When I first read the play of Journey’s End I was immediately struck by its humanity. This was not a war play but a drama in a war setting. It humanised the soldiers it depicted, showing them as rounded, believable characters – these were not supermen, but ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and horrifying events.
My father was in the army for his entire working life – my childhood was spent surrounded by the sorts of characters, both soldiers and officers, created by RC Sherriff.
Journey’s End does not take sides, nor does it force opinions upon you – it simply leaves the audience to conclude that war is hell, by drawing you in, encouraging you to fall in love with its ensemble cast and showing you real tenderness and love between men in extreme circumstances – something not shown very often on the big screen.
To me it felt like a project that would work across ages, gender and classes. I was excited that through the medium of film, we could bring WW1 to a younger audience at a crucial time in the centenary.
From a film-making perspective we faced two key challenges: How to create something cinematic out of a static play and how to modernise this parlour piece, written in 1928, which can feel very much of its time.
Early in the development of the film (thanks to historian and educationalist Sir Anthony Seldon who became our executive producer) we discovered that Sherriff had co-written a novel of the play with author Vernon Bartlett. It gave writer and fellow producer, Simon Reade, the key to unlocking the drama, giving him backstories and events and locations that did not appear in the play. The novel, combined with the judicious removal of antiquated language and the more obvious parlour jokes, enabled Simon to create a modern, authentic, cinematic screenplay that still retained the DNA of Sherriff’s original.
As the development process continued we began to fully understand the terrible historical significance of the play’s setting of 18-21 March 1918. Unknown by most modern audiences, the start of the Spring Offensive, also known as Kaiserschlacht, on 21 March saw (after the first day of The Somme) the biggest number of casualties on a single day by British forces in the entire war.
When audiences opened their programmes in the theatre in 1929, they would immediately have recognised they were witnessing dead men walking. Sherriff’s own regiment, The East Surreys, who we depict in the film, suffered huge casualties, many of whose headstones and memorials are looked after by the CWGC in Pozieres and the surrounding area.
Throughout the creative process we were determined to make Journey’s End as authentic as possible – we did not want to glorify war, but instead draw the audience in to become the seventh member of the ensemble in the trenches and the dugout.
The trenches were built by historical advisor Taff Gillingham to a 1916 British Army standard. They were wet, muddy and cold. Our actors endured a little of what it might have been like during the war, further adding to their own nuanced performances.
Our dugout was also built to British military scale. We didn’t even raise the roof to accommodate Paul Bettany (6’3”). We used candlelight and created an environment that felt as real as possible. These touches, combined with a boot camp and a day of high emotion meeting, three veterans suffering from PTSD (aided by our key charity Combat Stress), added further layers that helped our actors and crew.
I do not think audiences will see better acting in a film this year. Our cast inhabit their roles perfectly, complemented by brilliant sets, superb camerawork, Simon’s deft screenplay and Saul Dibb’s canny direction.
Sam Claflin (who plays Stanhope) had seen Journey’s End as a student and was determined to play our leading man. He was attached almost from the start, giving the project added credibility. Journey’s End is a play many actors are familiar with and soon after Sam signed on, so did Toby Jones, to play Mason the cook. We were thrilled when Paul Bettany agreed to play Osborne and Tom Sturridge (Hibbert), Asa Butterfield (Raleigh) and Stephen Graham (Trotter) fell into place soon after, all citing Saul, the quality of the writing and the importance of the drama as reasons to get involved.
For me, the film and the work the CWGC does complement each other perfectly.
I hope that visitors to the CWGC’s incredible sites will be keen to add further context by watching the film. Equally, I hope that those who have seen it will be moved to visit the CWGC’s cemeteries and memorials with a clearer understanding of something of what these men went through – realising that behind every one of the CWGC’s moving memorials to those who died there is a human story just waiting to be discovered and told.
- Journey’s End is released nationwide on 2 February 2018 -