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Journey's End shows life and death in the trenches from a soldier’s-eye view

WWI drama Journey’s End might be a new film from an old play, but it’s a timely reminder about the futility of the conflict.

The play Journey’s End, written by ex-soldier RC Sherriff, was first performed in 1928. Together with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front released the same year, and the earlier trench poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, it formed the basis for our modern understanding of the First World War: an unholy and barbaric waste of life.

In many ways, the war’s depiction in Journey’s End has almost become a cliché to us: shell-shock, horror, endless mud, bad food, the jocularity of the common soldier, the condescension of higher-ups and their brazen disregard for humanity.

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It is set on the Western Front over four tense days in March 1918.  Four days out of four years. Despair has crept into the bones of company commander Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a broken man soothing his fear with booze and leaning on second-in-command Osborne (Paul Bettany), better known as “Uncle” – a perfect encapsulation of his tolerance and tenderness.

They both look with pity on newcomer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who has requested placement in Stanhope’s company because they were at school together. Raleigh is green, fresh from training. Or perhaps the more apt word is white. Pale white. The face of eager youth not yet corrupted. It reminds them of what they once were, and how far they’ve fallen.

For these men it is not so much apocalypse now as apocalypse soon: a German assault is expected – 1918’s gratuitous Spring Offensive. The dread is in the waiting and not dying, wondering when they might. An eerie soundtrack of slow, ominous glissandos (by Natalie Holt and Hildur Guðnadóttir) only adds to the sense of impending catastrophe.

As in the stage version, the story is mostly confined to the claustrophobic, low-lit officers’ dugout. And like Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece La Grande Illusion, it is a war film with barely any combat. When it does come, more effort is spent on anxious preparations: in an excruciatingly heart-breaking scene, one character uses what might be his last few minutes on earth preparing a comrade for the bloody carnage ahead, for inevitable loss. Here, performances come to the fore, particularly Claflin, who has never done anything better, and Bettany, whose wan smile carries so much sadness.

Whether these themes are clichés or not doesn’t matter. Whether we’ve seen it all before counts for little. In this emotionally punishing adaptation of Journey’s End the visceral futility of the war is felt afresh. It’s a necessary feeling to have as we pass the centenary of the Armistice, for the sake of remembrance.

Video: Zero Media