This year is the centenary of the final year of World War I, and the cinematic commemorations are beginning with the new British film Journey’s End. The last surviving veteran died in 2012 just short of the age of 111, so the experience of serving in the war has now passed out of living memory. But End puts us in the trenches with an intimacy that is profound and moving, and with an immediacy that unavoidably draws us to see a relevance for today.
Taking place over just a few days in March 1918, and set almost entirely in one muddy trench, End has us waiting with a small company of soldiers just beginning a six-day rotation at the front lines. They know they won’t be there that long, though: a German attack is imminent, and they will take the brunt of it. While they await the inevitable, the air heavy with their resignation to the sacrifice before them, they chat about anything other than the war, seemingly inconsequential things that are, of course, of enormous consequence. Like home, which has a particular resonance for new recruit Raleigh (Asa Butterfield). Painfully young, and painfully eager to get into the fight, he had specifically requested to be assigned here, under the command of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), because they were friends back home, and Stanhope was his sister’s sweetheart. But nothing will turn out as Raleigh expects.
The less obvious damage the war was wreaking on the men who fought it, and with whom it would linger afterward, is drawn here with sensitive subtlety. Stanhope is crumbling under the weight of the war: he’s no longer the man Raleigh knew, and in Claflin’s snappish performance, we see that he is frustrated both by Raleigh’s naiveté and by his own inability to simply be the person he used to be before his softness had been sharpened away. The kindness and forbearance of fellow officer Osborne (Paul Bettany), particularly in how he gently guides Raleigh toward understanding what has happened to Stanhope, adds to that to help create a depiction of PTSD that is appropriate to the era yet embodies our modern understanding of it.
‘Journey’s End’ paints a portrait of PTSD that is appropriate to the era yet embodies our modern understanding of it.
Is this delicacy present in the 1928 play upon which this film is based? Playwright R.C. Sherriff was a British army officer in the war, and was wounded at Passchendaele, so he certainly would have had first-hand awareness of “shell shock.” But it hardly matters whether the play was remarkably prescient with its empathy or if this is something fostered by director Saul Dibb, screenwriter Simon Reade, and the terrific cast. (The other soldiers tiptoeing around Stanhope even as they have to cope with their own unspoken-of anxieties include those played by Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, and Tom Sturridge.) It’s here now onscreen, in the real if unvoiced tenderness and affection among the men, and in their solemn awareness of both the futility and the necessity of what they’re doing. It should never have come to this, as Osborne writes in a bittersweet last letter to his wife, but it has, and this is what they have to do.
The experience here is visceral: you want to scold random soldiers for letting their heads accidentally pop up over the top of the trench, exposing them to gunfire; you start when a sniper’s bullet whizzes overhead out of the quiet of no-man’s-land. But Journey’s End is also an intellectual one for us just as it is for the men waiting in the trench. Their exhaustion is not just physical but mental, as is ours, even more so with our foreknowledge of what’s to come: yet another war a generation away, because this one won’t resolve anything, and the European stability that did come after that one being threatened again by Brexit right now. Crying about it feels too small. You almost want to laugh at the absurdity, at the stupid pointlessness of it all. (This is like Blackadder Goes Forth, except not funny. Except that Blackadder wasn’t actually funny, either.) But not even bitter laughter helps. So you just wait to face your inevitable fate.
Giving in to fatalism isn’t something I generally recommend, but it’s impossible not to get sucked into the melancholy of Journey’s End. A hundred years doesn’t feel so long ago at all.
‘Journey’s End’ opens in limited release in US cinemas on Friday, March 16th.
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