Score: 4 stars **** out of 4 ****
Based on the 1928 British play of the same name by R.C. Sherriff, “Journey’s End” is the fourth feature film adaptation of the play and goes far in proving all great stories are timeless. As much as most of us hate the idea of war, many of us love a good war movie and this incarnation of “Journey’s End” more than fits the bill. At various points it echoes “All Quiet on the Western Front” but plays out more like a variation of Stanley Kubrick’s classic “Paths of Glory.”
Not long after it was over, World War I was dubbed “the war to end all wars” but was eclipsed not long after by World War II which was only a larger version of what preceded it and we later rightfully labeled those Americans who were directly and indirectly involved in it as “The Greatest Generation.” This was the last conflict where the U.S. and its allies clearly emerged victorious and the finest accomplishment of “Journey’s End” is placing the viewer in a situation where the outcome of WWI is not yet known and the U.S. is not involved in this particular skirmish.
Those interested in a typical war flick with lots of action and battle scenes might be disappointed with “Journey’s End.” During the 107 minute running time, less than 10 percent is dedicated to gunfire and such with the lion’s share going to strategy and the often overlooked fall-out situations which take place before, during, and after actual warfare in claustrophobic underground trenches and bunkers.
Director Saul Dibb (“The Duchess”) and screenwriter Simon Reade (“What You Will”) approach the material in an interesting, if not altogether original manner. There are three co-leads and throughout we’re afforded bits and pieces of the story from their respective points of view.
The first and easily the most interesting of them is Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”), a wide-eyed, fresh-faced and overly eager young officer arriving behind the lines and loaded for bear. He wants nothing more than to enter the fray and kill Germans.
Through a familial connection at his new base, Raleigh is quickly assigned to a troupe commanded by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, “Me Before You”), his former schoolteacher and quasi-mentor whom Raleigh holds in high regard. What Raleigh doesn’t know yet is that much has changed since school. While well-respected by his men, Stanhope is a major alcoholic and stays drunk pretty much full time. Considering the circumstances (months of stalemate trench warfare minus the actual war part), being buzzed is a decent if not ideal option for passing the time. Not having to make any crucial strategic decisions allows Stanhope a great deal of operational leeway.
No one is more aware of this than Osborne (Paul Bettany, “A Beautiful Mind”), Stanhope’s second in command who is the story’s effective Switzerland or an American Vice-President. Content at having a high rank (but happy it’s not the top rung) Osborne walks a relatively easy balance beam between non-committal authority and sounding board. He’s “liked” by the men more than Stanhope is “respected.”
After months of absolutely nothing happening besides drinking, smoking, talking, and enjoying rations cooked with relative flair by Mason (Toby Jones, “The Hunger Games”), an order comes down from the high command to take action that may or may not lead to something changing the stalemate.
What is only possible to recognize in retrospect after watching this film is identifying what is missing. The things that are almost never seen in classic war films (“Paths of Glory” being one of the rare exceptions) — men killing each other, inspirational pontificating (“Patton,” “Saving Private Ryan”) and a clear, black-and-white victor. You’ll not get any of that of that here and this might be the ultimate point of Mr. Sherriff and the filmmakers. War is hell but mostly it is tedious, boring, expensive, time-consuming and something which ultimately changes little in the long run. It’s a stare/blink contest and the loser isn’t generally the one who blinks but rather the one who runs out of funding, soldiers, or public opinion first.
The true test of filmmaking hubris comes in the third act here with a battle which takes place mostly off-screen. We hear shells exploding and see men being carried off of the battlefield but it’s fleeting and largely non-associative. There is no cause and effect shown but it is brilliant filmmaking. Carnage is suggested but never seen. In film what isn’t shown often has a better effect than the alternative.
The best facet of “Journey’s End” is its avoidance of politics. No one in the trenches gives a damn about politics; they just wish to emerge intact and breathing. Perhaps we should place politicians responsible for perpetuating war in the theater of war for say, five minutes. That might change their minds. It might also change the minds of men like Raleigh who want to make a difference but are totally unaware that their opinion and enthusiasm means little in the great scheme of things.
Now playing in select cities.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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