Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2018

Journey’s End

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

“Journey’s End” opened  yesterday at the Landmark Theater on 57th street. It is an antiwar film based on events that took place just about a century ago. A British company is in the trenches at Amiens, France in mid-March preparing for Operation Michael, a planned, massive German assault gathering material just across a “no-man’s land” that was about the length of a football field. Most of the action takes place over a 3 day period from March 19 to March 21, when the Germans overran the British. In three months at Amiens, 750,000 men would die while another 1 million would die before the war ended. Unlike all the patriotic gore surrounding “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, this is a portrait of war that is a close relative of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory”.

The film is based on a 1928 stage play by R.C. Sherriff, a British army veteran who was badly wounded in Ypres in 1917. He was not particularly associated with the left and probably wrote the play more as a personal testament rather than propaganda (in the good sense). Indeed, after the critic J. B. Priestley (described in George Orwell’s dossier as “pro-Communist”) hailed it as a pacifist work, Sherriff shot back: “I have not written this play as a piece of propaganda. And certainly not as propaganda for peace.”

He had a long and successful career as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter, with films like “The Invisible Man”, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Four Feathers” to his credit. Less well-known is his screenplay for “This Above All”, which according to Wikipedia is about a veteran of the Dunkirk retreat who “having a crisis of conscience over what the war is being fought for and disgusted at the incompetence of the ruling elite…decides not to return to the Army and to go absent without leave.”

Although there are two very brief battlefield action scenes, most of “Journey’s End” takes place in the British bunkers occupied by Company C and has very much of a theatrical quality as the various men argue with each other or offer moral support in the face of certain death.

The three main characters are Captain Stanhope, the company’s officer who the war has turned into a nerve-shattered drunk, Osborne, an older second-in-commend nicknamed “uncle”, and Raleigh, a lieutenant fresh out of training and filled with hopeless illusions about trench warfare as if were a rugby match. He has wrangled an assignment to Stanhope’s unit because he was his classmate just a few years ahead of him and because he was his older sister’s boyfriend. Osborne is played by Paul Bettany, who also played the ship’s surgeon and amateur botanist in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”. He is perfectly cast since he exudes common sense, wisdom and decency just as he did in the earlier film that unlike “Journey’s End” is Colonel Blimp incarnate (even if entertaining.)

The soldiers are fully aware that they are on death row. They have spotted a massive concentration of heavy artillery and tanks on the German side and have been given orders not to retreat. Suffice it to say that the three days depicted in the film are marked by extreme tension even if you can guess the outcome. All the actors are terrific and they are given great material to work with.

This is now the fifth adaptation of Sherriff’s play and probably the one most in harmony with the original. In the press notes, director Saul Dibb explains what attracted him to the play:

I felt it just had this incredible ring of truth to it. A really honest, really human account of what it was like to be there. Sherriff was a brilliant writer and he was writing from personal experience. We had the opportunity to make a very truthful account. The First World War was just a waste. It wiped out this whole generation, and for what? These people have been sacrificed. We just wanted to make it clear from the start that these are dead men walking. It’s not about slowly coming to understand it. All they come to understand, really, is what day it’s going to happen.



  1. The 1930 adaptation directed by James Whale, a WW I combat veteran who directed the original British production and later the Broadway production, is available and is excellent.

    Comment by Richard Modiano — March 17, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

  2. Thanks, Richard. I’ll have a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSIrfj6eCkQ

    Comment by louisproyect — March 17, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

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