I have never seen or read the original play “Journey’s End” and, given my life history I feel almost embarrassed to admit it. But when I thought about it I realised that as far as modern audiences go – specifically audiences for this film, practically nobody else would have either, 1. remembered that productions of productions of the play are very rare, 2. it had never been on any reading list I’d ever met and 3. though very successful when it opened right after the First World War, it had very quickly vanished in the worldwide PTSD that had the world trying very hard to forget that the war had ever happened. So I decided that seeing the film with the same ignorance that the average viewer would have could well be seen as an asset, rather than a disadvantage, and so I went.
The film is set in Flanders in Northern France in 1918, in the fourth year of world war one. The “Great War” was fought all over world but Flanders was a mincing machine from the very first to the very last. By the time the film starts nobody involved has any illusion left about anything, at all. They hole up in a bunker or dugout some feet below the floor level of their front-line trench and bicker like the contestants of a “Big Brother” house who know that going outside may be very likely to kill them in nasty ways while staying inside is no guarantee of safety either. While a cynic might argue that this would be a better way to run future series’ of Big Brother, it made for good drama in reality, in the original play (Which was a smash hit) and in this film made on the centenary anniversary of the idiocy it depicts.
All-in-all my reactions to the film were mixed. While the original play provided something of a tectonic upheaval to British Drama, the plays of the period were of the “frightfully rightfully” genre of drawing room entertainments. And it didn’t take much to stir up audiences of the time. This resulted in a very well made modern film with excellent photography by Charles Sturridge, where the bones of a rather dated script ghost through the action like, well, a ghost. I kept finding myself thinking that I was glad I wasn’t seeing a stage production, because the whole “box set / blocked action” paradigm coupled with the dated melodrama would’ve probably have had me evacuating the theatre at interval. As it was the tight direction and camerawork, coupled with the occasional gory excursions outside kept me happy(ish) and awake for the entire running length. The other aspect of the production that demands a mention is the historical accuracy and art direction, which is well above reproach and into at least BAFTA territory. I studied WW1, toured the battlefields of Flanders, and I’ve never seen it done better. Indeed for this reason alone “Journey’s End” should be high on your watch list, because the whole nightmare could happen again at any time for the same disgraceful reasons. (Ask me sometime)