Few stage staples from 90 years ago would easily translate to the screen today, yet R.C. Sherriff’s once near-ubiquitous “Journey’s End” proves potent as ever in this sturdy new adaptation from director Saul Dibb and writer-producer Simon Reade. While there’s little staginess about the endeavor, the preserved tight focus on a handful of British soldiers “waiting to be killed” in a trench near WWI’s finish provides all the character and emotional involvement that was lacking in the more action-oriented recent “Dunkirk.” The latter’s success — plus next year’s centennial of the Great War’s close — could further boost a strong drama likely to benefit from solid reviews.
A captain wounded at Passchendaele himself, Sherriff drew on three years’ service experience to write his greatest triumph (which he subsequently turned into a novel, also a source here). Premiering in 1928 with 21-year-old Laurence Olivier in a breakthrough role — one he foolishly declined to repeat in the West End transfer — it was a smash on both sides of the Atlantic. Its director, James Whale, also helmed the first, most famous film version, released in 1930, a year before he made “Frankenstein.” Several lesser film and TV versions followed, along with numerous stage revivals.
Dibbs’ movie is more realistic in gritty presentation than earlier incarnations, but otherwise no attempt has been made to “modernize” the material with harsher language, gore, etc. Indeed, it’s one small consolation in this sad story that the characters are so polite, though there’s nothing artificially old-fashioned about their manner as performed and directed.
The British Army C Company stationed in Northern France in early 1918 has already fought four years in a war they were originally promised would be “over by Christmas.” Thus it feels incongruous for them to receive a spanking new recruit fresh out of basic training, let alone one so naïve as Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who’s so baby-faced he recalls famously infantile silent comedian Harry Langdon. Actually, Raleigh has been placed here by request: There’s nothing he’d like more than to be reunited with his former school head-boy and prospective brother-in-law Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), widely regarded as “the best commander of the lot.”
But Stanhope is not happy to see this wide-eyed reminder of his past, before enduring years of horror and loss. Indeed, he’s ashamed of what he’s become under cumulative stress — an alcoholic, belligerent shadow of his former self — and worries that young Raleigh will carry news of this decline back to his betrothed. Still, he continues to hold it together for the sake of his men, and he’s in turn held together largely by the patient ministrations of Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany), a schoolteacher who’s Mr. Chips-like in his calming, compassionate influence over the company. (Sherriff would be Oscar-nominated for his screenplay contribution to the beloved original screen “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” in 1939.)
Other prominent figures in the officers’ dugout include long-suffering cook Mason (Toby Jones), unflappable Trotter (Stephen Graham) and Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), whose nerves are completely shot. But they’re all on edge, particularly once news arrives that a long-expected frontal assault by German troops is finally due to arrive in a couple days. Only the officers know Company C is to be sacrificed to “slow down” the enemy — with no reinforcements allocated to protect them. Even before that slaughter arrives, the powers-that-be order a raid in broad daylight, risking heavy casualties to hopefully bring back one talkative “Jerry” prisoner.
It takes about 75 minutes before this first burst of chaotic action occurs. But “Journey’s End” never feels over-talkative, dull or even particularly claustrophobic. Much of the credit goes to the astute writing and punchy yet understated staging. But primarily, the film keeps audiences engrossed in the personalities involved, their fatigue, disillusionment and residual humanity, as well as the tenderness they extend towards one another where needed. (There’s plenty of team-spirit resilience, but no machismo whatsoever on display here.)
The entire cast is fine, with Claflin (“The Hunger Games,” “My Cousin Rachel”) excellent in the role Olivier originated. Particularly good is Bettany, who makes Osborne the kind of natural caregiver who ensures his tending is barely perceptible — one of the best scenes here shows him deftly preparing terrified neophyte Raleigh for the raid, simply by distracting him with small talk.
Written at a time when many hoped and believed there would — indeed must — never be another global conflagration like the one portrayed, “Journey’s End” retains its poignancy in illustrating how no war casualty is a mere statistic. The convincing physical production is shot in muddy earthtones by Laurie Rose and is well accentuated by an original score of urgent, mournful strings.