Now that a hundred years have passed since it ended, it’s tempting to think it’s time to let the First World War go. The 20th century produced horrors to rival and surpass the mass murders of 1914-18, and all indications suggest that the 21st will too. Maybe this November’s poppies should be our last – consign those muddy fields to history, a dark page we have been refusing to turn for far too long.
Forgetting would at least deflate the jingoism that attaches itself to even this most senseless of conflicts. Yet, as Saul Dibb’s adaptation of the Journey’s End conveys, there is more at stake here than moving on from an historical tragedy. As the crucible for an era that we are in many respects still living through, the importance of the First World War only sharpens when we start to think it no longer matters.
R.C. Sheriff based Journey’s End on his own experiences at the front, and as a play that has been taught in schools across the country for decades, it occupies its own powerful niche – alongside Blackadder, the Unknown Soldier, and rows of quiet white tombs – in popular understandings of the war.
For Dibb, then, the task is to inject fresh life into a text that has all the familiarity of a well-tended monument. His choice to move outside the sole dugout in which Sheriff set the action goes some way to achieving this. Wide-eyed youngster Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) has just arrived in France, pulling strings to join the regiment headed by his sister’s beau – Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Unbeknown to him, though, is that Stanhope is a broken man, blotting out the traumas of fighting with whisky and self-pity.
Second-in-command Osborne, played by an avuncular Paul Bettany, is Stanhope’s only solace. Embattled intimacies between the men drive what is at heart a compelling domestic drama, albeit in hellish surroundings. The calibre of the performances help raise Journey’s End above what could have been a set of hoary clichés, a quality only bolstered by bit parts from Toby Jones, Stephen Graham and Tom Sturridge.
If Dibb had gotten his wish of casting Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, then the film would have sunk under the weight of its own entitlement. As it is, Journey’s End may not fully escape the trappings of its own cultural freight (not least in its thoroughly English concern with class and manners), but it strikes the emotional chords that Nolan’s Dunkirk makes a point of aestheticizing.
And there lies its chief value – Journey’s End is a well-wrought reminder that the anguish of modern warfare, then as now, begins and ends with the humans it grinds up.