Friday, May 24, 2013

Journey's End (1930)

Director: James Whale                              Writers: Gareth Gundrey & Joseph March
Sound: Buddy Myers                                 Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Starring: Colin Clive, Ian Maclaren, David Manners and Billy Bevan

Not only part of a long line of filmed plays in the early sound era, this is also an example of the fascination the British have with the trench warfare of the First World War. Journey’s End began its history as a popular play by R.C. Sherriff, a character study of a captain on the front lines who turns to drink in order to keep going. Things don’t begin to come to a crisis until the brother of his girlfriend shows up and the captain is terrified that he’ll learn his secret and his girlfriend will abandon him. Though it was made the same year as Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front, there’s a different kind of anti-war sentiment present in this film: what the strain of war can do to good people. Rather than the German fanaticism for honor, it’s the British need to do a man’s duty no matter what that makes the war seem futile.

Of course, the big draw of the film is the directorial debut of James Whale. While he doesn’t have a lot to work with, seeing as how the bulk of the film takes place in an underground bunker, there are still lots of close ups, a Whale trademark, that make it a cut above a lot of similar films where the director is content to shoot most of the story in static setups that show most of the set. Colin Clive stars as the captain, his manic style perfect in its display of shattered nerves. Ian Maclaren is the older officer, though junior in rank. David Manners is probably the least effective in his role--an assessment that is appropriate for his entire career--a little too eager, his acting a bit too broad. And of course the comedy relief comes in the form of Billy Bevan and Charles K Gerrard. Both Gerrard and Manners would appear in Dracula the following year, while Whale and Clive would work on Frankenstein at Universal

There is no film score in the picture, typical of British films from this period to avoid the expense. The film also occasionally suffers from poor editing, similar to that on The Phantom Ship, where the cut from one actor to another is accompanied by too much film afterward, making the dialog seem as if it’s lagging. No such problem is evident when the actors are talking within a single shot, so it’s clearly the fault of editor Claude Berkeley who had worked primarily in silent films and died the next year. The print I watched was pretty murky, though the sound was adequate. I don’t believe it’s been released commercially yet, even on VHS.

The few times when the scene shifts to outside the bunker, during raids and battles, it’s realistic and effective. This makes sense as the subject is one that Whale knew well, having served in the front lines during World War I and captured by the Germans, spending time in a POW camp. The effect of the war on him can be seen in the very good film Gods and Monsters, about the last years of his life. As a film on it’s own, however, Journey’s End starts slowly but gains momentum later on. It’s definitely an interesting World War I film, a lot of talk early on but engaging if one has the time to sit down and be patient.

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