Journey’s End, Sean Dibb's brilliant film marking 100 years since the Great War's conclusion, perfectly captures helpless desperation of the Brit looking for adventure. It also highlights the complete lack of compassion shown by high command, and the utter pointlessness of The Great War, known as “the war to end all wars.”
The film follows a group of officers in the final stages of the First World War, near Saint-Quentin, Aisne. They are ill-equipped, many are experiencing trauma, and as news comes of a final German advance, the six days which each platoon must spend on the front becomes increasingly tough as time seems to stand still.
Something that almost all war films fall into the trap of is creating a desperate situation, trapping the characters in dire straits, and just when all seems lost, their struggle is rewarded handsomely. For Instance, when Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan is wounded, laying on the ground, firing his last few pistol bullets at a Tiger tank as it rolls steadily towards him, the audience is rewarded for their emotional investment with an explosion of the metal machine and a sense of satisfying resolution. In Journey’s End however, the constant suffering and loss of life caused by its newly mechanised nature leads us to no defining moment, only a confused, scrappy skirmish with plenty of seemingly unnecessary casualties. For 107 minutes, an audience experiences the turmoil of the Tommy: a war with no end in the worst possible conditions, with limited support from authority.
The cast in Saul Dibb’s film is stunning. Stephen Graham plays the rough-round-the-edges, foul-mouthed officer who shows true empathy, and Toby Jones, who occasionally pokes his head round the makeshift kitchen door to the officers’ mess to provide some worried looks and light-hearted remarks, is excellent. While Sam Claflin’s character, Captain Stanhope, was truly compelling dealing with trauma by drinking to excess, it was Osborne, played by Paul Bettany that stood out as exceptional. In Journey’s End, Bettany’s character is a seasoned soldier, one that in civilian life is a schoolmaster and has become completely disconnected from the war’s bigger picture. He knows his duty, but to whom does he owe it and why? This is perfectly illustrated when he talks of leave. He and his wife simply pretended there was no war on. His caring and considerate attitude earns him the fond nickname 'uncle,' and for me, Bettany’s acting rivalled his very different role of Geoffrey Chaucer in the poignantly silly A Knight’s Tale, a film less about war, although just as much about camaraderie.
As well as the incredibly apt and able cast, Dibb gives us a well-researched sense of place, not one of poppies and epic line advances, but of cigarettes and food being clumsily shared.It is a landscape of sudden, startling gunfire, and the dull terror of waiting.
Its adaption from R. C. Sherriff’s play of the same name means that the dialogue is functional and smooth, rather than forced and clunky. Moments which detach you from the film and draw you back into reality are few and far between.
There are war films with huge battles, heroic feats of bravery and satisfying endings, however, in Saul Dibb’s film you’ll find that it’s more about the emotional turmoil of the typical Tommy, and the unrelenting boredom that they face. Whatever you look for in a film about the Great War, you’ll find it in the rose-tinted words of Osborne, the sudden shock of rifle fire and the teary eyes of the petrified privates.