“Journey’s End”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Based on a play by R. C. Sherriff, the 1930 “Journey’s End” is a good example of a movie which benefits from its stage origins. It’s less a war film than a waiting-through-a-war film: for most of its length the camera remains penned inside a British dugout, the grime-smeared characters trapped in two-shot or three-shot or four-shot as they play cards and haggle over unsavory meat. (Meanwhile, ordnance zoots and claps on the soundtrack.) When director James Whale (this was his first film) breaks out of that setting in order to show a raid through no man’s land, the movie loses instead of gains tension. The sequence is jumbled and storyless, making you wonder why the action wasn’t kept offscreen or shown, like everything else, from the perspective of the trench. (Probably, the producers wanted a WOW! sequence to compete with “All Quiet On the Western Front” and “Westfront 1918,” both released the same year.) Combat is secondary here: it’s in the ant-like existence of the trench dwellers that the movie finds its theme. The character of the chief ant, Captain Denis Stanhope, was originated on stage by Olivier. Here he’s played by Colin Clive, who makes a veritable garment out of existential agitation. (Has any actor ever done overtaxed nudginess in quite the way Clive did?) Stanhope has been at the front a long time, and he’s managed to avoid cracking only by steeling himself against normalcy — he drinks a lot and abstains from talking about home. But he’s tested when childhood friend Raleigh is assigned to his unit. Played by a young, overly-scrubbed David Manners, Raleigh represents everything Stanhope is trying to squelch (he’s the embodiment of pre-war life), and when Stanhope is forced to send the young man on a probably fatal mission, his ambivalence provides “Journey’s End” with a shot of moral paradox. There’s a part of Stanhope that wants to see the kid destroyed, but it’s in conflict with his role as the unit’s commander — a role which is like a Bizarro World version of his peacetime office of chummy mentor. As a character Stanhope is in that fertile, Hemingway-bred tradition of boys who went to war to locate manhood but instead found emasculation, and with his drinking, his cynicism, and his angst at being turned into a human sausagemaker, he may have provided the model for the Richard Barthelmess character in “Dawn Patrol.” If you can forgive the shouty awkwardness of early sound acting, the performances here are pretty good, especially Ian MacLaren as a schoolteacher whose dapperness and collegiality are undiminished by the shells, the mud, and the dying.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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2 Responses to “Journey’s End”

  1. Nice review. I’ve always wanted to see this one but haven’t gotten around to it. (Haven’t gotten around to some other war-film classics either, come to think of it. Time to plug up that gap.) Can much of James Whale’s special touch be felt in the movie?

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  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    No, I wouldn’t say the movie exhibits what you’d call a James Whale touch. It’s mostly just solidly presented and acted. Worth checking out, though.

    Whale was pretty special, wasn’t he?

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