The older officer used to be a schoolmaster in civilian life. And when he and a new-to-the-front boy officer must lead men out of the trenches and “over the top” in World War I, the man his men call “Uncle” knows his job. Change the subject.
“Journey’s End,” the World War I drama where this overly-familiar scene plays out, offers the great Paul Bettany, as “Uncle” Osborne, one of the finest acting moments of his career. He distracts the lad (Asa Butterfield of “Hugo” and “The Space Between Us”) with questions about his home, the forests and farm country around it, where Uncle spent some of his best hikes with a rucksack. The clock is ticking down until they must lead a raid into German lines, but Uncle goes on, prodding the kid, embellishing the details with ones he recalls.
It’s a taut, emotional moment at the heart of this film by Saul Dibbs (“The Duchess”), and not the only one. The film, based on a Great War novel, is filled with WWI film “types” and conflicts, wrenching decisions and cynical acquiescence, the grim fatalism of history’s most wasteful, pointless war. But this quiet, dread-filled combat picture works, sketching in the men beyond the “types” in impressionistic scenes that relate history, advance the story and break the heart.
Butterfield is Raleigh, a new officer in 1918 France, willing to pull strings with his uncle, the general, to get into the company led by an old friend and mentor from school.
He tries not to notice that Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin of “The Hunger Games” and “My Cousin Rachel”), “three years ahead of me in school,” is showing the wear of three years in the trenches. Stanhope is short with subordinates and constantly in need of that next dose of liquid courage. He’s wisened, embittered and a little twitchy, but protective of the men he treats brusquely and held in high regard by HQ.
C Company is in the narrowest stretch of the lines, newly deployed for a six-day stint in the trenches. And this is the exact moment everyone is expecting the German “Spring Offensive,” to be called “Kaiserschlacht” by the desperate officers launching it. Stanhope and his put-upon subordinates, the working class Trotter (Stephen Graham) and shell-shocked playboy Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) are to take the brunt of it.
And they pretty much know it.
Raleigh has just stepped into it. The gruff but sweet-hearted Trotter gives him the usual “You haven’t been in the Army five minutes, have you?” before taking the green kid under his wing. “Need me to teach you how to shave, too?”
Hibbert has the weeps and the shakes, and Stanhope has little hope of bucking him up with threats, pep-talks or whisky. The others? “They stick at it. It’s the only thing a decent man can do.”
Their orders are, “Stay where you are, as long as you can.” And oh, by the way, send a patrol over on a “raid,” capture a German we can interrogate. In broad daylight. Right before an expected enemy assault. Suicide.
Toby Jones is the bemused officer’s cook, refusing the commit to identifying the night’s meat “cutlet,” horrified that he’s left the captain’s supply of pepper behind the lines, and Andy Gathergood is the stoic Sgt. Major who runs messages back and forth and sees too much, from both ends of that communication, to have much confidence in the outcome.
Claflin and Bettany stand out in the cast, one an older man with a lot to lose, the other a young man aged beyond his years, not-quite-drunkenly leaning on his second in command. Butterfield acquits himself well, too, fresh-faced and patriotic, thrown on his heels when he sees the actual conditions they fight under and what those have done to the man who used to love his sister.
Dibb manages the candle-lit conversations and arguments with care, but the third act’s blast of violence, rendered in frenetic, tight shots through smoke and explosions, quick cuts of bodies and effort and action, is brilliantly conceived.
It’s hard to find much new to say about The Great War, what with its tropes so well established in the century of cinema that’s come out since. But “Journey’s End” narrows its focus and limits its goals. And that pays off handsomely in a war movie that almost lets you smell the struggle, the intimacy of the fighting, the desperately myopic thinking that sets in when all you can think to desire out of this world is to stay alive in it for another minute, another day.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and war images
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham
Credits:Directed by Sail Dibb, script by Simon Reade, based on the novel/play by R.C. Sheriff and Vernon Bartlett. A Good Deeds/BFI release.
Running time: 1:47