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Journey’s End star Sam Claflin on why the psychological horrors unleashed by World War 1 still resound 100 years on

When is a classic war film not a war film? When it is, instead, an intense dissection of mortality, masculinity, power, trauma and class – albeit set in a World War 1 trench. Journey’s End, RC Sherriff’s play based on his First World War experiences, starred a young Laurence Olivier when it was first staged at the Apollo Theatre in 1928. It has since been adapted many times.

The latest version, directed by Saul Dibb, is released to mark the centenary of 1918’s Spring Offensive, which would leave more than half a million people dead in a few short, bloody weeks. In many ways, this can be seen as a classic war film. Yet it is almost entirely devoid of any explosive action. By focusing so closely on character rather than action it is a perfect follow-up to 2017’s Dunkirk.

Slow, sombre, sad and set to stay with viewers long after leaving the cinema, Journey’s End shows C Company, stationed in northern France, awaiting their fate. Six men, from a range of educational and economic backgrounds, thrown together by war into an uncomfortable confined space, each trying to cope with the prospect of almost-certain, imminent, premature death.

Sam Claflin takes the central role of Captain Stanhope. “I watched the play when I was at drama school in my second year,” recalls the 31-year-old, best known for roles in The Hunger Games and The Huntsman.

“I remember being completely spellbound. Completely in awe, not only of the performances but the characters and the stories. From that moment I remember saying to myself that I wanted to do this at some point, in whatever capacity, playing whoever.

“RC Sherriff had the working title Waiting. And I think so much of the First World War was waiting for the inevitable to happen. The fear of the unknown must just get to you.”

To prepare for the hugely challenging role as heavy-drinking, short-tempered, but respected and admired young leader of men, Claflin spoke to Combat Stress, a charity originally set up just after the end of WW1 offering mental health support to veterans dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We were fortunate enough to speak to some PTSD sufferers and ex-servicemen,” says Claflin. “They were very open and inviting to us asking questions about their experiences.

“They came specifically to talk about PTSD and it was one of the most insightful few hours of my life, learning about what it is like to be at war. Anyone who has experienced it is affected.

“They were saying there is such an unwritten rule in the forces, that you have to be strong, you want everyone beside you and behind you and in front of you to think you are strong. So there is a constant battle with yourself that if you are feeling scared you don’t want to tell anyone. That builds up over time and becomes so big that you get used to not talking or sharing.”

This is exactly what the current Time To Talk campaign is about: the need to talk through our feelings lest they fester and become destructive, harmful, damaging, or too intimidating to deal with.

“What is amazing about these veterans coming together with Combat Stress is that they have been surrounded by people who undershare,” continues Claflin. “But together, they have learnt it is okay to be scared. It is OK to feel the things that they feel.”

In the film, each soldier has the brave face they show the world and the real feelings they occasionally share with one confidant or reveal to the cinema audience in moments of solitude. And their trench-life coping strategies show myriad masculinities and personalities.

“You have Stephen Graham’s character who talks about food, and that is his way of dealing with his fears,” says Claflin. “Paul Bettany talks about what he is going to do afterwards, the green grass of home and his rockery.

“Asa Butterfield’s character is just so excited and young and thinks everything is going to be great. Toby Jones is looking at how fancy he can make each meal, while Tom Sturridge is all about all the girls he knew in the past.

“Me? My character is the fear because I know what is going to happen. Everyone is dead, dead, dead, dead. So he drink, drink, drink, drinks.”

To further access the anger and frustration felt by his character, Claflin took an unusual step in his preparation.

“One thing I explored and researched quite a lot was domestic abuse and domestic violence,” he explains. “The reason being that to me, that is probably where Stanhope would have gone. He obviously is already a drinker, but in the film you see his public face in front of the colonel when he is very centred and calm and heroic and brave and strong. The second he goes home – to his wife or to his friends – he becomes aggressive, he becomes violent. He would turn on a dime.

“He is a very sensitive man, but more than anything he is afraid. From what I understand, a lot of domestic abuse stems from insecurity. That helped with the mentality, psychology, understanding, getting myself into character.

Interviews
February 2, 2018
By Adrian Lobb
@adey70

When is a classic war film not a war film? When it is, instead, an intense dissection of mortality, masculinity, power, trauma and class – albeit set in a World War 1 trench. Journey’s End, RC Sherriff’s play based on his First World War experiences, starred a young Laurence Olivier when it was first staged at the Apollo Theatre in 1928. It has since been adapted many times.

The latest version, directed by Saul Dibb, is released to mark the centenary of 1918’s Spring Offensive, which would leave more than half a million people dead in a few short, bloody weeks. In many ways, this can be seen as a classic war film. Yet it is almost entirely devoid of any explosive action. By focusing so closely on character rather than action it is a perfect follow-up to 2017’s Dunkirk.
Sam Claflin in Journey’s End

Slow, sombre, sad and set to stay with viewers long after leaving the cinema, Journey’s End shows C Company, stationed in northern France, awaiting their fate. Six men, from a range of educational and economic backgrounds, thrown together by war into an uncomfortable confined space, each trying to cope with the prospect of almost-certain, imminent, premature death.

Sam Claflin takes the central role of Captain Stanhope. “I watched the play when I was at drama school in my second year,” recalls the 31-year-old, best known for roles in The Hunger Games and The Huntsman.

“I remember being completely spellbound. Completely in awe, not only of the performances but the characters and the stories. From that moment I remember saying to myself that I wanted to do this at some point, in whatever capacity, playing whoever.

So much of the First World War was waiting for the inevitable to happen

“RC Sherriff had the working title Waiting. And I think so much of the First World War was waiting for the inevitable to happen. The fear of the unknown must just get to you.”

To prepare for the hugely challenging role as heavy-drinking, short-tempered, but respected and admired young leader of men, Claflin spoke to Combat Stress, a charity originally set up just after the end of WW1 offering mental health support to veterans dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We were fortunate enough to speak to some PTSD sufferers and ex-servicemen,” says Claflin. “They were very open and inviting to us asking questions about their experiences.

“They came specifically to talk about PTSD and it was one of the most insightful few hours of my life, learning about what it is like to be at war. Anyone who has experienced it is affected.

“They were saying there is such an unwritten rule in the forces, that you have to be strong, you want everyone beside you and behind you and in front of you to think you are strong. So there is a constant battle with yourself that if you are feeling scared you don’t want to tell anyone. That builds up over time and becomes so big that you get used to not talking or sharing.”

Facing down PTSD

This is exactly what the current Time To Talk campaign is about: the need to talk through our feelings lest they fester and become destructive, harmful, damaging, or too intimidating to deal with.

“What is amazing about these veterans coming together with Combat Stress is that they have been surrounded by people who undershare,” continues Claflin. “But together, they have learnt it is okay to be scared. It is OK to feel the things that they feel.”

In the film, each soldier has the brave face they show the world and the real feelings they occasionally share with one confidant or reveal to the cinema audience in moments of solitude. And their trench-life coping strategies show myriad masculinities and personalities.
Journey’s End

“You have Stephen Graham’s character who talks about food, and that is his way of dealing with his fears,” says Claflin. “Paul Bettany talks about what he is going to do afterwards, the green grass of home and his rockery.

“Asa Butterfield’s character is just so excited and young and thinks everything is going to be great. Toby Jones is looking at how fancy he can make each meal, while Tom Sturridge is all about all the girls he knew in the past.

“Me? My character is the fear because I know what is going to happen. Everyone is dead, dead, dead, dead. So he drink, drink, drink, drinks.”

There is a constant battle with yourself to not tell anyone that you’re feeling scared

To further access the anger and frustration felt by his character, Claflin took an unusual step in his preparation.

“One thing I explored and researched quite a lot was domestic abuse and domestic violence,” he explains. “The reason being that to me, that is probably where Stanhope would have gone. He obviously is already a drinker, but in the film you see his public face in front of the colonel when he is very centred and calm and heroic and brave and strong. The second he goes home – to his wife or to his friends – he becomes aggressive, he becomes violent. He would turn on a dime.

“He is a very sensitive man, but more than anything he is afraid. From what I understand, a lot of domestic abuse stems from insecurity. That helped with the mentality, psychology, understanding, getting myself into character.
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“It is so interesting, and what makes this a unique piece, especially as a war film,” he goes on. “It is about relationships. You have to realise, this was so common around the First World War. People were surrounded by that pressure and that tension and that fear of the unknown. There would have been a lot of people going through what these guys went through.”

It is a sobering thought. Watching the emotional turmoil of the six main protagonists of the film, yet imagining a further 100,000 or more versions of the story taking place along both sides of No Man’s Land. Claflin uses football grounds to imagine the scale of the deaths, comparing it to every attendee at a Premier League or Championship game at the weekend being killed.

Claflin is keen that this latest adaptation of Journey’s End will be a celebration of a generation who made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago.

“I hope it is a celebration almost of the bravery of so many people and the sacrifices men and women made for their country to better our lives,” he says. “They fought and served and a lot died to give us a better life. We should be celebrating them as opposed to being sad. It should be more of a celebration. The fact that we have come so far in this time, it is all because of them.”

Asked what has stayed with him from the experience of getting inside the head of a soldier on the front line, Claflin returns to the theme of talking, listening, communicating.

“The one thing I would say to any people who haven’t taken the time to talk to people from the forces is talk to them and learn about their experiences. You can bet your bottom dollar that it will be way more interesting than anything you have ever done,” he says.

“So people need to talk and also need to bloody listen. Because I think that, more than any of the ex-service people not wanting to talk, it is that people don’t want to listen. We are too involved in ourselves.”

Journey’s End is out now in cinemas. [Source]

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Journey's End
Sam as Captain Stanhope
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RC Sherriff's Journey's End is the seminal British play about WW1. Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, it is the story of a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, variously awaiting their fate
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