Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End is a cinematic reinvention of the 1928 play by R.C. Sheriff. Set in the trenches in 1918 during the height of World War One, it tells the story of the officers in a company during the final days before a German assault. Doubling down on the themes explored in the play, Dibb crafts a movie that is as much about the grating gears of time as it is about the indiscriminate casualties of war.
Opening with men singing “we’re here because we’re here” in an ominous march to the front led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), Journey’s End has nowhere to go but to take its characters to their treacherous demise. Most films would fall short in guiding their audience to such a certain conclusion, but this is not a film about the danger of death – the conclusion here is foregone – this is a film about each man’s relationship with its certainty. Journey’s End not only explores each character’s search to come to terms with this certainty, but also touches on the painful inability for adequate expression in such a circumstance. When word comes from command that the Germans are planning a heavy assault in two days, each character deals with it differently. Osborne (Paul Bettany), the magisterial voice of reason affectionately nicknamed “Uncle,” glints to the end like the final glow of his ever-present pipe, Stanhope reaches for the drink, Trotter (Stephen Graham) clings to humour, Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) to anxiety and Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) to his youthful innocence.
The film grinds towards an unavoidable conclusion with an ensemble of characters that already seem like they are living on borrowed time, and yet they are victims of a violence and circumstance far beyond their personal autonomy. They are pawns moved by the hands of a fashioned and deeply auspicious elite. The moment where Stanhope is told by his superior that the attack is certain and yet he must hold the line anyway is a perfect example of this.
For the powers-that-be, these men have just been dealt a bad hand. You can hear the eulogies from the commanding officers now: “sorry chaps, bad luck, you made a good old run at it, gave the Bosch a hell of a fight.” This inadequate response to the gravity of their situation is emblematic of the predicament in which the characters invariably find themselves throughout the movie. They are caught between the wrenching certainty of death and the follies and fables of a society that prides itself on pleasantries and stiff upper-lips.
No scene shows this better than perhaps the most sobering moment in the movie, when Raleigh and Osborne are delegated to make a raid on the German trenches the day before the German assault. Resigned to the fact that the assignment is a suicide mission, Osborne assures the last few minutes of their time in the trenches is taken up by fantasies of home and the romance of peacetime. This is where Osborne shows his light as the true purveyor of courage in the group. He is as fearful as the rest of them, but as the elder statesman he fathers a sense of strength into the team of officers. “Uncle” goes closest to standing toe-to-toe with his brother, Father Time, in order to find acceptance in such a torrid and untenable position. When Osborne is killed during the raid that strength falls away and each officer becomes a victim of his own fears.
Throughout the movie, Dibb does an astute job of highlighting the advance of time as a persistent theme. Whether it’s through repeated shots of boots trudging forward in the mud, a dream sequence of an almighty fire barreling towards Stanhope or the motif of ticking clocks in the soundtrack, the film is an audio-visual reminder of the incessant journey to the end. (The ticking sound that turns out to be a bicycle delivering a letter to Raleigh’s sister and Stanhope’s lover, Madge, after their death is perhaps the most shrewd statement that time, even after such a terrible event, keeps ticking on.)
In doing so, the movie perhaps loses the play’s sharp assessment of the absurdity of war, but goes further in shaping these men as victims of a reckoning for which they have no blame. Subjects to a political gluttony that has played out across Europe, these men are the sons of intemperance and greed. They have been led to a certain demise and are paying deeply for the errors of others. Mistakes always claim their losses in time and Journey’s End demonstrates that such an egregious misapplication of power twists time and loss into an incomparable display of devastation.