Commemorating World War One with 'Journey's End'

05 Feb 2018 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Journey's End
Journey's End

Set in the Spring of 2018 in the trenches of northern France, Journey's End tells the moving story of a group of soldiers awaiting their fate, as an imminent German offensive looks to unlock a stalemate between the two sides. When enthusiastic new recruit Raleigh (played by Asa Butterfield) arrives, he is excited to be serving under Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a former school house monitor from back home, and the object of his sister's affections. However, he finds Stanhope much changed, due to the carnage and conflict he has seen, driven by demons and alcohol, and wanting nothing to do with his former friend. In the claustrophobic confines of the trenches, Stanhope, Raleigh and the other soldiers have nothing to do but wait, and hope that the offensive does not arrive while it is them on the front line.

Journey's End is adapted from the well-known 1928 play by R.C. Sheriff (who served in the trenches) and arrives on the centenary of the final year of World War One. The hugely influential play, which would have played to audiences of veterans originally, has been performed countless times on stage around the world, and inspired subsequent stories, with TV comedy Blackadder Goes Forth being one popular example. Perhaps surprisingly, it has only been adapted for film once before, way back in 1930, as directed by James Whale, best known for his Universal horror films Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

When executive producer Sir Anthony Seldon saw the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful he felt the time was right to bring Journey's End back to the cinema, using some of the same producers and writers as Morpugo's film. Seldon was also able to introduce screenwriter Simon Reade to a little known novel that R.C. Sheriff had written, which detailed the experiences of one frightened young solider in the battlefield, material that added a greater intimacy to the script.

The filmmakers felt that the story, whilst an important period piece, would also have a contemporary resonance and appeal to young audiences learning about World War One. The story explores how men deal with unbearable levels of fear and pressure, introducing the concept of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) many decades before the term had been invented. The director, Saul Dibb, also wanted to demonstrate to audiences that peace and unity in Europe should never be taken for granted - an idea he felt would resonate with many in the current political climate. Although no stranger to period pieces, having made The Duchess and Suite Francaise, it was Dibb's more visceral, modern work, such as Bullet Boy, that convinced the producers he was the right man to tell this story.

Dibb was not overly familiar with the source material beforehand. This, he felt was an advantage, allowing him to concentrate on telling a story that was honest, but also fresh and modern. He also purposefully avoided watching fiction films about World War One, concentrating instead on many hours of archive material shot informally in the trenches at the time.

Instead of making a film that glamorised or sentimentalised the content, the filmmakers wanted an urgent, claustrophobic piece of cinema that demonstrated authenticity and tension throughout. The focus was not on action, but with the build-up and endless waiting, concentrating on the relationships between the men and how they behave under the most extreme, ever-increasing pressure. The audience really get to know the characters, which only makes the horrific human consequences of what happened more powerful. 

The film makes a fascinating comparison piece with Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. That film is far more epic in scale, but is similar in its approach, concentrating not on bravura heroism, but on a group of men forced to simply await their fate, as a ticking time-bomb that could explode at any point looms over them. Whereas in Dunkirk the characters are kept very anonymous, in Journey's End the focus on trench life allows for a deeper engagement with the characters and a greater understanding of who these men were that made such an awful sacrifice. It also shares similarities with Kathyrn Bigelow's Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker.

The focus on authenticity extended to the way the film was shot. Many scenes are filmed using a single hand-held camera or Steadicam, and the field of vision is limited so the audience never sees more than the characters, adding to the sense of confinement. The camera is another soldier in the dugout. Many scenes were filmed using only natural light, even candlelight at times. Nothing was faked, and the crew embraced whatever weather conditions they were presented with, as happened in the trenches. This included a torrential downpour two days before filming started that made the trenches a mud bath - mud which is included and very noticeable in the final film.

Central to the film's ability to engage with modern audiences - particularly young audiences - are its characters, played by a host of well-known British actors including Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield. Butterfield, playing fresh-faced Raleigh, serves as the eyes and ears of the audience. He arrives into an environment of fear, dread and despair, discovering the effects that war has had on those serving, particularly the deeply honourable, but much-changed Captain Stanhope; a man all too aware of the terrible fate Raleigh and the other men are in for. Through Stanhope, we gain a perspective of the psychological effects of war and how it can profoundly alter a person's mindset. The film also highlights the disparities of class in the trenches, effectively demonstrated through the motif of food: ordinary soldiers sit outside eating meagre rations, whilst high-ranking officers are away being catered for by cooks.

Films such as Journey's End have an important role to play in helping young audiences understand more about European history. There are many more brilliant films about World War One on the Into Film catalogue and they all serve as a reminder that cinema has a remarkable ability to keep these stories alive, highlighting why it is important to remember, but also to understand some of the contemporary resonances and realise that there are still messages to be learned for the modern world. By having the audience go through what feels like an authentic representation of what it really means to go to war, the film helps us all to reflect, and - with luck - learn from the mistakes of the past.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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