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Journey’s End: a vintage view of WWI

A century after the 1918 Spring Offensive, one of the best-loved First World War stories returns to the cinema. Director Saul Dibb has made a new film of RC Sherriff’s intense, claustrophobic play Journey’s End, and it’s a terrific movie, capped by a blistering performance by Sam Claflin as the disintegrating Captain Stanhope.

The story takes place during a week in which one battalion is posted at the frontline, just 60 yards from the enemy trenches. The story unfolds among the officers – especially paternal Osborne (Paul Bettany), green Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) and volatile Stanhope. While the soldiers must sit and wait for an expected, and horribly imminent, German attack, the higher-ups insists on a daylight raid into enemy territory.

Neccesarily, the play is almost all talk, and although it was written in 1928 it was not adapted for the screen in the silent era. James Whale’s 1930 epic talkie adaptation is was a big success, though, and the play remains popular, performed regularly in professional and amateur productions. There was even a German film, starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Heinz Paul in 1932, which was banned by the Nazis.

Journey's End (1930)
Journey’s End (1930)

The new Journey’s End doesn’t immediately seem to have any connections to the silent era, but when I saw it at a preview screening recently I thought otherwise. This powerful film is well worth watching for its own sake, but it also has some interesting resonances with silent cinema that I found fascinating.

Dibb pointed out at a Q&A after the screening that Simon Reade’s wasn’t solely based on the play, but mostly on the later novelisation by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett. This goes a long way to explain why the film is so effectively opened-out from the dugout contains the action in the stage version. Dibb further said that, although many of the cast were very familiar with the original, he hadn’t watched Whale’s film or read the play. In fact during his research, he chose not to watch any fictionalised accounts of the First World War at all. No Paths of Glory or Shoulder Arms. What he watched instead, and it shows, was archive footage of the war itself.

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