Journey’s End: behind the scenes of the new First World War film

Based on RC Sherriff’s play and novel of the same name, Journey’s End tells the story of several British officers as they await an inevitable German attack during the First World War. Here, the film’s screenplay writer, Simon Reade, talks to History Extra about some of the challenges of adapting Sherriff’s original work, and why it’s important to keep remembering the First World War 100 years on…

© Journey's End

RC Sherriff wrote his celebrated play Journey’s End in 1928, ten years after the end of the First World War. Praised for capturing the claustrophobia and viciousness of trench warfare and the nature of life and death on the western front, the story begins on the evening of Monday 18 March 1918 and continues over three days.

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Now, a combination of the play and a later novel version written by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett has been adapted for the big screen. Journey’s End, starring Paul Bettany, Sam Clafin and Asa Butterfield, will be released in UK cinemas on 2 February 2018. We caught up with Simon Reade, who wrote the film’s screenplay, to find out more…

Q. How did you approach adapting the original play – Journey’s End by RC Sherriff – for the screen?

A. Journey’s End is a very good play that has been hugely successful over the years. As such, the last thing I wanted to do was adapt the play by itself, which already exists as a drama in its own right, and turn it into another form of drama. Luckily, Sherriff also novelised Journey’s End with his friend Vernon Bartlett, and this gave me a new way of approaching the story.

While I used both the novel and the play as a basis for the screenplay, there are also moments in the film that are from neither text. For example, when the characters are about to make a raid across no man’s land, I was thinking about how I would feel and how I would react. I thought that I would probably throw up, so I have the character Raleigh – who has never been on a raid before – do exactly that. We also see the soldiers taking a piss in the trench, and it’s a very human moment – if you’re about to go over the top you don’t want to wet yourself. These were the kinds of gritty details that came about by imagining myself in the moment.

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Sam Clafin as Captain Stanhope in ‘Journey’s End’. (© Nick Wall)

Q. How does the novel differ from the play?

A. The novel gives us an insight into how Sherriff himself might have treated a film version of the story. It shows, for example, how he might have portrayed the intensity of war. In the play, this intensity plays out in just one setting – a dugout ­– but in the novel, we go out into the trench and meet other members of the army. This is something we chose to bring into the film, so we venture into these different locations – we see where the food is cooked and we see where the soldiers sleep. It gives us a bit of a bigger picture of what the First World War might have been like.

Although the director [Saul Dibb] and I wanted to venture out of the dugout, we also wanted to retain some of the original claustrophobia of the play. What we didn’t want to do was have these wider shots of no man’s land, so we set ourselves this rule of never showing anything other than what the characters in the film can see. As such, the only time you see no man’s land is when the characters go there. This was a really good discipline that helped retain the integrity of the original play – which puts the characters at the heart of the story rather than the war.

Q. What made you want to retell the story?

A. I previously worked on an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s war story Private Peaceful, so I already had an interest in the First World War. With 2018 marking 100 years since the end of the First World War, it was an area of history that I wanted to revisit.

I’ve also always been drawn to honest human dramas. I love that the story is all about the characters, and their experiences, so I knew that it would make a really good film.

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“There is definitely this feeling of impending doom and tragedy in the film – a sense that the men are waiting for the inevitable,” says Reade. (© Nick Wall)

Q. What are some of the differences between the original texts by RC Sherriff and the new film?

A. In the play, Sherriff focuses primarily on the lives of the officers, but what we have been able to do is show more of how everyone on the front line suffered. We show behind the scenes, looking at what the privates and soldiers did and how they survived.

Part of my job was to do Sherriff a favour and return the dialogue to some of the more ‘earthy’ language of the trenches. The way that they talked in the play is very old fashioned – it’s all “oh jolly good show”, etc. No one spoke like that in the trenches, but that was how people spoke on the stage at the end of the 1920s (you had to speak like that to get it past the censor). What we didn’t want to do was make the language so antiquated that it would alienate young people, so although the film still has a bit of the stiff upper lip about it, the dialogue is much more real and gritty.

Q. How do the characters in the film cope with the reality of war?

A. There is definitely this feeling of impending doom and tragedy in the film – a sense that the men are waiting for the inevitable. They’re on the front line for six days and they know that a German attack is expected. It’s like they’re watching a count down on a bomb, and what this does to their psyche is absolutely terrible. They get through it by trying to think about absolutely anything else. Some of them get fixated on food, some of them make jokes and others try to distract each other with mundane conversation.

Scene from new First World War film Journey's End
“The film really explores what happens to people in intense situations. It’s about war, but it’s also about life and human relationships,” says Reade. (© Nick Wall)

Q. What does Journey’s End tell us about the men who served on the western front and their relationships with one another?

A. You can see that the men in Journey’s End all have a mutual respect for one another; they all play a different role and fulfil a different function. As in any society, they don’t replicate each other; they complement each other.

However, there’s also a lot of tension between them. The fly in the ointment in the film ­– the event that completely upsets everything ­–  is this pre-existing relationship between the established Captain Stanhope [played by Sam Claflin] and new recruit Raleigh [played by Asa Butterfield]. Raleigh’s arrival at the front line brings the outside world home to the men (and particularly Stanhope, who was in a relationship with Raleigh’s sister). He is a living reminder of hope and a previous life, which upsets everything for Stanhope – and Raleigh has a very rude awakening.

An interesting aspect of the film is that an awful lot of violent stuff goes on before the soldiers even set foot outside of their dugout. This takes place within the very relationships of the men themselves. The film really explores what happens to people in intense situations. It’s about war, but it’s also about life and human relationships.

Q. Which character in Journey’s End do you most identify with and why?

A. Hibbert [played by Tom Sturridge] is the character that I most identify with, and I think I would behave like him, if I was in a war. Like Hibbert, I think that I would be a coward – I would want to run away and I wouldn’t care about having to stick by the other men. I might also suffer from neuralgia [symptoms of pain caused by a damaged nerve], as Hibbert does in the film, but I would also exaggerate that and use it as an excuse to go home.

Interestingly, I read that Sherriff based the character of Hibbert on himself. He suffered from neuralgia during the First World War and this is what led to him being discharged from the army. I think he felt quite guilty about that.

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Tom Sturridge as Hibbert, a soldier who claims he is suffering from neuralgia, in ‘Journey’s End’. (© Nick Wall)

Q. One of Journey’s End big themes is mental illness, and how humans cope with war. How did you approach this?

A. We worked alongside a charity called Combat Stress while undertaking research for the film and its performances. They introduced us to contemporary soldiers who had experienced or were still experiencing PTSD. It was very humbling and moving, especially for our actors and particularly for Sam Claflin [who plays Stanhope, an alcoholic] and Tom Sturridge [who plays Hibbert, who has PTSD]. They could see that although Journey’s End is a story about the First World War, the difficulties that some of the characters experience (particularly alcoholism, depression and anxiety) are still endured now, by people who are probably better trained than the soldiers in 1918.

I actually had a very odd experience just before I wrote the screenplay when I was out working out in Kurdistan, Iraq. At the time, it wasn’t a warzone – although they were building up to retake Mosul – but it was a very stressful place to be. I sort of took this in my stride when I was out there, but when I got home, it took about six weeks to adjust. Obviously I hadn’t been on the frontline ­– I hadn’t been fighting or anything like that – but I’d been in this stressful, almost militarised environment. That had a profound effect on me over just a couple of months, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have experienced the First World War.

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“We also haven’t tried to be glossy in how the film looks ­because that’s not what war is like; it really is muddy, it really is dirty,” says Reade. (© Nick Wall)

Q. If you had to sum it up, how would you say that war is portrayed in this film?

A. What we tried not to do was make Journey’s End like other war films, the kind that go over-the-top with violence, bombs, guns, explosions and special effects. That’s not really what war is about, and I think that kind of portrayal sensationalises what it was really like.

Journey’s End feels quite truthful and honest because we rooted it in reality. It does have a music score, but it’s not overly romanticised. We also haven’t tried to be glossy in how the film looks ­because that’s not what war is like; it really is muddy, it really is dirty, and the soldiers really did have a piss in the trench before going over the top.

Q. Tell us something interesting you found out about RC Sherriff, who wrote the original play and novel.

A. There’s a great autobiography he wrote called No Leading Lady. The title refers to the moment someone told him that Journey’s End wasn’t going to be a successful play because there were no female characters, and therefore no ‘leading lady’ – which is what West End theatre wanted at the end of the 1920s. Of course, what the title also describes, with unknowing irony, is that Sherriff was no ‘leading lady’ himself. In other words, ­he wasn’t one of life’s charismatic leaders who commanded attention when he walked in to a room. He also – and he may not have even admitted it to himself – wasn’t ‘out’, and there is a definite homosexual undertone to his writing.

Asa Butterfield as Raleigh in new First World War film ‘Journey’s End’.
Asa Butterfield as Raleigh, a new recruit, in ‘Journey’s End’. (© Nick Wall)

Q. Tell us about Asa Butterfield’s character, Raleigh – a young officer whose arrival at the front line stirs up trouble among the men. What does his character symbolise for you?

A. Raleigh is a character who goes on a very literal journey in the film: he appears to transition from childhood to adulthood, from school boy to army officer over the course of just a few days. Every character has been on a journey and has learnt something about themselves, but Raleigh so obviously and overtly changes that everyone else is sort of reflected in his light. Interestingly, Asa Butterfield as an actor in this film has gone on this journey of being a great child actor to being a great adult actor. The parallel is very interesting to me.

Q. What do you want people to take from the film?

A. We’ve been really pleased that young women have responded incredibly well to this film so far. I think this is partly because it’s a film that deals with war truthfully and emotionally. We want people to know that just because it’s a film that’s set in the war and has a whole load of men in it, that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to women. I think they will have as good as experience as anyone else. 

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Simon Reade is the producer and screenplay writer of Journey’s End, which will be released in the UK on 2 February 2018.