Saul Dibb is the director of the remarkable film Journey's End, set in the trenches of Northern France in 1918, as British forces await an imminent attack.
Dibb brilliantly conveys the intimacy of life in close quarters in the last year of the Great War. I suggest that a sense of period, too carefully evoked, might act like an anchor that could drag a film down. Such an approach could turn the film in effect into a WW 1 by-numbers piece, but Journey's End deftly avoids the dreaded `period drama' tag. Dibb concurs: "The idea is to place the audience right in there with the soldiers, so there is as little distance between us, the viewers, and the people who experience it," says the London-based director.
Journey’s End is based on the eponymous 1928 play by RC Sherrif, a popular hit of the day which was later turned into a successful novel, before eventually becoming Simon Reade’s screenplay for the present film.
The arrival of the eager young officer Jimmy Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) is not particularly welcomed by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games) who is courting Jimmy's sister Margaret (Rose Reade). That is the personal story, the love interest motif at the heart of the film, but the main event is the imminent German attack and its potential to set nerves on edge.
"There is this enormous bombardment coming, and this regiment that we follow, they are going to be at the centre of it," says the director. "So in a way it’s a film about `when’ rather than ‘if’".
Indeed the director reveals that the project was initially entitled Waiting.
Paul Reade's sceenplay was assiduous about stripping out redundant English usages such as "topping" which would have been used in Sherrif’s original play, the kind of phrases you find sprinkled liberally in the novels of PG Wodehouse.The dialogue was toned or buffed up for a modern audience, making it into a highly accessible parable about the futility of all wars.
"The idea is to place the audience right in there with the soldiers, so there is as little distance between us the viewers and the people who experience it," explains Saul.
"Our aim was to try and convey in the relatively small way we can, as a piece of cinema, compared to the actual experience. But we try to convey the intimacy, the claustrophobia, the fear, the sense of dread, and the sense of love and camaraderie that also existed amongst the officers."
Only one German is shot in the entire movie, Journey's End skillfully avoids mega destruction or visceral violence. It's a thoughtful film that does not go for the jugular of the big picture, as it were.
The officers make up after they bicker or fight with each other, as a result of the overwhelming panic that is unhinging them incrementally day by day. Two of them embrace after a fight in one noteworthy scene, but to suggest homoerotic undertones is glib - they are in fact scared witless, you grab on to people when you panic.
"When the play was first shown in 1928, people were horrified by the drinking, by the nihilism, by the questioning of authority," says Dibb. "There is not a great belief in the war, that is treated with a degree of derision. What they have is a camaraderie – there is a stiff upper lip but there is so much more than that. That [stiff upper lip] is a way of coping with impending death, pain, the loss of their friends, and killing people as well."
The film was mostly shot with handheld cameras, utilising natural light and candlelight for the interiors, at Pinewood studios and also at a ready-made trench in Ipswich in England.
The moral or message of RC Sherrif's original play was far from jingoistic, according to the director. "When they do capture the German soldier whom they drag over, they interview him, but it’s quite gentlemanly in a way. At the end of it, they give him a cup of tea and a jam sandwich."
Ultimately, the director concludes "that the whole thing was like a pointless game, like a rugby match."
In any case, Journey's End is a remarkable film and your attention will not flag for a millisecond.