World War I has always been an interesting war to look back on. It was a war that spanned the globe, it didn’t get that name for nothing, and killed millions for real reason. Oh I get why this war happened, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered a domino effect of alliances across Europe and then lots of fighting and dying happened. Unlike World War 2, there’s no clear hero or villain, just a lot of misery and pointless death. So instead of focusing on daring heroes and dastardly Nazis, WW1 films have to focus on what happened to the soldiers in the trenches. Can Journey’s End find a new spin on it?
Newly deployed, Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) asks to be in the same company as old school mate Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). However when he arrives at the trenches, he discovers that Stanhope has changed after being in the war for three years.
So this movie is your fairly standard the war has a terrible effect on normal human beings film. You’ve seen it a million times before but it can do in different ways if the director is smart enough. And this film is based on a play so theoretically, there will be more focus on the characters than showing the horror of the war through shocking imagery. And that is the case here. The movie very rarely has blood in it, I think even Wonder Woman had more blood in it. As it still bares all the hallmarks that it was once a play, it is up to the actors to make sure you know all the horror of this war. Most of the scenes take place in this small living area that the officers have where they have plenty of whiskey and bread it seems. And this claustrophobia does work for making very tense, strained scenes where it seems like someone is more likely to explode than a bomb.
But before I get on to criticising this film, because a lot needs criticising, I do have to praise Sam Claflin. This is a guy who has been doing the rounds for a while and you’ve probably seen him in something doing a small but decent role in a bigger movie. But here, he’s given a character with a lot of depth and interesting scenes and he makes the most of it. This is the best performance Claflin has done in his life and I’m not sure he will ever better it. He plays a man who is obviously suffering from PTSD but has to push it deep down in him so he can continue to be a soldier. But despite his best attempts, it keeps coming to the surface and he has to drown it out with alcohol. The scenes where he is just so incredibly angry are brilliant to watch and hopefully he’ll get some more leading roles in future out of this performance.
Ok now onto the many problems this film has. The main issue is that for a movie that was once a play, it really has issues with the plot. General plot theory would say one of your characters needs to have an arc, that they are a different person at the end of the movie than they are at the start. But this lacks any of them for the main characters. For instance, Raleigh comes in as a confident lad who can’t wait to get stuck into the war. You’d think he’d have the simple arc of realising that war is not fun and games. And this is hinted at but never fully realised. You might think then that Stanhope has the arc but he doesn’t either. He starts the film off as someone who is becoming unhinged because of the war and he ends in pretty much the same way. While the characters are well written, they just don’t change throughout the film and it makes everything kind of pointless.
And boy is the camera work bad. It’s fine when the scenes are conversations or don’t have anything more exciting than a person talking, but when there has to be movement it becomes a disaster. When someone is walking, the camera follows just behind with some of the jerkiest movement you’ll see outside of a Bourne movie. I’m pretty sure for those scenes the camera man had one leg shorter than the over. And then comes the raid. Wow. This is some of the worst camera work you’ll see in a movie which is being staffed by professionals. It looks like the camera man has tripped over while running after the actors and they have decided to keep it in. There is a five second uninterrupted shot of just grey smoke which seems like a mistake from the editing machine. It’s meant to be disorientating yes, but you have no idea what is actually happened. Is this a deadly raid on a German trench or is it a rather risky costume party in Mildred’s backyard? You tell me.
And with all of this, I’m not quite sure what the point of the film was. The only real point I see is that this was to focus on the officers, the people who are a bit higher up who are often ignored. Even officers can get a bad reputation because we know many of the higher-ups in WW1 decided to stay miles away from the trenches and send the boys to die. Though if they wanted extra sympathy for them, they probably shouldn’t have most of the scenes revolve around them having a few soldiers dedicated to making them three-course meals, even if it is just yellow soup, cutlets and apricots that were meant to be pineapples. The privates are eating bread dipped in unknown origin gravy, it’s not a good contrast. But then again nothing is made of that privilege to be an officer and very little is done about the responsibility they have either. There’s nothing new in this movie.
Journey’s End will be fondly remembered by Sam Claflin because if there is any justice in the world, this will land him much better roles in the future because his performance is fantastic. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this movie will not do much for us. This is just another war movie that doesn’t do much to separate itself from all the over war movies that have been made over the years. Yes there is that performance from Claflin, but then there is the nauseating camera work and the lack of arcs for any characters which mean there is nothing satisfying about the plot. You’ll feel nothing at the end apart from general remorse for this war.