Skip to main content

How many did you expect to make it back?

Journey’s End 
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I can't say I was ever the greatest fan of the play Journey’s End (I wasn't and still am not of the remotest fan of the Doctor Who story of the same title), but not because I didn't recognise the quality of RC Sheriff's piece – even as a whatever-year-old. Rather, it was having to read it and reread it as a set text at school, its unremitting despair and hopelessness – even with the more overtly comic characters, which rather went to underline than relieve – surmounted any positives after a while. I was very glad never to have to set eyes on a copy once exams were over. And then it showed up in Withnail & I (it's the part Marwood has to cut his hair for) and like Withnail, I thought he must have been mad to take the part. But time can be a restorative, and thirty years later, the work's considerable merits are fully in evidence in Saul Dibb's film version.


Curiously, we were never shown James Whale's 1930 adaptation (Whale got his big break directing it on stage, with a fresh-faced Laurence Olivier as Stanhope), although I was familiar with the aeronautically transposed Aces High. Simon Reade's screenplay, as is the habit of adaptations from the stage, expands the action from the confines of the officers' dugout. We're escorted through the trenches, visit HQ and experience the crucial raid; we're even left in no doubt as to the aftermath of the German attack at the conclusion. 


Reade utilised Sheriff's novelisation, written with Vernon Bartlett, although it's been suggested this was largely Bartlett's effort, much of the opening part concerning the school experiences of Stanhope and Raleigh before a more perfunctory rehashing of the play once the WWI section is reached. As such, Dibb has shot an introductory section before C Company returns to the frontline and includes a scene where Raleigh asks his uncle to post him to Stanhope's company. Also notable is access to the cook's quarters and staff (Toby Jones as Private Mason overseeing the grub), and in an effort to muddy up the palate, additional swearing in passing from the men in the trenches (while not out of place per se, this still seems gratuitous). 


Dibb ensures these expansions don't impact the claustrophobic intensity of the material. Indeed, when it comes to the raid, he resists the urge to provide an overview – although that may as much have been a budgetary decision – following the men at foot level and then at a crawl, emphasising the confusion rather than the clarity. Commendable too that he didn't take the opportunity to depict Osbourne's death, even if we see the scenario leading to it. I was less sure about the need to feature Raleigh's sister receiving his letter at the end, and whether the motive was to illustrate how false impressions of the reality of war get passed on, or simply a get-out in not having the downer of absolutely everyone dead come the credits (in which case, it’s rather desperate and doesn't work). 


The producer threw about big names like Cumberbatch, Hiddleston and Redmayne as ideal casting, but Dibbs' choices are perfect. Superlatives abound for Paul Bettany's kindly, reflective Lieutenant "Uncle" Osborne, fiercely loyal to his alcoholic captain while attempting to show the fresh-faced and naively eager Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) the ropes. Witness the scene where Osborne tries to keep Raleigh's mind off the imminent the raid; Bettany imbues a palpable sense of a man keeping a lid on his own fear in order to lead by example. When he's gone you entirely miss his presence in a way I don't recall the play quite achieving, and that has to be put down to the actor.


Sam Claflin is also exactly what you'd hope for from a Captain Stanhope, combustible and raw, treating wide-eyed Butterfield contemptibly but also understandably; his desire to do right by his men is best illustrated by his summons to a meal with Robert Glenister's colonel, where he can barely disguise his disgust at their remoteness and detachment. I've never been too sure of Butterfield previously, certainly as lead where he usually seems rather ineffectual; that quality makes him perfect casting here; you feel for the character, hopelessly out of his depth at every turn. 


Stephen Graham's Second Lieutenant Trotter is less comic relief, such that Stanhope seems all the more the arse for laying into him; he still likes his food – Sheriff calling the character Trotter wasn't the subtlest cue – but Graham affords him more perceptiveness than you might expect ("It must be nice to be you, Trotter. You never get sick of anything" says Stanhope dismissively at one point; "If only you knew" he replies under his breath). Then there's Tom Sturridge as "bloody little funk" Second Lieutenant Hibbert, whose malaises are a major bone of contention for Stanhope; Sturridge is good, but I recall Hibbert casting a more pervasive blight on the play than he does here, and I wondered if there shouldn't have been an edge to the scene where Stanhope talks him down and says he feels exactly the same way (certainly given the later drunken fracas between them).


The best compliment you can pay Dibb and Reade is that they ensure the power of the play remains intact, one that encapsulates the futility and horror of war without diverting into invective. Journey's End is as impactful as ever, and since it appears that it's still taught at GCSE, this film version will doubtless become an essential instructive tool, and dare I say standard crib (as long as the kids don't make the mistake of assuming it hasn't been embellished).


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi