‘Journey’s End’ Review: Old-Fashioned World War I Tale

world war 1 journey's end

Set within the front-line trenches of World War I, English director Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End presents a deep and mournful view of soldiers’ lives during the Great War.

The film, praised by critics across the nation, has been referred to by Los Angeles Times columnist Jeffrey Fleishman as “a meditation on duty and folly” that provides audiences with “a glimpse back to a time before Kevlar vests, laser-guided missiles and public concern over high casualty counts”.

The film’s narrative is centered upon the cheerful, albeit naïve, Second Lieutenant Raleigh, and the battle-hardened Captain Stanhope. “British soldiers in trenches on the Western front,” Fleishman describes in his review, “listen and crouch as shells drop in the dark distance. Cigarettes are passed, rats scurry, mud squishes, gas masks dangle and flares pop overhead like apparitions”.

In the words of director Saul Dibb, “The story’s about the psychological aspect of your waiting for your impending death. It was a chance to look far deeper into characters and the strange intimacy between men, the tenderness, and how men deal with fear. This is men at war with themselves”.

As per Fleishman, the film has already received a series of commendatory reviews upon initial release in its native England, remarking that “the Guardian praised it as ‘forthright, powerful, and heartfelt’ “.

The film’s tone is reminiscent of English soldier and poet Wilfred Owen—one of the leading poets of World War I. Mirroring the nature of Owens’ work, Fleishman notes that Journey’s End is not a typical war film, calling it “more mournful than thunderous”. “It knows that courage is most poignant when it’s humble” he observes, “and that honor is best marked by humility”.

On the film’s score, composed by Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and British composer Natalie Holt, Dibb explained that his goal was to adequately reflect the on-screen tension. “We wanted to permeate the film with this terrible sense of foreboding, to make it very clear from the start that these were dead men walking,” he said. “The score is rueful and ominous, like a phantom floating through a winter’s dusk,“ remarked Fleishman in his review of the film, “It propels a film whose action lies not in relentless battle scenes but in the ticktock of anticipating an attack”.

British class distinctions are another central motif of the film. Whereas the officers are depicted as hailing from wealthy backgrounds, top schools, and distinguished lineage, the soldiers in the film are shown as working-class men from far less polished walks of life. Captain Stanhope serves as an inspiring figure who manages to bridge the class gap, earning the respect of those beneath and above him in rank.

Ultimately, viewers who watch Journey’s End will leave theaters with an overwhelming sense of both the beauty and the tragedy of life in combat. As Fleishman puts it, “The human cost and national calculation of war resonate through ‘Journey’s End’. They are the same universal themes that Owens’ World War I poetry, still studied in schools across England, personified”.

A meticulously-crafted tale of leadership, bravery, and self-sacrifice displaying the humanity of those who lost their lives in the trenches of World War I, Journey’s End is not to be missed by viewers this spring.

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