Wednesday 11 December 2019

Film adaptation of Journey's End may feel full of stock characters but original play practically invented them

Written a decade after the Great War ended, this adaptation of Journey's End may feel full of stock characters, but the original play practically ­invented them

Warfare: Sam Claflin plays Captain Stanhope in Journey's End
Warfare: Sam Claflin plays Captain Stanhope in Journey's End
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

One hundred years ago this month, the German high command launched a daring, large -scale attack aimed at ending the stalemate along the Western Front. With the Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht, they hoped to use troops and tanks liberated by the Russian surrender to punch holes in the Allied lines before the recently engaged Americans had time to fully deploy.

They made significant inroads, but their victories were pyrrhic, and once US troops arrived in huge numbers, all the German gains were reversed. The casualties on both sides were colossal, and the war was pointlessly protracted for eight bloody months before the Versailles Treaty was finally signed on November 11, 1918.

While the Germans began to mutter darkly about the punitive reparations imposed on them by the Allies, the victorious British establishment cheerfully continued discussing the war as though it had been a mildly fractious game of cricket, and raising the real horror of war was considered very poor form.

RC Sherriff, a veteran of Passchendaele, was among the first writers to directly address the grim reality of trench life. Set during the Spring Offensive, his 1928 play Journey's End poignantly transported its audience to a British command post on the eve of a doomed and pointless counter-attack led by a heroic but traumatised, alcoholic captain.

Journey's End has been adapted numerous times for the big and small screens, and Saul Dibb's new version, which was released here yesterday, uses a fine cast to recreate the musty paranoia of the trenches.

Sam Claflin is Captain Stanhope, the grim-faced commander of C Company, a British infantry unit that's seen a lot of hard fighting.

They're about to embark on a hopeless counter-attack when they're joined by an officer called Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wide-eyed young fellow who still thinks war is "frightfully exciting".

The older soldiers treat him with paternal affection, but know all too well what's coming next.

It's a nicely handled film, and if it's full of characters that feel like stock Great War roles, it's worth remembering that this play was written so long ago it could claim to have invented them. World War I, though, is particularly susceptible to cinematic cliché. The Tommies, the trenches, the mud, the shell shock and the rats have been trotted out so often that they're sometimes hard to take seriously, and were ripe for the satire inflicted on them by Blackadder Goes Forth.

But those factors only became clichés through overuse, and the dreadful drama of the so-called war to end all wars inspired some of the greatest films of all, especially in two decades that followed it. These are my favourites, and all are films worth checking out if you haven't seen them.

Shoulder Arms

Released while the war still raged in Europe, Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms was his biggest hit to date, and starred himself as a reluctant draftee. It was full of hilarious moments, such as Charlie throwing a stinky wedge of Limburger cheese into the German trenches to subdue them, but the film showed real sympathy for the lot of the ordinary soldier, forced to sleep in a flooded trench and dodge bombs while eating a sandwich.

All Quiet on the Western Front

In the decade or so following the Great War's end, Hollywood avoided the subject like the plague, and when they did address it, they usually did so in the most simplistic, heroic terms, bigging up the American effort and demonising the enemy. But Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was an honourable exception, a haunting film that underscored the pointlessness of war by making Germans the protagonists. In 1914, a group of school friends enlist in the Kaiser's army, nursing romantic ideas of warfare that will soon be cruelly dismantled. Hitler hated it, which is surely a badge of honour.

The Lost Patrol

It's not shown much now, but John Ford's 1934 war film is a bit of a gem, and starred ex-boxer Victor McLaglen as a wartime British army sergeant who comes a cropper in the Syrian deserts. He's on patrol with his unit when their commander is killed by an Arab sniper, who starts picking them off one by one when they take cover at a nearby oasis. It's a very influential film, which reminded people that the Great War hadn't just happened in Belgium and France.

La Grande Illusion

There are no trenches in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion either, but it's been called the greatest war film of all time. It starred Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin as French airmen from opposite ends of the social scale who form an uneasy alliance as they attempt to escape from a German PoW camp. Erich von Stroheim played the camp commander, whose belief in a gentlemanly code of conduct is touching, but absurd, and Renoir's 1937 film underscored the futility of war by asking who was fighting for what, and in whose interests. Adolf wasn't mad about this one either.

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Winston Churchill took umbrage with this Powell and Pressburger classic, which was released in 1943 and smelt vaguely unpatriotic. A satirical memoir, it starred a heavily made-up Roger Livesey as Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, a bluff but likeable old warhorse who, on the eve of World War II, reminisces on his own combat experiences in South Africa and France. A sumptuous technicolour comedy, it had a sympathetic German character, lampooned the stuffiness of the British army and ridiculed the notion of 'fair play'.

Paths of Glory

Most people prefer Dr Strangelove or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is my favourite Stanley Kubrick film. It's set in the trenches in 1916 and based on the true story of three French soldiers who refused to take part in a suicidal assault on a heavily-fortified German position. Kirk Douglas starred as a well-meaning officer who defends the men during a rigged court martial, while George Macready played a general whose callousness is shocking. For obvious reasons, it was not screened in France until 1975.

La Grande Guerra

Mario Monicelli's moving 1959 war film has been ignored somewhat outside Italy, but is a genuine masterpiece which showcases a different kind of heroism. Italian conscripts Oreste and Giovanni are united by their lack of idealism, and desire to emerge from the war unscathed. When they're captured by the Austrians, they're accused of espionage and sentenced to death unless they talk. But they prove a lot less cowardly than their captors had expected.

King and Country

The best films about the Great War tend to focus on the confusion and despair of ordinary men forced to fight in a conflict they don't understand, and Joseph Losey's King and Country (1964) is a perfect case in point. A young Tom Courtenay starred as Arthur Kemp, a bewildered soldier who leaves his trench one morning and tries to walk home. He's arrested, and during the resulting kangaroo trial his lawyer (Dirk Bogarde) realises that he's shell-shocked. It's powerful stuff.

Lawrence of Arabia

Though it takes place far from the trenches in the dry, clean air of the Arabian deserts, David Lean's 70mm epic is set during World War I, and dramatises the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkey led by TE Lawrence, the bookish British officer who persuaded the warring Bedouin tribes to join forces to defeat their oppressor. It made a star of Peter O'Toole, and is one of the most handsome motion pictures ever made.


Had he been alive to see it, Winston Churchill may not have greatly cared for this film either, for it graphically recreated his greatest tactical failure - a mass assault against well-embedded Turkish forces in the Dardanelles. It led to wholesale slaughter, and Peter Weir's 1981 film starred a young Mel Gibson as Archy Hamilton, a young man who enlists in the Australian Imperial Force little knowing that he's just signed his own death warrant.

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