Sam Claflin Paul Bettany Asa Butterfield Stephen Graham
Toby Jones Tom Sturridge Robert Glenister
This is an unusual movie in depicting the fears of troops in war as much as the bravery—which makes sense to me. It takes place in the spring of 1918, the fourth year of World War I, in northern France. British Company C is informed that the Germans are about to make a major offensive on March 21. Then, a brigadier general orders an operation a few days before, in which two officers and their soldiers will storm the German forces 60 feet in front of them and capture a German, which would be a huge feather in the cap of the British Forces.
Before this happens, we’re introduced to a few members of Company C. Captain Stanhope (Claflin) is in charge, aided by his second, Osborne (Bettany). Osborne (whom every calls “Uncle”) is a seasoned officer soon to retire, and he has the job of backing up, shoring up Stanhope, who has problems with bravery and leadership that are kept secret. When a new recruit appears, it presents multiple problems. Raleigh (Butterfield) is the brother of Stanhope’s betrothed, and they were in school together. Raleigh so admires Stanhope, he has volunteered and used connections to be assigned to his company. But Stanhope, realizing that he has a drinking problem, fears what Raleigh might say to his sister about him.
Stanhope is just neurotic enough to dread this intrusion/perceiver threat, and gives Raleigh mixed messages. Raleigh is a gung-ho new recruit who always looks on the bright side, and he sees nothing about what Stanhope fears. Then one of those coincidental moments occurs; the colonel orders an operation the night before the expected German raid, and pressures Stanhope to assign Osborne and Raleigh, two men with whom he has emotional connections—with a few other soldiers to the mission, which is to capture a German to gain intelligence. Stanhope tries, but is unsuccessful in convincing the colonel to have him assign others to the operation.
This film is not so much about these specific events in WWI as it is about the emotional and personal rigors that men go through during war. It shows the unaccountable bravery of Captain Stanhope in talking his soldier down from imminent desertion in the face of fear, and then falling apart himself when he is with someone he trusts. He is a sensitive, artistic type, who is clearly not made for war, but apparently fell into his position because of his intelligence—or something else; we’re not told how he got into military service. Anyway, he did well enough to be made a captain and pays a huge price for it in the trauma and losses he experiences.
Director Saul Dibb graphically shows the personal, seldom told, experiences of war by men who have joined the military for a myriad of reasons, some with more conscious motivations than others who, in a way, simply find themselves there. All the drama takes place in dark, vulnerable trenches in northern France, which serves to highlight even more the dramas going on inside the soldiers. It gives equal time to both the fears and the bravery of the men, and is unusually eloquent about the obliviousness of upper level brass in planning major operations and recommending the officers and men to carry them out. Like so many realms in our society, the movers and shakers fail to keep their ears to the ground and stay knowledgeable about fundamental elements, remaining instead in their ivory towers.
The cast of Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones, and Tom Sturridge is well chosen, and each actor contributes significantly to the authentic feel of this story. They give life and inspiration to the conception of R. C. Sherriff, the novelist who wrote the original screenplay on which this film is based.
An unusual account of war, showing the doubts and fears of men, along with the bravery.