Journey’s End: Bloody Hell, by Sarah Brinks

You don’t have to be a student of history to know that the trenches during World War I were horrific places to fight. Journey’s End does not attempt to glorify that field of battle, but it also never quite fully commits to the true horror either. I think that is mostly due to the fact that the film focuses on the British officers not the regular soldiers. In 1918, in Northern France there was a stalemate between the British and German forces. Each British company was required to spend six days a month defending the front line. The eminent fear was hanging over them every time they took up position at the front line that the stalemate would end on their watch.

The film begins with a new company led by Captain Stanhope starting their six days in the trenches at the frontline. A young lieutenant named Raleigh, who has just arrived in Northern France asked his uncle, who is also a general, to put him with Stanhope’s company. Raleigh knew Stanhope from school and wanted to serve under him even though they were at the front. As you may expect it is during this six-day period that the German’s break the stalemate and begin what is later referred to as the “Spring Offensive”, a three-month campaign that would claim over 700,000 lives.

The film looks at the impact that trench-style warfare had on men and also how the waiting and not knowing when the attack would come had British Officers at the front very on edge. Some of the officers like “Uncle” Osborn played by Paul Bettany are able to not only keep it together but also become a steadfast beacon for other officers and soldiers who were struggling. The young, fresh-faced Raleigh stirs up resentment and fear among some of the officers, specifically his old schoolmate Stanhope. Stanhope shows very clear signs of shellshock/post traumatic stress disorder. He hallucinates, his hands shake, and he struggled to sleep. So he turned to drink. There is another officer named Hibbet who has similar symptoms and wants to be removed from duty but Stanhope won’t allow it.

Shellshock was first diagnosed in World War I and was later renamed PTSD. It’s no wonder it was so prolific given the conditions in which they fought. We see a few glimpses of how terrible it must have been in the trenches in Journey’s End. We see the mud, the rat infestation, and foot rot. But I wish the film had leaned a little more heavily into that, instead the film focuses on the food conditions for the officers mostly. They eat scraps of beef, sardines, “yellow soup” and canned apricots. There is one meeting when fresh fish is brought in and it is a real treat for the officers that get to eat it.

The film has a wonderful cast. Pau Bettany plays the “old man” of the company and is beloved by all. Asa Butterfield plays Raleigh, his extremely young-looking face and lack of experience made him stand out from the other men and especially the officers. The always welcome, Toby Jones, plays Mason the cook who takes a great deal of grief over the pathetic rations. Stephen Graham plays another officer who takes Raleigh under his wing and helps him settle in. Sam Claflin plays Stanhope to the best of his ability. I have never been overwhelmed by Claflin’s acting ability, but he gives a fine performance in Journey’s End. Claflin is at his best in his scenes with Bettany. The dynamic between the characters is strong but Bettany gives Claflin a lot to work with and in turn elevates both of their performances.

One element of the film that I love is the use of Icelandic cellist Hildur Goðnadóttir’s haunting music throughout. Her subtle music sets the tone for the film. Goðnadóttir’s cello brings out the unease in the officer’s barracks as well as the tension they all feel waiting for the battle to start. Director Saul Dibb mimics the tone of the music on screen along with his editor and cinematographer to make the film forlorn and beautiful, despite the dirt and mud. I was a fan of Dibb’s 2008 film The Duchess. He seems to work well on films set in the past and with a melancholy story.

I don’t know that Journey’s End brings much to the film conversation about World War I. It does take a new angle by being set during the stalemate but a film like Paths of Glory has a great deal more to say and is much more challenging.

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