In 'Journey's End,' Soldiers Reminisce and Wait to Die in the Muddy Trenches of World War I

Years ago, in a quiet German forest, a gravedigger for fallen soldiers stilled his spade and said: "In these bones, you see what war is like. I know war now. I'll tell you what it is. War is young men killing other young men they do not know on the orders of old men who know one another too well."

That sentiment lingers through "Journey's End," a nuanced and forbidding British film set on the front lines of World War I, which killed around 17 million people, many of them young soldiers marched into hopeless battles by misguided generals. The story, adapted from a 1928 play by R.C. Sherriff, is a meditation on duty and folly and a glimpse back to a time before Kevlar vests, laser-guided missiles and public concern over high casualty counts.

British soldiers in trenches on the Western Front -- Germans forces are camped 60 yards away -- listen and crouch as shells drop in the dark distance. Cigarettes are passed, rats scurry, mud squishes, gas masks dangle and flares pop overhead like apparitions. The claustrophobic drama, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, centers on 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), untested and brimming with good cheer, and the man he reveres, Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who has seen too many bodies and downed too much whiskey.

"They're there to defend a front line that was indefensible. Your job was to be sacrificed," said Saul Dibb, the film's director. "The story's about the psychological aspect of your waiting for your impending death. It was a chance to look far deeper into characters and the strange intimacy between men, the tenderness, and how men deal with fear. This is men at war with themselves."

The film has already opened in England, where the Guardian praised it as "forthright, powerful, heartfelt." The newspaper added: "The first world war is one of the 20th century's oldest, grimmest tales of futility and slaughter. Dibb and his excellent cast put new passion into it."

Reminiscent of the unsparing poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the opposite of jingoistic war films, "Journey's End" is more mournful than thunderous. It knows that courage is most poignant when it's humble and that honor is best marked by humility. The movie is punctuated by requisite British wit as in the "small tragedy" that fruit ration tins contain apricots instead of pineapples. Officers cling to refinement -- they wear ties in their crumbling, candle-lighted bunker -- and reflect on the coming ravages across a terrain of poison gas, carbines and corpses.

World War I was a gruesome collision of old and modern Europe, a conflict fought with advanced weapons -- mortars, hand-held flamethrowers and machine guns -- that shook the continent with mass killing. Much of the fighting was done from trenches, compressing the battlefield as soldiers stood and fired through barbed wire and mist, as if mice in a maze, and waited for onslaughts. The war nearly wiped out a generation of working- and upper-class men.

"I have had so very much out of life," a lieutenant -- a schoolmaster before the war -- writes to his wife on the eve of an attack. "But all these youngsters don't know how unlucky they are. How new they are to their very existence."

The scene echoes with a middle-aged man's lament and the stiff-upper-lip English resolve so ingrained in the mythology of last century's wars. The moment is truthful and eerily quaint, even as one knows that today's soldiers and their countrymen are more questioning of the duties placed upon their armies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The soulfulness in the lieutenant's letter "has nobility to it," said Dibb, "a sense that you're withholding your feelings for the sake of other people's feelings. What died in that trench was deference."

In his poem "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Owen captures the scouring, cruel loss of vanquished men:

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

-- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,--

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires."

Like the Academy Award-nominated "Dunkirk," about British soldiers trapped by German forces on the French coast during World War II, "Journey's End," written by Simon Reade, creates layers of tension through music. Composed by Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and British composer Natalie Holt, the score is rueful and ominous, like a phantom floating through a winter's dusk. It propels a film whose action lies not in relentless battle scenes but in the ticktock of anticipating an attack.

"We wanted to permeate the film with this terrible sense of foreboding, to make it very clear from the start that these were dead men walking," said Dibb, who has also directed "The Duchess," starring Keira Knightley, and "Suite Francaise," the tale of German soldiers occupying a French village during World War II, with Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas. He noted that more than 700,000 soldiers died in the three-month Spring Offensive in 1918.

Class distinctions reverberate throughout the story. The officers, as was consistent with a British pecking order based on lineage and wealth, were from the nation's best schools and breeding. The lower-ranking soldiers came from working-class lives of fewer polished syllables. Capt. Stanhope's courage and tenacity bridged the class gap; he was respected by those in his own rank and those above and beneath him.

"It was a fine line," Dibb said in making class distinct in the film but not allowing it to distract from the deeper camaraderie shared among the men. "We didn't want to make the officers feel alienated to an audience by their class, which can happen with the British upper middle class. Most of the actors who play the officers all went to state schools, so they're playing officers, but they're not of that class themselves, and I think that helped bridge the gap a little bit."

The human cost and national calculation of war resonate through "Journey's End." They are the same universal themes that Owens' World War I poetry, still studied in schools across England, personified. Dibb said Owen, a soldier killed one week before the armistice that ended the war in 1918, is not cited in the film, but the movie seeks to embody the air of honor and loss articulated in his verse.

"They are beautifully put poems, but a righteous anger runs through them," said the director. "There's a bittersweet tone where there's so much humanity and beauty in something so wasteful."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com 

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