It was 100 years ago this month, but it might as well have been yesterday. Conflict was causing an unfathomable body count across the globe. On March 20, 1918, the Germans were about to launch what would become known as the Spring Offensive of World War I—think of the unexpected doom as something akin to being in lower Manhattan on September 10, 2011. The world would never be the same. The March 1918 German attack on Allied forces entrenched across Western Europe would claim more than 700,000 lives. A month later, the same territory was retaken by British and American soldiers, and a million more would die before the "war to end all wars" would come to an end on November 11, 1918.
It is that calm before the storm on March 20, 1918, that frames Journey's End, a superbly acted film adaptation of a play scripted by R.C. Sherriff, which logged one of the longest runs for a dramatic play in the history of London's West End. What made the play so remarkably relevant was that it opened in 1928, a mere 10 years after the end of World War I, and starred a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier. At the time, journalist J.B. Priestley wrote the play was "one of the strongest pleas for peace I know," and the London Daily Mirror called it "a much better argument against war than sentimental propaganda." The play was a sensation, and it has since been revived on several occasions. I've been fortunate to have seen wonderful stage productions, both in London and in New York; so, I must admit to some skepticism in seeing a successful film adaptation. But the news from the front is good: Journey's End is a must-see.
Perhaps it's best to look at Journey's End as the anti-Dunkirk (2017). While both films share the hue of a world at war, Dunkirk was marked by pulsating action, while Journey's End instead portends the dread of battle. Yes, we hear a constant, almost soft, far-off thunder throughout Journey's End, but the battle is usually at arm's length and the story is character-driven. There's a newcomer (played by wide-eyed but wiser-than-his-years Asa Butterfield), his Captain (Sam Claflin) and a father figure in the company (Paul Bettany) who insists that the men call him "uncle."
There are flashes of brilliance in the simplicity of the script. For example, on the day before a battle during which nearly everyone will be killed, a soldier spots a hard-bound copy of Alice in Wonderland next to the bunk of an officer. The officer reads aloud one of Lewis Carroll's nonsense poems to the young soldier.
"I don't see the point in that," says the soldier.
"Exactly. That's just the point," says the officer.
The pointlessness of war has been a journey of the body and soul for countless men and women for the past century. Yet, Journey's End reminds us that we return to that pointlessness, time and again.