In the Trenches: Saul Dibb’s 'Journey’s End' revives a classic tale of World War I terror and courage

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R.C. Sheriff, a claims adjuster with the Sun Assurance Company in London, suddenly switched professions at age 36. He turned playwright because, as he said at the time, “I want to place on record one simple story of the war before memory died.” What resulted was 1928’s Journey’s End, a fierce, faithful account of his experiences as a captain in the East Surrey Regiment, fighting in the French trenches of World War I.

He went on to work on 50-plus plays and screenplays (among them The Invisible Man, Odd Man Out, Bride of Frankenstein, Mrs. Miniver, That Hamilton Woman and Goodbye, Mr. Chips), but his first was his most famous and most frequently filmed.

James Whale brought it to the screen in 1930 with Colin Clive and David Manners, the first Anglo-American co-production of the sound era, followed a year later by a German version with Conrad Veidt. Aces High, with Malcolm McDowell and Simon Ward in 1978, moved the playing field from the trenches to an airstrip. There have been two TV-movie renderings in England—one in 1983 with Maxwell Caulfield and Simon Ward and the other in 1988 with Edward Petherbridge and Timothy Spall.

Against all odds, the sixth (!) filmization of Journey’s End by Saul Dibb—arriving now on the 100th anniversary of World War I’s end—should not seem as fresh or as heartbreaking as it in fact is. The secret of his success: The 50-year-old director has seen none of the above. “I made a conscious effort not to,” he says. “I didn’t think they’d help. I thought what I needed to do was to try and provide something fresh.

“We went back to basics and said, ‘What we’re going to do—something that film does uniquely well—is to put the viewers directly in the boots of the soldiers in the film. People often talk about that kind of immersive experience, but we really did create something that was very, very authentic and placed the viewer in there with the soldiers. We didn’t make any compromises in terms of the authenticity. Everything was exactly as the trenches would have been. We didn’t try to sentimentalize it or romanticize it in any way or even make it feel more overly or unnaturally dramatic. We just tried to make it very clear what was happening.”

The sorrows of war never date—primarily because they never go away. If anything, they resonate more with each new generation. When the play returned to Broadway in 2007, it walked away with the Tony Award for Best Revival. David Grindley, who directed the play in London and New York, is executive producer of this film remake, and the increasing relevance of its anti-war message doesn’t surprise Dibb a bit.

“It is arguably the greatest British dramatic work about the First World War—and, quite possibly, about all other wars. I think it was felt just very fitting—as we were coming to the centenary of that war’s end—that, if one was going to look at a particular piece to base a film on, this would be a very obvious one to do it with. For me, what’s exciting about it is that it was written by somebody who was there.”

Dibb puts an asterisk after “there.” He believes Sheriff wasn’t in that dugout in Aisne where the story is set but instead waging the Battle of Vimy Ridge in another part of that war forest in northern France. (He was actually wounded at Passchendaele.)

“Sheriff purposely chose that German offensive because, at the time, it was one everybody knew. They knew how big this offensive was, so if these soldiers were there waiting for this offensive, they would know what the scale of that attack was.”

At the tail end of The Great War, the British Army was playing Russian roulette with its battalions. “That was something that wasn’t in the play—we discovered through research that it would be on rotation, that you would spend six days of every month at the front and then be moved further down the line until the Germans attacked.

“The true situation was that the high command had intelligence that this attack was going to come, so they sent out an order that these front lines, which the British were willing to concede, would be lightly defended. The men were there just to slow the advance down. It’s a story of sacrifice, really, which is why when I watch it a feeling of anger rises as the story goes on because they’re just being left there to die.

“We put aside a three-act structure, because we’re not waiting for people to find out if this attack is going to come. We tried to make it really clear right from the start: It is going to come. There’s no need for ‘Spoiler Alert’ when you describe the story of the film, and I think because you know this awful thing is going to come—it’s hanging over them—it does imbue and check the scenes with a terrible sense of tragedy.”

Sheriff set out to tell this story as a novel but didn’t get around to it until ten years after his play’s success—and this was a major source for Dibb and his screenwriter-producer, Simon Reade. “That was what I was interested in looking at,” the director admits. “I felt it was something that had not been done—to look at the novelization for what insights we could get into the characters and also what clues we could get to open it up away from just the dugout. In a way, that was my Bible I’d return to.”

The luckless boys from Company C have just settled into the doomed dugout as the movie begins, joined by a wide-eyed young recruit (Asa Butterfield) who pulled strings to get there because his sister’s fiancé whom he hero-worshipped in civilian life (Sam Claflin) is in command—only war has turned his idol into a frightened alcoholic, who is held up by a compassionate second-in-command (Paul Bettany).

“We got a terrific ensemble of British actors,” Dibb beams. “They came in with a wonderful attitude, and an ensemble was created very quickly, very easily. I think they all came to make the film just attracted by the work and the writing and by having never played these kinds of roles before. All of them, in their own way, managed to channel something very personal to those parts. A lot is said about how actors inhabit roles, but I really felt, once we started acting these scenes, they were those characters. They were living there. They did know each other for that amount of time. And that level of commitment went into all of the casting. We spent a lot of time finding very particular young actors just to be the other soldiers and then a great lot of supporting actors who kind of live and breathe World War I enactment. I would like to think you can’t see the difference between the actors and the extras.”

His stars were drawn like magnets to the material. Claflin, fresh from World War II and Their Finest, was especially keen to play a part originated onstage by the 21-year-old Laurence Olivier. “The truth is Sam pursued the project because he’d seen the play when he was in drama school and always felt he wanted to play Stanhope, so it was a godsend for a director to have a brilliant young actor desperate to play a role. Paul, as well, felt there was something about Osborne he understood. It spoke to him. And clearly there was, because we can see how peacefully he’s played it.”

Probably the bravest scene in the film is a moment of desperate affection that tenderly passes between these two soldiers who are basically waiting to die. “I can’t remember if that’s actually in the script or whether that’s slightly a kind of an improvisation. That’s what I think was so great about Sherriff’s work and what Simon brought out so well in the screenplay—this unusual representation of intimacy between men. I’m sure there’s some homoerotic stuff going on underneath it, too, and there’s something school-ish about it as well. All those boys would have been sent off to boarding school and tucked in by their matron. I think that’s what makes it stand out. It’s the last thing we’d expect to see between soldiers—between men, particularly between men of a certain class and men of a particular time.”

Most of the action is inaction, cramped together in the claustrophobic quarters of a muddy, man-filled dugout. Dibb drenched it semi-darkness and sepia-esque “trench-lighting” from DP Laurie Rose. “A lot of people say they do this, but I think mostly they don’t: We just used oil lamps and candlelight because modern cameras are so sensitive. There’s a kind of eerie, grimy beauty to it—an intimacy. You see it as well when people breathe. The light changes because the candles flicker. It was courageous of him to agree to do because you’re shooting at the very lowest possible light levels. If we wanted more light, we’d just have to put the candle closer. There were no light fans in there, nothing like that at all used for the interiors.”

The action comes after 75 minutes in ugly clumps of chaos. When the soldiers hit the trenches and go over the top, it’s Paths of Glory time. “They have a literal countdown, counting down six minutes before going up for the raid. We set the clock ticking to make sure it lasted six minutes. Every time they say, ‘Six minutes,’ that’s exactly how much time must elapse. We set aside the whole day to shoot that scene. Even though it’s one scene and it’s inside, we wanted to give the actors the time they needed.

“To me, it’s the most moving scene in the film, because the officer is terrified about doing his best not to show any of his fear. For the young man who’s obviously scared, they try to talk about anything but what’s about to happen. And he does it beautifully. He has a kind of warmth and depth. In a way, it’s like the idea of the English stiff upper lip but seen in a more complex level. That’s often derided as something that’s all about repression, but here I think it’s played as a very quiet kind of heroism. It’s about not displaying your fear for the sake of someone else.”