‘It’s set in the trenches but it’s not a war film’

Producers of new version of Journey’s End want audiences to see human side of conflict

When Journey’s End, RC Sherriff’s powerful play about the first world war, was first staged in 1928, huge numbers of women went to see it. The author once observed that they recognised sons, brothers or husbands, many of whom never returned home: “The play made it possible for them to journey into the trenches and share the lives that their men had led.”

Now British film-makers are producing a version of the harrowing drama in the hope that by bringing out the human story, they will draw women and young people who might not see themselves as conventional war film aficionados. Veterans of recent conflicts have been consulted in an attempt to better understand how to portray the psychological trauma of war.

In Journey’s End – inspired by Sherriff’s experience of the western front before he was invalided home – Captain Stanhope, the hero, suffers undiagnosed shell shock, as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was known then.

Producer Guy de Beaujeu said that, through the film, they want to interest younger people – particularly women – in the first world war and show them how it is “of importance and consequence to them”.

“It’s not a war film,” said Beaujeu. “It’s a drama set in a war and it feels very important to us that the film is not a piece of heritage. It’s absolutely relevant today. It could be men and women going to Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the modern conflicts. It’s a window into that world of a war zone, where most of the time is spent waiting. There are moments of sheer terror, and then waiting again.”

Through Combat Stress, a charity that cares for military veterans who have suffered PTSD, actors Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge and Toby Jones heard first-hand accounts from three veterans of various conflicts. Sue Freeth, chief executive of the charity, said that previous films have not “got to the nub” of an illness that affects many war veterans, up to 20%, according to some estimates.

Director Saul Dibb on the set of Journey’s End.
Director Saul Dibb on the set of Journey’s End. Photograph: handout

De Beaujeu said: “One had a lost leg in Helmand, one had seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another had been to Northern Ireland and Iraq. They talked about what it was like to be a soldier suffering from PTSD.

“The actors were humbled. It gave them an incredible insight. Coming face-to-face with guys who’ve genuinely been on the frontline and put their lives at risk was a very sobering moment.

“People might say it’s set 100 years ago, so what’s that got to do with us? It’s everything to do with what’s going on now. In our post-Brexit state, where we’re metaphorically turning our back on Europe, it’s also very important to show how we fought with our European allies.”

Sherriff, who died in 1975, served in France between September 1916 and August 1917 and was wounded in the face at Passchendaele. Having recovered in England, he went back to his previous employer, as a loss adjuster, and a decade later he penned Journey’s End, which he described as “writing about something real, about men I had lived with and knew so well that every line they spoke came from them and not from me”.

When it opened in the West End, a young Laurence Olivier played Stanhope and it went on to play to packed houses for years, being staged worldwide and becoming a syllabus text.

Robert Gore-Langton, author of Journey’s End: The Classic War Play, believes that its initial success was partly due to women making up a good deal of its audience: “It was a way of finding out what had happened. It became an unofficial war memorial; a meeting-place for people who had one thing in common – loss. People didn’t really talk about it when they came back. They didn’t want the degradation to infect their families.”

He added: “You get pretty much mixed audiences now. Women might not buy history books about the first world war, but they would go and see that play.”

Sherriff went on to write screenplays for The Dam Busters and Goodbye, Mr Chips. Journey’s End is planned for release next year.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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