Surrey-based RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End has been turned into a film
- Credit: Archant
Inspired by his experiences on the Western Front, Surrey-based RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End launched his writing career. Now it’s back on the big screen – with the help of a Surrey charity as Duncan Hall discovers
As director Saul Dibb’s camera sweeps through the trenches of C Company there’s a golden Surrey regiment badge glittering on the shoulder of one of the soldiers’ uniforms.
It’s clearly a tribute to playwright, RC Sherriff, who encapsulated his experiences on the Western Front within his 1928 West End hit Journey’s End. The play launched his writing career and has now been revived on the big screen in the final year of the First World War centenary. Surrey Life saw a preview screening at London’s Mayfair Hotel and was blown away by its gritty reality and attention to detail. Inevitably the film will receive comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s masterful Second World War drama Dunkirk – not least for its atmospheric soundtrack and largely invisible enemy. But in Journey’s End’s favour is its claustrophobic setting in the candlelit confines of an officer’s dug out. Combined with the underlying futility of the Great War – as the removed military top brass send their men to almost certain death – it makes for a powerful experience.
Hugo and Ender’s Game star Asa Butterfield plays wide-eyed new officer Raleigh, who has specifically asked to be stationed in Aisne to be near his old school chum and future brother-in-law Stanhope (Sam Claflin). He is unaware of the toll the trenches have taken on the mental health of his friend, who is trying to block out the stress with whisky. As rumours of a spring offensive by the Germans increase in intensity, the tension in the dugout becomes almost unbearable. This is not a film packed with beautifully orchestrated battle scenes or patriotic speeches. Instead it tells a tale of tired men, struggling to find a way their own way through what seems to be an impossible situation – punctuated by the gallows humour of Stephen Graham’s Trotter and cook Toby Jones’s Baldrick-esque dishes of yellow soup.
In writing the screenplay, co-producer Simon Reade not only went back to Sherriff’s original play, but also uncovered a novelisation the playwright had penned two years later. “There was a lot of stripping stuff away that was a barrier to a modern audience,” he says on stage at the Mayfair Hotel. “What I didn’t do, which the book does, was watch Stanhope and Raleigh growing up at school together. We wanted to keep it to the four days. Sherriff’s original working titles were Suspense and Waiting, so we kept it as strictly as that.”
Simon also looked towards Sherriff’s future career. As well as penning stage plays Sherriff wrote scripts for the big screen including The Invisible Man in 1933, Alexander Korda’s The Four Feathers and the Oscar-nominated Goodbye Mr Chips in 1939 and The Dambusters in 1955. “We were approaching it as if Sherriff was writing it as the brilliant Hollywood screenwriter he would become,” says Simon.
Part of what may have touched those original playgoers in 1929 was its rooting in reality. Hampton Wick-born Robert Cedric Sherriff had tried to join up as an officer in 1914, but was rejected because he’d gone to Kingston Grammar rather than a public school. He volunteered again the following year and was given a commission in the East Surrey Regiment. He eventually got to the Western Front in October 1916, serving four months at Vimy and Messines Ridges. He was wounded in January 1917, but returned to the lines to take part in the opening sequences of Passchendaele later that year.
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While back on the front line, Sherriff wrote letters complaining of attacks of neuralgia – stabbing nerve pains in his face. The letters were discovered as part of a two-year project to catalogue the RC Sherriff archives at the Surrey History Centre. Interestingly Sherriff gave the same condition to Journey’s End’s Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge in the film), who is desperate to be transferred away from the frontline.
In his 1968 memoir, Sherriff paints a graphic picture of conditions on the front line. “Living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief,” he wrote. “The cookhouse was flooded and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it: ‘smelled like dead men’.”
The effect on the men could be seen as they assembled on July 31 1917, the morning of the attack on the German positions. “Some of the men looked terribly ill: grey, worn faces in the dawn, unshaved and dirty because there was no clean water. I saw the characteristic shrugging of the shoulders that I knew so well. They hadn’t had their clothes off for weeks and their shirts were full of lice.”
During the advance, a shell exploded close to Sherriff, destroying a pill box and sending 52 pieces of shattered concrete into his body. “I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side had been blown away.” He was invalided back to England and spent the rest of the war with the Home Service battalion of the regiment. He was demobbed in March 1919 and went back to his job as an insurance adjuster, writing plays in his spare time. Journey’s End’s success meant he could take up writing full time, but it very nearly wasn’t staged after being turned down by most of London’s theatres.
His autobiography was entitled No Leading Lady in reference to one theatre manager who refused to stage the play because of the lack of female roles. Sherriff wrote: “They said people didn’t want war plays.” It was the endorsement of fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, which finally saw a semi-staged production starring a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier come to the Apollo Theatre. After three weeks at The Savoy the play ran for two years at the Prince of Wales Theatre and transferred to Broadway in 1930. A year after it was first staged it had been performed by 14 different companies in English and 17 more in other languages. Its success encouraged others to write about their wartime experiences: Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front and Seigfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer all followed. It has been made into a film no less than five times. This latest version can be traced back to the 2004 stage revival by director David Grindley, who is credited as executive producer on the movie. His version toured the country from 2004 to 2006, and again from 2011 to 2013.
In making the film for a 2018 audience, Saul was keen to remind audiences that the themes of trauma and stress covered in the play were still alive for veterans of modern war. As well as training his actors on how to hold their rifles properly, his cast was given an insight into the reality of life on the front line by a Leatherhead-based veterans’ charity. Combat Stress is the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health; it has helped former servicemen and women deal with trauma, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for more than a century.
“In 2016 Combat Stress was contacted by Journey’s End producer Guy de Beaujeu with an invitation to become the film’s charity partner,” says Robin Dyet from the charity, “We were honoured to be chosen and to have the opportunity through the film to raise awareness of the effect war can have on soldiers’, and later veterans’, mental health. The film makers and the cast, particularly Sam Claflin, have truthfully portrayed the devastating and debilitating condition of shell shock. We hope the film will increase understanding and awareness of military-related mental health conditions and tackle the stigma that so often deters veterans from seeking help.”
Sam, Asa, fellow actors Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge and Andy Gathergood, director Saul and producer Guy spent an afternoon at Combat Stress talking about the bonds between soldiers on the front line and the symptoms of PTSD. “The obvious thing is that war is happening now,” says Sam. “We were fortunate to sit down with three ex-servicemen to pick their brains and talk through their experiences, challenges and struggles and the obstacles they had overcome. All three suffered from PTSD but were very open about it and invited very difficult questions. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences and conversations I have ever had. There are so many similarities about the modernity of this story – it is still very relevant to so many people. And that brotherhood and chemistry you have to have with the man standing to your right creates a real sense of family. Stanhope is like an abusive husband at home – he’s one person in front of his men, but from speaking to the guys they all said that what often happens is you take it out on the people you love the most.”
To add to the realism Saul shot the film chronologically. “During the filming a lot of things were happening for real,” he says. “We did no rehearsals other than camera rehearsals to keep that genuine fear for all of us.”
“It was important that the camera should be a close observer,” adds cinematographer Laurie Rose. “We wanted to make it so there was no glamour, no heroes – we wanted to put people into that environment as physically as possible, and be as unrelenting and unflinching from that experience.”
As a film it certainly manages to achieve that – and will be a memorial to those who died in one of the worst conflicts in human history for many years to come.
Journey’s End is in UK cinemas from Friday, 2 February.