When is a classic war film not a war film? When it is, instead, an intense dissection of mortality, masculinity, power, trauma and class – albeit set in a World War 1 trench. Journey’s End, RC Sherriff’s play based on his First World War experiences, starred a young Laurence Olivier when it was first staged at the Apollo Theatre in 1928. It has since been adapted many times.
The latest version, directed by Saul Dibb, is released to mark the centenary of 1918’s Spring Offensive, which would leave more than half a million people dead in a few short, bloody weeks. In many ways, this can be seen as a classic war film. Yet it is almost entirely devoid of any explosive action. By focusing so closely on character rather than action it is a perfect follow-up to 2017’s Dunkirk.
Slow, sombre, sad and set to stay with viewers long after leaving the cinema, Journey’s End shows C Company, stationed in northern France, awaiting their fate. Six men, from a range of educational and economic backgrounds, thrown together by war into an uncomfortable confined space, each trying to cope with the prospect of almost-certain, imminent, premature death.
Sam Claflin takes the central role of Captain Stanhope. “I watched the play when I was at drama school in my second year,” recalls the 31-year-old, best known for roles in The Hunger Games and The Huntsman.
“I remember being completely spellbound. Completely in awe, not only of the performances but the characters and the stories. From that moment I remember saying to myself that I wanted to do this at some point, in whatever capacity, playing whoever.
So much of the First World War was waiting for the inevitable to happen
“RC Sherriff had the working title Waiting. And I think so much of the First World War was waiting for the inevitable to happen. The fear of the unknown must just get to you.”
To prepare for the hugely challenging role as heavy-drinking, short-tempered, but respected and admired young leader of men, Claflin spoke to Combat Stress, a charity originally set up just after the end of WW1 offering mental health support to veterans dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We were fortunate enough to speak to some PTSD sufferers and ex-servicemen,” says Claflin. “They were very open and inviting to us asking questions about their experiences.
“They came specifically to talk about PTSD and it was one of the most insightful few hours of my life, learning about what it is like to be at war. Anyone who has experienced it is affected.
“They were saying there is such an unwritten rule in the forces, that you have to be strong, you want everyone beside you and behind you and in front of you to think you are strong. So there is a constant battle with yourself that if you are feeling scared you don’t want to tell anyone. That builds up over time and becomes so big that you get used to not talking or sharing.”
This is exactly what the current Time To Talk campaign is about: the need to talk through our feelings lest they fester and become destructive, harmful, damaging, or too intimidating to deal with.
“What is amazing about these veterans coming together with Combat Stress is that they have been surrounded by people who undershare,” continues Claflin. “But together, they have learnt it is okay to be scared. It is OK to feel the things that they feel.”
In the film, each soldier has the brave face they show the world and the real feelings they occasionally share with one confidant or reveal to the cinema audience in moments of solitude. And their trench-life coping strategies show myriad masculinities and personalities.
“You have Stephen Graham’s character who talks about food, and that is his way of dealing with his fears,” says Claflin. “Paul Bettany talks about what he is going to do afterwards, the green grass of home and his rockery.
“Asa Butterfield’s character is just so excited and young and thinks everything is going to be great. Toby Jones is looking at how fancy he can make each meal, while Tom Sturridge is all about all the girls he knew in the past.
“Me? My character is the fear because I know what is going to happen. Everyone is dead, dead, dead, dead. So he drink, drink, drink, drinks.”
There is a constant battle with yourself to not tell anyone that you’re feeling scared
To further access the anger and frustration felt by his character, Claflin took an unusual step in his preparation.
“One thing I explored and researched quite a lot was domestic abuse and domestic violence,” he explains. “The reason being that to me, that is probably where Stanhope would have gone. He obviously is already a drinker, but in the film you see his public face in front of the colonel when he is very centred and calm and heroic and brave and strong. The second he goes home – to his wife or to his friends – he becomes aggressive, he becomes violent. He would turn on a dime.
“He is a very sensitive man, but more than anything he is afraid. From what I understand, a lot of domestic abuse stems from insecurity. That helped with the mentality, psychology, understanding, getting myself into character.
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“It is so interesting, and what makes this a unique piece, especially as a war film,” he goes on. “It is about relationships. You have to realise, this was so common around the First World War. People were surrounded by that pressure and that tension and that fear of the unknown. There would have been a lot of people going through what these guys went through.”
It is a sobering thought. Watching the emotional turmoil of the six main protagonists of the film, yet imagining a further 100,000 or more versions of the story taking place along both sides of No Man’s Land. Claflin uses football grounds to imagine the scale of the deaths, comparing it to every attendee at a Premier League or Championship game at the weekend being killed.
Claflin is keen that this latest adaptation of Journey’s End will be a celebration of a generation who made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago.
“I hope it is a celebration almost of the bravery of so many people and the sacrifices men and women made for their country to better our lives,” he says. “They fought and served and a lot died to give us a better life. We should be celebrating them as opposed to being sad. It should be more of a celebration. The fact that we have come so far in this time, it is all because of them.”
Asked what has stayed with him from the experience of getting inside the head of a soldier on the front line, Claflin returns to the theme of talking, listening, communicating.
“The one thing I would say to any people who haven’t taken the time to talk to people from the forces is talk to them and learn about their experiences. You can bet your bottom dollar that it will be way more interesting than anything you have ever done,” he says.
“So people need to talk and also need to bloody listen. Because I think that, more than any of the ex-service people not wanting to talk, it is that people don’t want to listen. We are too involved in ourselves.”
Journey’s End is out now in cinemas
War of Words
People have always suffered from the mental strain of traumatic events. Here’s how conflict has altered our understanding of it over the last century.
The phrase “shell shock” was first used in a medical journal in 1915, only six months after the start of World War 1. It was thought to be a physical injury to nerves from bombardment by exploding shells, causing brain trauma. Symptoms included amnesia, paralysis or inability to communicate. Treatment could be brutal, including electric shocks, burning and hot plates inserted in the throat. By 1916, 40 per cent of casualties had shell shock symptoms; 80,000 passed through army medical facilities by the end of the war, 16,000 from the Battle of the Somme alone.
By 1916, 40 per cent of casualties had shell shock symptoms
Battle shock was thought to be about weariness and fatigue from long campaigns. Combat Stress Reaction was another term used in WW2. US clinician Abram Kardiner speculated the trauma stemmed from psychological rather than physical injury. Studies on WW2 and Korean veterans suggested that the problem extended for years after returning from combat.
So many Vietnam war veterans were suffering that there emerged a need to describe the symptoms in order to get medical insurance to pay out. They needed a proper diagnostic term to describe what people were suffering from and the American Psychology Association coined the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It is estimated almost 15 per cent of veterans returning from modern conflicts develop PTSD. Different treatments, including therapeutic arts courses are being tried. Beyond the battlefield a significant proportion of the general public develop PTSD, including one in five firefighters, a third of teenage car crash survivors and around half of victims of sexual abuse.
With thanks to Dr Paula Holt who has been involved in Soldier On, a new play for Soldiers’ Arts Academy at The Playground Theatre, March 12-30, then touring