Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

Journey’s End is a stage play written by R.C. Sherrif, and first performed in 1928, ten years after the period in which it was set. An anti-war play, it focuses on a few days around the German offensive in the Spring of 1918, during WW1.

It was first filmed in 1930, starring Colin Clive, but I have never seen that version. However, it was also filmed for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Jeremy Northam in the lead as Captain Stanhope. That remained the definitive version for me, with a superb cast sticking to the spirit of the original play. In this version, some of the action sequences were shown on film, something the play avoided due to theatrical constraints.

Most of what makes the play effective is the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in dugouts and trenches, viewed from the perspective of the officers, and their cooks and servants. The 1988 version deviated from this slightly, but remained powerful and compelling to watch.

So now we have the new version, with Samuel Clafin as Stanhope, Asa Butterfield as the young and impressionable Raleigh, and Paul Bettany excellent as the older experienced lieutenant known to all as ‘Uncle’. Add Toby Jones as the cook, and Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Trotter, and the casting is about as good as it gets these days.

The stresses and strains of trench warfare are all there. Men reaching breaking point, officers living on whisky to get through each day, and senior commanders issuing seemingly pointless orders from comfortable accommodation behind the lines. Social class is maintained in the mud and deprivation, and we have the added complication that Stanhope is the boyfriend of Raleigh’s sister back home, so idolised by the new arrival.

Tension builds as the expected German attack comes ever closer, exacerbated by last-minute orders to attack a German trench to capture a prisoner. We have a cowardly officer unwilling to play his part, and other stiff-upper lip officers pretending all is well, in order to maintain the morale of the men.

As a film, it is beautifully photographed in widescreen; with muted colours suiting the mood, and dingy scenes in the candlelit dugouts nicely done too. It never feels less than completely authentic, not for one moment. If you had never heard of the play, or seen the earlier BBC film, you would no doubt have thought it was a wonderfully moving production. Paul Bettany is quietly outstanding as ‘Uncle’, and young Butterfield looks as if he is actually living in 1918, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm concealing inner fears.

But I have seen the BBC film, and Jeremey Northam is magnificent as Stanhope in that. Tim Spall wipes the floor with Stephen Graham in the role of Trotter, and Edward Petherbridge is even better than Bettany as ‘Uncle’. So my advice is to try to watch the 1988 version. If you can access it, here it is on You Tube. It is not a great print, unfortunately.

But if for some reason you can’t watch this, the new film is still very good indeed.
Here’s a trailer.