A reminder that for all the bloodbath of the Great War, its worst casualties were arguably claimed outside of combat.
World War I is the least cinematic of major historical conflicts, its quagmires of trench stalemate and thorny diplomatic obligations the culmination of decades, if not centuries, of European governments’ incestuous, resentful relations and a callous view of the general populations as pawns for warfare. Journey’s End, based on R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play, lacks a macro view of World War I’s horror, instead focusing on a group of British soldiers on the front lines in France during the war’s waning days. It certainly doesn’t feel like the war is drawing down to these men, who learn of a major German offensive about to be unleashed and wait in their trenches like sheep in a chute about to be led into an abattoir.
The film tracks a handful of characters in the same unit, only one of whom is not already a seasoned veteran. Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a young officer seeking glory, requests that his uncle, a general, assign him to the front, a wish the old man solemnly assures him that he does not want. But idealistic youth cannot be deterred, and soon Raleigh is on his way, falling in with men silently trudging north through the continent as others return from the trenches, wearily marching out of thick fog as if ghosts temporarily given leave among the corporeal. Once Raleigh arrives to the front, he finds that his company is filled with battle-haunted soldiers and officers who regard Raleigh’s enthusiasm as so incomprehensible that they cannot even take offense toward his naïve attitude about combat. Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a wise, middle-aged officer, takes Raleigh under his wing, gently encouraging caution and moderation in the young man to prepare him for the reality of duty in the trenches.
Osborne is not the commanding officer of the unit, though it’s often easy to mistake him as such. Regularly smoking a pipe with noble pose, the calm and considerate Osborne radiates the authority of a leader, exhibiting the best of the class-based military hierarchy still in place. Yet that same class ranking means that Osborne is actually subordinate to a much younger captain, Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope is the reason Raleigh requested transfer into the unit; the two went to school together, and the captain is engaged to Raleigh’s sister. Yet the man Raleigh finds is not the friend he remembers. Addled by combat and driven to alcoholism and paranoia, Claflin’s performance is one of barely restrained agony, a man so ruined by his experiences that it’s impossible to tell whether his constant tremors owe to his addiction or his trauma. Stanhope speaks in an enraged hiss, constantly set off by each new update about a suicidal plan passed down by high command or his comrades’ insufferable attempts at maintaining good cheer. Director Saul Dibb visualizes some of Stanhope’s withdrawal hallucinations, such as worms bursting through the cracks of a trench bunker’s walls or a flare expanding into a giant ball of light, but Claflin captures Stanhope’s collapsing mind without need for such flourishes.
Apart from those visions, Dibb keeps to standard post-Saving Private Ryan war aesthetics, with cinematographer Laurie Rose using desaturated images to render icy-blue frames with visibly cold air and dark mud. The lack of color certainly fits the setting, a battlefield long ago stripped of vegetation by long-term shelling. The camera rarely sees over the ramparts dug in by the soldiers, shying away from gaps and clearings in the line as much as the troops who know that such openings are a sniper’s delight. The bleach-bypassed look of the film thus reflects not a stark sense of realism but a feel for what it might have been like to live one’s life in a giant hole, spending all of one’s time awaiting another deployment into near-certain death while attempting to stay afloat of the constant threats of mud and standing water.
Dibb may stick with the simple set design and intimate focus of the play, but the compressed setting only compounds the mounting terror among the characters. It takes more than an hour for actual fighting to break out, by which time we’ve gotten so used to Raleigh’s desire for action that his sudden, overwhelming fear hammers home the nightmare of this war without relying on gory special effects or colossal battle sequences. Raleigh’s abrupt confrontation with mortality is balanced by Osborne’s dignified march toward death, though his disgust runs so deep that he sends his wife a letter urging her that, should he be killed in action, she never think he died for his country.
Journey’s End has all of the usual war movie clichés: the grumbling of the men on the ground at the callous insanity of their generals, the gruff vets and wide-eyed new arrivals. Yet occasionally a stray detail of observation will deepen a character beyond his archetype, especially Raleigh’s reaction to the supposed glory he chased. Returning from his first true fight, he is already well on his way to the shellshock of his friend Stanhope, pacing nervously around the officer’s bunk with his pistol still reflexively in his hand, dumbly nodding when a colonel tells him that he will get a medal for his efforts. It’s a moment as disturbing as the actual fighting that so traumatized Raleigh, a reminder that for all the bloodbath of the Great War, its worst casualties were arguably claimed outside of combat.