R. C. Sherriff, writer of such strange film scripts as The Invisible Man (1933,) based on H.G. Wells 1897 novel, and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as well as the heart-warmer Goodbye Mr Chips (1939, on James Hilton’s 1934 novel) was also a playwright and novelist on his own.  His most famous work, in his lifetime, was Journey’s End, a powerful trench-view of WWI, in which he, himself, had fought.   After several months at the infamous battle of Passchendaele (June-November 1917)  he was evacuated home to England, either (depending on the source) from a severe wound or from neuralgia, with which one of the characters in the play is afflicted.

The first theatrical production was in London, December, 1928 with a young Laurence Olivier playing Captain Stanhope the lead.  It went on to a record 595 performances, and had similar runs in cities around the world.  Revivals as late as the 2000s have been successful.  Several film adaptations have also been made.  The first, in 1930, with the same name was shot much as the original stage-play; it was also an enormous success to a much wider audience. A German version, The Other Side, was released in 1931.  In 1976 no longer in the trenches but in the air, it was used as the basis for Aces High.  The most recent, 2017 adaptation, also titled Journey’s End, is a compelling war-emotions story: the fear is real, fear of the immediate, fear of the unknown but surely to come, the translation of fear into anger.  Self-doubt and self-revelation are all worn on the characters’ faces.  Suspense or Waiting were the working titles for the play before Journey’s End was hit upon; both are palpable to the viewer.

Simon Reade combined the original theatrical script with a later novel of the same name which Sherriff wrote with a friend, Vernon Bartlett.  Using both sources allowed him and Saul Dibb, the director, wider latitude than that of a stage drama.  It is well used.

In short form, the play centers around a Captain Stanhope, several years on the Western Front and battling battle fatigue with nightly pulls at the bottle.  One afternoon, six days before an expected attack by the Germans, the arrival of a former young schoolmate is announced.  The newly minted Second Lieutenant Raleigh is thrilled to be with his former mentor, and at war!  He also is also the brother of Stanhope’s sweetheart who will surely write home that Stanhope is not the man they took him to be. 

The young man’s naiveté as to war is swiftly stripped;  the agony of his CO increases when he is left with no one but the untested youngster to send on a prisoner-capture raid to the German trenches.  There are deaths.  Stanhope is one of a continuous line of non-heroic protagonists which had begun with Stendhal’s and Flaubert’s mid 19th century novels.  At the center of the story is a man we have some sympathy for:  how would we behave after several years of enduring the almost daily threat of death from unseen sources? And we also are somewhat disgusted:  surely, we would have behaved better!  Or, even if there are such men, can’t they be further from the center of our attention?

The 2017 film does an excellent job of retaining the close-up claustrophobia of the original one-trench one-stage presentation, while adding elements we now expect of such war films: earth thrown skyward under massive shelling, returning to cover men completely, in whole or in parts.  Mud, terror, poor food, little sleep and the daily necessities — take a piss in the trench before you go over the top,  so it doesn’t come out in your pants as you attack.

Reade/Dibb have followed Sherriff in presenting men in the terrible vise of war, no longer behaving with the fearlessness and keen sense of honor-above-all as the pre-WWI heroes were written of, but of men with a different, new kind of courage — of endurance, beyond all imagination. 

One assumes that their interest in making a film about a war one hundred years ago is not simply historical; how was it for our great-grandfathers?  As is true for most writers, using time and events before their own memory for a story, something else is at work: yes, what happened then, but vitally what is going on today?  In fact, preparing for the filming, the writers and actors had long conversations with British soldiers then suffering from experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Neuralgia is only one possible expression of PTSD.

Tell a story, yes, but let it be true to the lives of those from which it comes.

 

Next time you hear awe in the voice of someone who has seen “a great war-film” remember Journey’s End, and counter-recommend.  This, friend, is what it is really like.

A nice interview with the screenwriter Simon Reade, about their intentions and results.