Over the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering the adaptation of R.C.Sheriff’s classic Journey’s End. It’s no longer our A level set book for WWI Literature, but I took my students to see it anyway (at the splendid Borderlines Film Festival). It was a useful experience for them, giving some indication of life on the front line in the spring of 1918, but I felt the film sold Sheriff’s masterpiece a bit short.
A film is not a play, of course, and we’re 90-odd years down the road from the first staging, so some changes were inevitable, and there are gains as well as losses. One of the features of the original play was the matter of class distinction. As George Bernard Shaw said: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Sherriff grasped this exactly: the class of each character is swiftly established as soon as he opens his mouth, and these distinctions form a significant element in the play. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to convey all the finer shades of meaning to the greater part of even a British contemporary audience, let alone anyone from a different cultural background. In that respect, the decision to make Trotter a Scouser was a stroke of genius. Next, the issue of Trotter’s tubbiness is sidelined – and that’s not much of a loss. But what is also cut is his (supposed) lack of imagination* which in turn might also hint that, although a decent enough chap, he may not be the brightest spark in the barrel. Actually, though, the loss of that slightly snobbish element could be said to eliminate the play’s greatest weakness.
[We’re moving into spoiler alert territory from this point on, by the way.]
The two changes I take most issue with are the mood of relentless impending doom which is allowed to dominate the film from the very start and the presentation of the character of Stanhope. In a way, I shall argue, the two are quite closely inter-related.
First of all, director Saul Dibbs chose to begin the film with Raleigh’s journey to the front line. Michael Simpson did the same for the BBC version in 1988. Amongst other considerations, such a choice does, of course, underline a very literal interpretation of the play’s title, but that is a relatively minor point and, to be fair, you can hardly expect a film director to resist the challenge of a full-on WWI-setting. So I suppose it is pointless to grouse about the fact that one of the key features of Sherriff’s play is its claustrophobic focus on the bunker – the way that all war-related outdoor “action” actually happens off-stage. Of course, that was a decision largely forced upon the playwright by the realities of the theatre, but he certainly made the most of it: in that fervid atmosphere, the dramas that do explode on stage are intensely personal and thereby give a dimension to the drama which is largely lost in the film, buried as it is under the greater and far more visually exciting real-life horror.
More importantly, when Raleigh asks his uncle to place him in Stanhope’s company, it’s made very clear what a dangerous choice that is – the general knows that a big assault is expected and Stanhope’s company are going to be in the thick of it. This gloomy forecast is heavily and flat-footedly underscored by the endless doom-laden background music. The play, on the other hand, begins with the jocular Hardy trying to dry his sock over a candle, tunelessly humming jolly tunes and joking about Stanhope’s drinking. It is Hardy who suggests to Osborne that the company are going to “get it in the neck”, though Osborne brushes that aside, and the matter is seemingly forgotten the as other characters come on stage. By and large, they seem mainly interested in the quality of the food and the taste of the tea. On a superficial level, it seems that war is a jolly nuisance – it get in the way of meals, and forces on one such discomforts as having to go to bed fully clothed.
The value of this is that, against this seemingly casual, almost light-hearted, backdrop, Stanhope’s emotional volatility quickly emerges as deeply significant. His reaction to discovering that Raleigh has joined his company seems extraordinary and – yes – dramatic (a quality missing from this moment in the film). On top of that, Stanhope’s drinking, his temper, and his nightmare visions of bullets and worms, all help to create a picture of a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails – and yet, at the same time, doing an extraordinary job as one of the best officers in the regiment. All this is lost in the film, where Stanhope’s drinking and nightmare visions seem entirely of a piece with the doom-laden scenario, and his temper almost disappears entirely. His threat to shoot Hibbert appears merely to be a clever trick rather than (possibly) the almost hysterical reaction of a man living right on the edge.
The greatest loss, in my view, rests on our knowing from the start of the film that these men are doomed. By contrast, in the original play, Sherriff allows that understanding to dawn upon the audience as the play progresses. It’s much more dramatic and moving that way. We watch as Stanhope explains his orders to the others – first breaking the news to the sergeant-major and then to Osborne. Both react in ways that help the audience to understand the full implications: they are going to wire themselves to face the attack, they will not give ground, retreat, or surrender: the only way out is death.
You might think that Sherriff’s original audience would also have known (or guessed) that the play wasn’t going to end happily … well, maybe. Some of them might well have been men who served on the front line, but many others, perhaps the majority, would have had an over-romanticised view of the war. We forget how much our view of WWI has changed since Sherriff’s play was first performed, and how instrumental the play itself was in bringing about that change. Sherriff has been quoted as saying that he never set out to write an anti-war play, and yet the utter criminal futility of the raid in which Osborne is killed would probably have come as a surprise to most of the audience in 1928-29**. Some of them might also have been a bit surprised to hear that the Germans are “quite decent, really” – an element cut out of the film’s script. The youth and vulnerability of the captured German boy is also largely passed over, whereas, in the play the contents of his pockets (chocolate, pencil stubs) emphasise that he’s boy straight out from school.
Speaking of youth and vulnerability, I felt that element was also largely lost in relation to both Stanhope and Raleigh, though their ages are mentioned. The film still casts Stanhope as its hero, but he appears merely as a brave man unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the best of it. His drinking and his occasional attack of the heebie-jeebies are entirely understandable and therefore largely unremarkable. Sherriff’s Stanhope is more richly complex: a tragic figure, deeply flawed but all the more heroic because of that, a man haunted from the start by the terrible knowledge that he is at least partially responsible for Raleigh’s arrival in this hell he inhabits. Raleigh’s youth and fresh-faced innocence help to underline the journey that Stanhope has made from excited schoolboy to doomed hero, haunted – amongst other things – by the knowledge that he will almost certainly have to watch while his young friend die. That is why he is so angry with Raleigh, so unfair to him – almost unforgivably so – and that is why the ending of the play is so (at the risk of repeating myself) dramatic: Stanhope faces his worst nightmare and manages to do so with grace, courage and dignity. The film, instead, falls back on blanket coverage of the grim reality of war and the grief of those left behind, all of which is true enough, but (for me, at least) lacked any real impact. Sherriff’s play, by contrast, was ground-breaking, fresh and original. Its power and humanity gave, and still could give, real impetus to a message the world needed – and needs – to hear.
* For a splendid diatribe countering the myth of the more imaginative and sensitive inner worlds of the ‘officer class’ check out Prior’s comments in Pat Barker’sRegeneration.
** The poetry would have had some impact, of course, and Sassoon was already published, but Blunden’s edition of Wifred Owen’s poems wasn’t published until 1931, more than two years after the first performance of Journey’s End.