Back at headquarters, green young lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) has finally come of age and is eager to get to battle, specifically under Stanhope’s command. Aristocratic and naïve, Raleigh still believes Stanhope to be the dashing, pre-war beau of his sister, but he’s quickly disillusioned upon his arrival in the trenches. The stress of Raleigh’s potential outing of Stanhope’s now-ruined self to his girlfriend combines with the everyday stress of command, both of which are further compounded by nonsensical orders from Stanhope’s superiors, the continued undersupplying of his men, and intelligence reports of massing German forces.
The great strength and appeal of Journey’s End is not only the puncturing of a martial myth in Stanhope or in seeing Raleigh’s innocence get chipped away, but in seeing soldiers presented with an illogical and impossible task and trying to make the best of it anyway. The marching songs the soldiers sing carry the refrain ‘We’re here because we’re here,’ a statement of no examination because it wouldn’t help anything anyway. The avatar of this sentiment is Paul Bettany’s Lieutenant Osborne, Stanhope’s trusted second and the steady beating heart of the film. Outfitted in glasses and utilizing Bettany’s quiet and confident voice, Osborne is an oasis that all the soldiers justifiably gravitate towards. He gets a chance to show off his utility when he’s selected for a raid of the German trenches. Osborne’s gift might be for battle plans or sharpshooting but we never see it. What is plain and apparent is the gentleness with which he treats the men in his command, a talent that Stanhope may have once possessed but has lost long ago. In the film’s best scene, Osborne is trying to calm a nervous Raleigh before the raid, and does so by simply asking him to tell him about a moment from his childhood. Raleigh resists at first but is soon enchanted by a mental image of a forest near his home that he used to play in, an island of peace created at Osborne’s urging. Director Saul Dibb goes on to further define Osborne’s saintliness by finding the hand that he rests on each soldier’s calf as they climb out of the trench. The British higher-ups can deprive and lie to these men, and the Germans can take their lives, but no one can take away their ability, in every interaction, to be loving and decent to each other.
As beautiful as some parts of Journey’s End are, it wouldn’t be a WWI film if those weren’t small respites in a dank, hellish whole. The film lives in the minutiae of warfare, of low light and never being comfortable and stacking up the dead in their own corner for lack of anywhere else to put them. What’s most visceral about the film is Stanhope’s shattered psyche, and Claflin ably displays the immense mental effort required to not lose what’s left of his mind. Films about WWII have the out of knowing that an evil regime is being defeated, so every misery is tempered by that fact. WWI films like this and Paths of Glory don’t have that backstop, and wring out their characters and the viewer in turn. There’s little solace to be taken in Journey’s End, even from Bettany’s superb work, but solace is one outcome of many from spending time in a pivotal period of history. That these men would be spent so needlessly, all for continued exploitation of the rest of the world, is a vital and needed call for skepticism whenever any government calls up patriotism and national glory as a reason to spend its most valuable resources. A-