R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End is to the stage what the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front is to the screen.
For their respective artistic mediums, each is a foundational fictional depiction of the all-too-factual harrowing horrors of war. In its most recent translation from the stage to the screen (there have been too many over the years to list), Journey’s End skews too close to the template beaten into the ground by All Quiet on the Western Front and the countless other movies of its ilk, while eschewing certain traits essential to the story’s ultimate effect.
Most play-to-celluloid adaptations attempt to blow out the source material’s often-insular worlds. Since stage stories are inherently limited by the confines of the, well, stage —specifically the theatre’s physical space — most movies find an easy way of differentiating themselves from the originals by taking advantage of the camera’s unlimited roaming capabilities; film can literally take you anywhere, while the theatre relies more on abstract transportation.
Journey’s End makes just such an attempt, moving away from the play’s single set to wander far beyond the barracks. Yet by doing so, it loses the crucial claustrophobia of good productions. I’ve seen the show in person twice now — on Broadway in 2007 and the West End in 2011 — and both times there was a palpable sense of urgency and desperation in literally sharing a space with these trapped, suffering soldiers. The physical proximity of the audience to the actors reinforced the probing, incisive, psychological nature of the writing. Feeling like you’re trapped underground, with possible dangers lurking offstage to all sides, the theatre almost becomes a double for the front, with the safe interior being the only walls separating us from the evil outside. It’s an unforgettable, exceedingly unpleasant, and deeply affecting experience.
Yet more than just enhancing the immersive nature of the story (if any classic play should be given the 21st century immersive treatment that’s all the rage right now, it’s Journey’s End; imagine a set similar to Sam Gold’s Othello at New York Theatre Workshop last season, where the action transpires around the audience. Invest in a booming sound system and that’d make for a devastating evening), the unity of Journey’s End’s space-time continuum is key to the characters’ arcs. In the play, we spend an uncomfortable amount of time with all of them, observing simply how they exist in their terrible worlds. We see how they move, their tics, their unspoken interactions with each other. Through this intimacy, we become a member of their brotherhood, which makes its inevitable breakdown all the more crushing.
There is simply no way for a film to recreate this implicit camaraderie between audience and actor; the screen acts as an inherent division between the two entities. Without sharing a literal space, the war remains firmly on screen, never coming close to spewing out over the lip of the stage. Though forsaking the play’s strict adherence to a realistic space-time continuum by staging most scenes outside of the barracks allows screenwriter Simon Reade and director Saul Dibb to vividly capture other elements of the front, none of these contributions compensate for the lack of claustrophobia.
Which isn’t to say that they add nothing. Since it remains rooted indoors, the play wisely avoids showing actual warfare, probably because it so often looks tacky onstage. But since cinema is uniquely positioned to bring such scenes to life in excruciating detail, the filmmakers take us into the battlefield. Though it’s often hard to follow what’s actually happening with guns blazing and bombs dropping, the movie shouldn’t be criticized for not clearly shepherding the audience though these sequences, for they accurately reflect the total chaos of war. There’s a reason we don’t personally witness the death of a major character; like in war, he just disappears without a trace.
The movie opts to detail everything outside the barracks, even though what we imagine is way worse than what others can concoct. For instance, by providing some introductory text at the beginning to establish the historical context of the story, it fails to throw the audience into the incomprehensible fray. Plus, by specifying exactly how much time has transpired, the movie also robs the audience of how the play messes with time, mirroring how war irrevocably alters the normal unfolding of time for soldiers.
I don’t mean to suggest that this adaptation has nothing to offer. The cinematography is visually arresting — and the framing often meaningfully symbolic — with the moments inside the barracks exceptionally lit. But the Saving Private Ryan-lite, handheld steady cam simply cannot convey the necessary claustrophobia of a finite location. If only the movie had taken a page out of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot book (or from Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, which coincidentally also stars Paul Bettany).
And that’s another problem; whereas honest portrayals of war are few and far between on stage, they’re rampant on screen. Even if World War I has largely been avoided in recent years, there’s still a surfeit of examples from Hollywood’s golden studio age — only some of which are propaganda — between which we can draw unfavorable comparisons to this version of Journey’s End. The painstakingly observed and lived-in characters and claustrophobia are what sets apart the play. Without them, it’s just yet another familiar war tale.
Yet similar to inferior revivals of superior classic plays, Journey’s End at the very least provides an ensemble of actors with a ludicrously strong collection of parts, all of whom live up to their storied predecessors. The wise stoicism of Paul Bettany’s Obsborne injects a calm air into the maddening atmosphere; Sam Claflin’s dashingly good-looks can’t obscure the turpitude seeping into and crippling Stanhope’s psyche; the impossibly-youthful Asa Butterfield clings to Raleigh’s innocence as it’s irrevocably chipped away; Tom Sturridge’s tragic fragility unravels Hibbert; Stephen Graham’s Trotter is a teddy bear whose comedic asides mask the pervasive darkness around and inside him; and Toby Jones lends a career’s worth of resonant, emotionally-steeped gravitas to the genial cook Mason.
Though they work on screen, all of their performances — much like the rest of the movie — would’ve been better served on stage.