JOURNEY’S END, a new and just-released British film, is a property with a storied history. This tale of survival among a cluster of British soldiers in the trenches of World War I originated as a play. Its author is R.C. Sherriff, and it premiered on the London stage at the tail-end of 1928. One of its stars, by the way, was a 21-year-old actor by the name of Laurence Olivier, and it ran on the West End for two years. The success of JOURNEY’S END resulted in stage productions mounted across the globe. Its first screen version, a U.S.-UK co-production, dates from 1930. It is the first feature directed by James Whale, who momentarily guided Boris Karloff to horror film immortality in FRANKENSTEIN. Intriguingly, a German remake of JOURNEY’S END came out a year later. This of course was pre-Adolph Hitler. Plus, it has been revived on-stage across the decades. I saw it a number of years ago in a West End production.
JOURNEY’S END is a slice-of-life set in Northern France in 1918-- or, one full century ago. It follows a host of soldiers who are about to see combat. Their connections unfold not so much on the battlefield but in the officer’s dugout over a several-day period. A range of GI’s are portrayed, from the young and well-mannered who are inexperienced and easily intimidated to the grizzled, been-there-done-that combat veteran. And of course, given the time period, the British class system still exists. Those from the lower-classes dutifully call even the youngest upper-class combatants “Sir.” But what links these men is that they all are sharing space at the front line. The bullets that are shot out of the guns of the enemy will not distinguish between them. Also, whatever their background, they have been separated from their families and futures. Their lives have been interrupted by war, all because of their ages and the time in which they are coming of age and, as you get to observe each character, you wonder: Who will survive? Who will not? And even for those who emerge without a scratch, who will be impacted mightily by their war experiences for the rest of their lives?
JOURNEY’S END is a powerful drama of what war does to men, as well as the psychological impact of sustained combat on the individual. It is solidly directed by Saul Dibb; in particular, there are battle scene that are brilliantly filmed and edited and which chillingly capture the chaos of the moment. Featured in the all-male cast are some familiar faces and names, starting with Paul Bettany, Sam Clafin, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones, and Tom Sturridge. However, I recognized one particular actor by face rather than name. He is Stephen Graham: a Liverpool-born player who was excellently cast as a very American Al Capone in BOARDWALK EMPIRE, the HBO series. This is yet one more example of a multi-talented British player who effortlessly drops his accent and makes his very American character come alive.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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