Release of new film version of Journey’s End will once again bring the centenary to public attention


The release of a new film version of Journey’s End will once again bring the events of 1914-1918 to the forefront of the British public’s attention. According to the Daily Mail, the film’s production was made possible by the efforts of Prince Andrew, who felt that the centenary of the First World War ‘should include a film’. The prince persuaded the studio Warner Bros to release the rights to the work and the film will be released in British cinemas on Friday 2nd February 2018. Warner Bros told the Daily Mail that they were ‘happy to grant the rights to make a feature film of this important play, recognising its cultural and historical significance during the 100th anniversary commemorations of World War I’. Producer de Beaujeu said the Duke had been made aware of the situation over the film rights back in 2015: ‘He understood the great significance of the film being part of the centenary events, and responded really well.’ Prince Andrew, who flew helicopters during the Falklands War, visited the set during filming ‘but declined an invitation to dress up in costume for a cameo role in the trenches.’ (Daily Mail, 26th January 2017).

Interestingly, despite over £50 million of government money being devoted to a national programme of events over the last four years, Sam Claflin, the actor playing Stanhope in this new version, told the Independent that he felt the First World War ‘is dying from the collective consciousness’ (Independent, 29th January 2018). To prepare for his role he met a number of forces veterans suffering from PTSD. Certainly, from the play’s first performances in 1929, veterans of 1914-18 queued up in their thousands to watch the performances, which were overwhelmingly well received by the men who had fought 1914-18.

Journey’s End is a quintessential text in Britain’s modern memory of the First World War. Originally written in 1928 as a play by Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975), and first performed in 1929, the piece is invaluable to show how a former officer on the Western Front wanted to represent his wartime experiences and post-war opinions in dramatized form. Sherriff was grammar school educated who went on to work as an insurance clerk in London. After the outbreak of war, Sherriff served as a junior officer in the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, seeing action at the battles of Loos and Vimy, then later at Passchendaele where he was seriously injured. Sherriff’s autobiography details that, by 1919, he was on the verge of a breakdown, but like the majority of veterans he sought to settle back into civilian life. He returned to work in the insurance industry and began to write plays, his first A Hitch in the Proceedings (1921) to raise money for Kingston Rowing Club, of which he was a member.

Journey’s End was written in 1928 amid an atmosphere of high emotion, memorial building and class conflict in the wake of the General Strike. The play is set in March 1918, the time of the German Spring Offensive which resulted in serious setbacks for the Allied forces. It depicts C-company arriving to take its turn in the front-line trenches in northern France led by the war-weary Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). A German offensive is imminent, and the officers (Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham Tom Sturridge) and their cook (Toby Jones) distract themselves in their dugout with talk of food and their past lives. Stanhope, meanwhile, soaks his fear in whisky, unable to deal with his dread of the inevitable. A young new officer, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), has just arrived, fresh out of training and abuzz with the excitement of his first real posting – not least because he is to serve under Stanhope, his former school house monitor and the object of his sister’s affections. Each man is trapped, the days ticking by, the tension rising and the attack drawing ever closer. However, for audiences watching the play the ending is already known. There is no real sense of hatred towards the enemy, and the sense of ever-present death contributes to the nobility of the characters who are not portrayed as pawns of fate: they face their fate and go forward. However, for those watching the play there is an overwhelming feeling of disaster as we know about the events portrayed and of how the war eventually ends. Indeed, those looking on assume that the characters on the stage are already dead.

This is not the first cinematic treatment of Journey’s End. It was first filmed in 1930, starring Laurence Olivier who had also played Captain Stanhope in its first stage performances. This latest film version, by director Saul Gibb, was moderately well received at the London Film Festival in October 2017. The film critic Tim Robey described the film as feeling that ‘the trip back down into the Stygian depths of a dugout where six men wait out their final days’ was a victim to the play’s ‘overfamiliarity’. He felt that there was ‘something holiday-schoolwork-ish about it – very decent, not quite urgent’ but that ‘some wonderfully acted moments carry the day’. (Tim Robey, Telegraph, 17th October 2017). I certainly can’t be the only one relieved to see that Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne are refreshingly absent from the cast of this new production.

Of course, in 1975 Paul Fussell could only read the play in ironic terms because he saw everything about the war through a filter dripping in irony. But is it an anti-war film? Some think that it is, just as they debate the same question relating to the novel and film(s) All Quiet on the Western Front. Certainly, Journey’s End summarises what we now recognize as the established mythology of 1914-18; the hierarchy of the English class system, confirming stereotypical tropes of the public school, of the men in the ranks as semi-literate cannon-fodder, the burden of command, of courage, patriotism, sacrifice, the expiation of sins by heroic death. However, we don’t see a truly anti-war film about 1914-18 until the anti-war decade – the 1960s – with For King and Country (1964). I don’t think that First World War veterans regarded Journey’s End as an anti-war play, they saw it as a memorial to their generation’s sacrifice and perseverance at a time of international emergency. By watching the play, and later the film, they could sit with men who preferred only to talk to each other about their wartime experiences. Family members who could not talk to their husbands/fathers/brothers/sons may have seen the play as an attempt to understand what their loved ones could and would not ever tell them. For veterans there was simply no point trying to explain it to someone who hadn’t been there. But Sherriff was one of them: he was talking in their language.

In February 2018, however, audiences in Britain may well respond to the new Journey’s End film as they do to most things about 1914-18: it will be understood as a war memorial in cinematic form. It will not challenge what audiences already think they know about the war, of its mud, blood and futility, of innocence lost and lives destroyed. It will therefore be placed above criticism, much like the play and film War Horse several years ago. As with Paul Cummins’ art installation, the poppies at the Tower of London, those who go to screenings of Journey’s End may do so out of a sense of collective commemoration, that it is seen as an appropriate thing to do as the centenary of the First World War draws to a close. As always with Journey’s End, however, as I know from my own experience, there won’t be a dry eye in the house once the lights come up.

Sherriff wrote a number of other plays and was employed as a script writer by MGM, for whom his best-known script was The Dam Busters (1955), another commemoration of British stoicism in the face of death, which could of course be read as Journey’s End in World War Two RAF uniforms. Over the course of his writing career Sherriff received one Oscar nod and two BAFTAS. His personal papers are held in the archives of the Surrey History Centre.

Click here for more information on R.C.Sherriff.