Journey’s End (BBC Radio Play 1970)

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My film today is actually a radio play which I happened upon by mistake while trying to dig out the 1930 film version of ‘Journey’s End’. I thought I’d give it a go, why not? Push my boundaries a bit and see what the world of radio had to offer me. So I downloaded the blighter and gave it a jolly good once over. If I’m honest I don’t know how to review something when I can’t bang on about mise en scene and cinematography so I apologise in advance for being more rambling than usual.

My radio play tonight, ‘Journey’s End’, was originally written as a stage play by R C Sherriff in 1928. He was writing from experience having served as a Captain in the East Surrey Regiment from 1915 until he took a blighty one at Passchendaele in 1917. ‘Journey’s End’ was his seventh play and was first performed in late 1928 as a one night wonder at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, London. It tells the story of a Captain and his company as they’re rotated into a section of line near Saint-Quentin. Over the next four day we get to know the characters, their weaknesses, foibles and a bit about their lives before the war as the story of their stay on the front line unfolds.

That first, one night only performance is worthy of note because there were a couple of future Great War Film alumni in the cast and crew. The Theatrical Director for the show, James Whale, who would go on to direct a film version of Journey’s End in 1930 as well as directing bits of Howard Hawks ‘Hell’s Angels’ (1930) starring Jean Harlow. He would also go on in 1937 to direct ‘The Road Back’, the sequel to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Sadly what could’ve been something amazing was turned to shit when the studio bosses kowtowed to the up and coming Nazis in Germany when they threatened to ban it due to its anti-Nazi sentiment. Sherriff, as it happened, worked on the screenplay for it.

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Captain R C Sherriff

Secondly, a 21 year old Laurence Olivier was cast as Captain Stanhope in what was to be his first stage outing. Olivier would go on to star in Dear Dear Dicky Attenborough’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ (1969) and near the end of his life was cast alongside a young Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s ‘War Requiem’ (1989). Yes, that’s some big names who just happened to be in the right place at the right time back in Ol’ London Town in 1928.

‘Journey’s End’ itself is worthy of note for being one of the books or plays about the Great War which had the benefit of being written by someone who was actually there. Another few that spring to mind as first-hand accounts of the conflict (and because they sit on my bookshelf) include ‘Company K’ by William March, Ernst Junger’s ‘Song of Steel’ and ‘Sagittarius Rising’ by Cecil Lewis. I’ll come back to Cecil in a little bit. The important difference with stories like these is the detail they can add to the lexicon. There’s a rich seam of humour in the story and I can detect hints of maudlin resignation in that humour. ‘What’s the soup?’ is the question. ‘Yellow’ comes the answer and everyone accepts it as fact. These moments seem too real to be a simple fabrication and I’d like to think they come from a memory locked away in the authors’ brain from a seemingly insignificant moment. I enjoy them as a way of travelling in time to the past. They’re a window into a history I can never truly grasp or experience first-hand.

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An old radio

There’s other Great War Film pedigree here too apart from Whale and Olivier. ‘Aces High’ (1976) is based, for the most part, on this story but with the action moved from a trench dugout to a French airfield. As I listened to the play I could easily work out who the counterparts where in ‘Aces High’. The names were different (with the exception of ‘Uncle’) but we had the strung out leader, the scaredy-cat nihilist, the father figure school master, the hero worshipping youngster and so on and so on. I’ve just started reading Cecil Lewis’s ‘Sagittarius Rising’ and can confirm that whilst its’ influence on ‘Aces High’, is more indirect and thematic than ‘Journey’s End’, it’s still noticeable. For the most part it’s ‘Journey’s End’ which has been transferred near verbatim to the screen. There’s a new transfer of the story to film currently in production too and I am eager to see this when it’s released to see how they handle the tight confines of the dugout and the relationships between the characters.

There’s a reason why this story has been made into several films in the subsequent years and is still well thought of today…..it’s very good! Martin Jarvis is the only actor I recognise but all the voices put in a sound performance. The minimalist staging of the production within a dugout over a four day period helps to focus in on the people at the heart of the story. It’s a character piece and the setting ensures there will be a tug on the emotions at some point near the end, as all Great War Films seem to do. I shan’t ruin it for you but suffice to say it’s there and it’s as arbitrary and pointless as it always is in these stories. I felt for the characters, sensed their love for each other and fears of what the short term future might hold. The characters all seemed well fleshed out from a writing sense and differed from one another so as to make it easy to know who was who.

In conclusion it’s a good story, well told and its simplicity means it’s become a building block for many books, plays and films to come in the years since it’s release. Blackadder Goes Forth uses the same dug out setting, as does ‘King and Country’ in a slightly different way. It’s also a very English story, so much so that when a German version was made they went to great lengths to keep the Britishness in. Bless ‘em. Basically I have nothing bad to say about it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not heard it. Hopefully the new film version hits the straps too.

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