by Allan Fish
(UK/USA 1930 120m) not on DVD
Of cabbages and kings, and cockroaches on whisky
p George Pearson d James Whale w Joseph Moncure March, Gareth Gundrey play R.C.Sheriff ph Benjamin Kline ed Claude Berkeley m none art Harvey Libbert
Colin Clive (Capt. Dennis Stanhope), David Manners (2nd Lt. Raleigh), Ian MacLaren (2nd Lt. ‘Uncle’ Osborne), Billy Bevan (2nd Lt. Trotter), Anthony Bushell (2nd Lt. Hibbert), Robert Adair (Capt. Hardy), Charles K.Gerrard (Pvt. Mason),
Ask most people of my generation about World War I and there’s a strong chance they will have first become acquainted with it through TV comedy; if not by the Python sketch ‘Ypres 1914’ (“how about ‘one potato, two potato’, sir?”) then by the adventures of Blackadder and co.. Yet for comedy to work, especially small screen comedy, there must be a familiarity with the setting or else much of the humour is lost. More than from any other source, the familiarity came from R.C.Sheriff’s play Journey’s End.
Set entirely in the dugouts and trenches on the front and supply lines in Saint Quentin, France, in March 1918, it follows four principal officers over a four day period. Captain Stanhope has just returned from furlough. He’s well respected by his men but three years on the front lines have exposed understandable cracks in his façade and he’s turned to drinking to keep his nerves in check. His right-hand is the older Osborne, nicknamed Uncle, who tries to keep him going. With them is Trotter, a salt of the earth type who’s risen to the rank of officer through the ranks. To this motley trio is added Raleigh, a wet behind the ears public school type who answers every request with either “I say”, “right-o” or “rather” and who is delighted to serve under Stanhope, the man he worshipped at school and who had been in love with his sister before the war.
The play had been a massive critical and audience hit in the West End in 1929. James Whale had directed it there with Colin Clive playing the lead. Whale was then chosen by Michael Balcon and Arthur Pearson – who himself had made a World War I pacifist tract, Reveille, in 1924, now assumed lost – to direct the film version, and Whale insisted on Clive to reprise the role of Stanhope. With UK sound equipment not quite polished enough, the majority of the film was shot in New York. It’s generally perceived to be a primitive beast by most film writers, but it’s certainly not helped by the deplorable state of the majority of prints – it hasn’t been on British television since the 1980s – which make the camerawork seem even jerkier than it is. And while it’s true that it cannot help but be stagy, set as it is virtually entirely on stage-like sets in the trench bunkers, it does still maintain a real primitive power. The play is only opened out slightly for a couple of sequences in no-man’s-land, but the biggest changes to the text come in the form of cuts to Sheriff’s moving speeches. It’s unfortunate that they were edited, but Whale nonetheless manages to keep the spirit of the play intact.
The biggest reason for the film’s relative anonymity today, however, is an unfair comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s true that Milestone’s film is more fluid and has the greater scenes of trench warfare, but Whale had served in the trenches for 18 months before being taken a prisoner and knew no film could come close to the reality. Where Whale’s film scores is not in its use of sound, of incessant Howitzers and field artillery, but in the eerie sound of silence that sent men insane far quicker than the incessant shelling. He’s also helped by his cast. Manners may be a little annoying, but that’s the character, the epitome of the British upper class officer going over the top with the same nonchalance as if opening the batting on the village green. MacLaren is superb as the kindly Osborne and the inimitable Billy Bevan was never better as the no-nonsense Trotter, more disturbed by the lack of bacon in his fat than by the German bullets whistling past his ear. As for Clive, he’s definitive, and the success assured Whale would give him the part in a certain Universal film 12 months later. One can only dream of a proper remastered release, for no other film captured the spirit in which men sardonically sang “we’re here because we’re here…” during mankind’s most horrific bloodbath.