R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play is filmed again by director Saul Dibb and with a fine British cast, and it remains pretty damn powerful even if some of its thunder has been slightly stolen by the mighty army of war movies that have come before.
Produced four times previously (firstly in 1930 by a pre-Frankenstein James Whale) and often performed onstage, it’s a claustrophobic piece that captures something of what it was like in the dark, dirty trenches late in the First World War, before such combat became less English and far more violent, depersonalised and destructive.
Nearly made four years ago, this one was held back due to legal issues and is now being released for the centenary of the events depicted here and to just about coincide with Remembrance Day.
In the Northern France trenches a stalemate has been reached in the spring of 1918, and the very young Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), virtually just out of training, is assigned to a frontline unit headed by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin from the Hunger Games pics). Raleigh is a posh lad from a private school who somehow hopes for a bit of derring-do and Stanhope is an old friend of his, but when the kid finally meets the Captain he discovers that Stanhope has changed dramatically.
Claflin’s performance as the cracking-up Captain is one of the best here, as we watch him suffer with what would be now diagnosed as PTSD (and then as shell-shock, although no one uses that term), drink heavily, suffer terrible nightmares and fly into frightening rages. And is he struggling with repressed homosexuality too? When the well-liked Osborne (Paul Bettany from the Avengers outings) forces him to go to bed early on, Stanhope asks to be tucked in and tries to hug his comrade, but surely this is less to do with any kind of unrequited love and more just a desperate and understandable need for affection.
Osborne is really holding the unit together: he tries to help Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who also seems to be shell-shocked; he’s kind to the quietly terrified Trotter (Stephen Graham); and he has a nice line in jokey banter with cynical cook Mason (who else but Toby Jones?).
As the men wait for word on what to do (vague orders like “hold them off for as long as you can” lead to weeks of stressful waiting), we build to what we know is coming: the battle that kicked off the ‘Spring Offensive’ that claimed another 700000 lives on both sides. And when it finally happens it doesn’t matter who these soldiers are, where they come from, what they might be hiding and how mad they might be: they’re all just frightened men staring death in the face.
Opened out by scriptwriter/adaptor Simon Reade (who adds some perfectly justified bad language), this might pale a little beside something like, say, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, but then not every movie can be a masterpiece, so catch it anyway. And remember.