Movie Review: The Great War as “Journey’s End” for a generation

“Journey’s End” is the sort of movie we had every reason to expect Sam Mendes’ “1917” to be.

A remake of a 1930 James Whale film, when The Great War was fresh trauma for those who lived through it, itself an adaptation of a novel that was turned into a play, it has a marvelous claustrophobia, myopia and fatalism that was a part of the shared experience of those who endured trench warfare.

The mere fact that it could be turned into a play speaks volumes. Mendes’ sweeping, painterly film seems almost a fantasia of the war by comparison, two infantrymen out to deliver a message passing through a veritable Dante’s Inferno of the WWI No Man’s Landscape — complete with a nursing French mother trapped between the lines and a fighter plane crash.

“Journey’s End” is in the mud, in the holes in the mud, and there it remains.

“Journey’s End” follows a young prep school Lieutenant (Asa Butterfield, quite good) who shows up, a cockeyed optimist, willing to pull family strings (an uncle general) to get into the unit of an old family friend. It’s March of 1918, and Lt. Raleigh may be arriving mere months before the “End.” But the last gasp German “Spring Offensive” (“Kaiserschlacht”) is about to start. And requesting assignment to Captain Stanhope’s company, in the part of the line the Germans are massing to overrun? It’s your funeral, nephew.

Stanhope (Sam Claflin, outstanding) is almost furious at seeing this kid, the brother of a lady friend. He is short-tempered and drinking too much, lashing out at the cook (Toby Jones, of course), seething at the shell-shock of a subordinate (Tom Sturridge) and barely containing his contempt at the series of suicidal orders he’s receiving from on high.

Stanhope is every bit as aware as Hibbert (Sturridge) of the futility and waste of it all, more aware than the head-down, get-on-with-the-job Lt. Trotter (Stephen Graham). But if Stanhope shows fear or fatalism, morale will collapse and even more of Company C will be buried in the No Man’s Land of France.

Only the “much older man” they all call “Uncle,” Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany, perfect) displays the steadiness of nerve that bucks up Stanhope and the rest. He’s not a hero, not some super patriot committed to the cause. He’s a stoic, a fatalist.

“”They stick at it. It’s the only thing a decent man can do.” Still, even he admits “Every little noise up there makes me feel sick.”

Theirs is a world of dugout and ditch — a bunker where they sleep, eat, drink and bicker, the trenches where all the men — especially the too-tall Lt. Obsorne — have to remember to duck at all times.

Snipers, machine gunners, artillery and the constant fear of gas are their daily routine. And with the collapse of Russia on the Eastern Front, the Germans are prepping for a rushed offensive to knock out the Allies before the American army is at full strength and in position to turn the tide.

If you read the plot and character descriptions above, you see the shortcomings of this Saul Dibb film, which was shot in Wales. It may have beaten “1917” into theaters, actually coming out on the 100th anniversary of the very battle it depicts. But it’s entirely conventional. The characters have become “stock” types, the setting is the setting of pretty much every World War I movie that isn’t about aviators or Africa. And the very claustrophobia it recreates is standard issue “All Quiet on the Western Front” boilerplate.

Stanhope’s rages and resentments, the naivete of “the boy,” the servile, knows-his-place cook and the “much older man” who is the sage of trenches are all “types.”

“1917” was so incident and action-packed as to be a fantasy version of the war. “War Horse” brought the scale of the suffering and stupidity of all home as well in a Spielberg-pretty nightmare.

“Journey’s End” is vivid, just visceral enough and has its moving moments. But it’s more like a poem we memorized in school, the stanzas brought back by a familiar line or character that’s entered common currency. Incapable of surprise, it settles for discomfiting comfort in the familiar.

MPA Rating: R, for some language and war images

Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham and Paul Bettany

Credits: Directed by Saul Dibb, script by Simon Reade, based on the novel and play by R.C. Sheriff and Vernon Bartlett. A Lionsgate/Good Deed release, now streaming.

Running time: 1:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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