The one hundredth anniversary of WWI inspired the re-adapting of R.C. Sherriff’s play for the fifty time. Sherriff, a WWI veteran, set his play in the Spring Offensive (also known as the Ludendorff Offensive) of 1918. This was the low moment of the war for the British as the Germans broke out of the trench stalemate and threatened to reach Paris and end the war. It was a particularly tense time. The play was a smash hit in 1928 and was made into a movie as early as 1931. “The Other Side” followed one year later. In 1976, the setting was changed to the war in the air for “Aces High” and there was a made-for-TV movie in 1988. Directed by Saul Dibb, the most recent version came out in the 100th Anniversary of the offensive it is set in.
The movie begins during the stalemate before the surprise German offensive. A British unit is spending its six days of each month in the front-line trench. Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin) uses alcohol to cope with the stress of commanding men in the hellacious conditions of the Western Front. He is tightly wound and cynical, but respected by his men. His butler, so to speak, is Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany). Osborne is an ex-schoolmaster who is called “Uncle” because of his age and fatherly demeanor. One of Uncle’s jobs is to put the drunken Stanhope to bed. Sharing the dugout is the slacker Lt. Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) who is either a coward or a realist, depending on your view of the war. Lt. Trotter (Stephen Graham) is a regular lad who looks at the war as a job that has to be done. All that’s missing from this mélange of stereotypes is a green, gung-ho officer. Enter Lt. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield). Raleigh is the type who worried that the war would be over before he could get into it. “He’s keen.” This is 1918! To make his wild-eyed innocence more awkward, he has a past with Stanhope. Not only is Stanhope Raleigh’s idol from school, but he is Stanhope’s sister boyfriend. Stanhope’s stress level hits its peak as he worries about Raleigh (and thus his sister) finding out who he really is.
I won’t get started on why they remade a movie instead of doing something original. I suppose most people are not familiar with one of the most famous WWI stories, so it serves a purpose. If you happen to have seen the 1931 version, this version updates the story with modern cinematography and set design. And it’s in color! Plus, it’s the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, so it made sense to honor the war with this movie. This makes me wonder what the hell is going on with the Daniel Radcliffe “All Quiet on the Western Front”.
I have not seen the play, but I have to believe this movie does it justice. It definitely comes off as a play on film, but the sets (a dugout and a trench) are excellent. A movie can give you rats and mud. Cinema can also give us the action that the play implies. There is a nifty trench raid scene (which is staged in the daytime). The colonel actually tells Stanhope that capturing a prisoner may help win the war! With that said, the film is not interested in condemning the officer corps. It is also not interested in giving the perspective of the enlisted. It does make clear the gulf between the officers and the men. We do get the impression that the men are fatalistic, but resilient. Everyone (except Hibbert) has a stiff upper lip.
The main reasons for watching it is the acting and the dialogue. The cast is good with Bettany taking honors as Uncle. The plot is predictable. Even if you have not seen the other versions, it’s clear it will not end well. There are several “dead meat” characters. And they did not even have to show pictures of their significant others. The movie is depressing, but doesn’t this reflect the war? I have read that all war movies should be anti-war. That is true, which means WWI movies are more consistently anti-war than any other war movies. The movie is not just a one-dimensional “war is hell” screed. It is also a character study and although the characters are all stereotypes, they do represent the variety of officers in the British army in the war.
“Journey’s End” is a must-see for war movie lovers and students of WWI culture. I suggest you watch it and then watch “Aces High”. “Aces High” transfers the story to a fighter squadron and thus escapes the confines of the stage more than this version does. It has a lot more action, if you are into that.
GRADE = B