'Journey's End': In the trenches with WWI soldiers

Last year’s movie about WWI, also known as Wonder Woman, made $1 billion around the globe, and that’s probably not a realistic outcome for Journey’s End.

In part because there are no superheroes in Journey’s End, only men. And doomed men at that, English soldiers stuck in a trench about to be doused in poison gas, and overrun by German soldiers. It’s hallmark is a dogged realism – it’s based on material written 90 years ago by World War I veteran R.C. Sherriff, who turned his experiences into the play, which opened in London starring a young Laurence Olivier, and went on to become a West End smash and a hit across the pond as well.

Audiences were intrigued by the novelty of Sherriff’s then-modern take on the unprecedented horror of industrial-age mechanized warfare — conflict on a mass scale, conducted with weapons of mass destruction (machine guns and nerve gas) that had turned combat into pointless, numbing slaughter — the battle featured here would claim 700,000 men, and accomplish nothing, not even a disgusted desire to end the war.

Journey’s End plops us into Year 3 of the madness, when the futility and insanity of the situation had left soldiers shell-shocked and cynical. On a parade ground, troops drill and sing: “We’re here because we’re because we’re here because we’re here,” a bitter strain of esprit de corps.

Soldiers are fighting to preserve monarchies and a class system that views them as little more than cannon fodder. This debased situation, increasingly obvious, has unnerved even the officers.

Among them is Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who in Journey’s End is informed that the Germans are preparing to mount a major assault, and that he will receive no reinforcements. At this inopportune moment, he “welcomes” a new officer named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a friend from home.

Stanhope struggles to conceal from Raleigh what we would now recognize as PTSD — three years of war have driven him nearly mad (another officer is already there), and he now gets by on alcohol and cathartic bouts of rage (often directed at the poor cook, Toby Jones).

Stanhope relies on friend and fellow officer (Paul Bettany), but even this consolation is threatened when Stanhope is forced to select officers for a suicidal patrol to snag German prisoners.

Journey’s End makes no attempt to disguise the stage origins of the script. Instead, director Saul Dibb shows the physical dimension of the situation in a new way — much of the action occurs in the tunnels — it’s shot imaginatively in extreme low light, where the officers live, eat, and decide which men are to live and which are to die.

And aspects Sherriff’s drama retain their appeal — including the way it reflects the unparalleled British gift for understatement. When a sergeant (Stephen Graham) grasps the suicidal lunacy of the unit’s latest assignment, he describes the orders as a “nuisance.”

Indeed.

The play wears well, even if it’s ending is a bit dated — a family member receives a letter home from one of the men, who is essentially lying about what he’s seen, and preserving illusions of gallantry and honor for the sake of the folks back home.

War is no longer able to keep those kinds of secrets. But that hasn’t made it any less ineradicable.

MOVIES

Journey's End

    • Directed by Saul Gibb. With Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones and Stephen Graham. Distributed by levelFilm.
    • Run time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
    • Parents guide: R (violence)
    • Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse