered elsewhere - not least of all in the bittersweet TV comedy Blackadder Goes Forth). Raleigh is clearly out of his depth on arrival, but his public school status means he immediately ranks above most of his comrades. As with Blackadder, the most senior officers, Majors and the like, ensure they are well away from the frontline while commanding effective suicide missions.
Journey’s End brilliantly captures the utter hell of it all, even when the bombs and bullets aren’t flying. In fact very little happens in the way of action until quite a way into the film, and it’s all the better for it - the tension slowly builds, alongside your empathy for the characters. When the action does arrive, it’s not in the same league as Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk. However, it’s expertly handled and never feels low-budget either. The battle scenes are confusing and chaotic, just as you imagine they must have been in reality.
Released in the centenary year of the Armistice, Journey’s End is a timely reminder of the horrors men on all sides experienced - those who lost their lives and also those who returned home to live the rest of their days burdened by the devastating emotional cost of what they’d been through.