Norfolk star Sam Claflin on why his new Great War film Journey’s End is a poignant reminder
- Credit: Lionsgate/Rob Baker Ashton
The actor, who grew up in Norwich, plays Captain Stanhope in a new film version of R.C. Sherriff's 1923 play, directed by UEA graduate Saul Dibb. They tell Simon Parkin about a film that marks the centenary of the end of the First World War.
'It blew me away,' says Sam Claflin of the production of Journey's End he saw while training to become an actor. 'Not only is it a really emotional piece, it's a really physical one, and psychological one. Since then I've familiarised myself with the play and was nearly going to perform in a version of it in 2011, which didn't work out. So it's been a real pleasure to explore it more deeply with an amazing cast.'
The Norfolk actor, who began his acting career with Norwich Theatre Royal's Youth Theatre Company while a Costessey High School pupil, before going on to international success on the big screen, plays Captain Stanhope in a new film based on R.C. Sherriff's 1928 stage play about a group of British officers in the trenches on the eve of battle in 1918.
Released to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, the moving and thoughtful film, adapted by sreenwriter Simon Reade, expands on the stage play without sacrificing too much of the psychological intensity.
New characters have been added to the rank and file but the emotional fulcrum remains an inexperienced officer, Raleigh, played with haunting tenderness by 20-year-old Asa Butterfield.
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He successfully petitions a high-ranking relative to transfer him to the company commanded by old school friend Captain Stanhope, but he arrives at his new post on March 18, 1918, oblivious to the impending German onslaught.
Fresh out of training and abuzz with the excitement of his first real posting, he finds war-weary Captain Stanhope soaking his fear in whisky, unable to deal with his dread of the inevitable.
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The film's terrific cast of British talent also includes Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge and Toby Jones, as well as Paul Bettany as Lieutenant Osborne, who is Stanhope's closest friend and confidant.
But it is Raleigh who provides our eyes and ears in the claustrophobic, dread-drenched trenches, assigned to C-Company because he has pulled strings with his uncle, General Raleigh (Rupert Wickham).
'Stanhope and Raleigh grew up together,' Claflin explains. 'They were at school together. Stanhope was three years Raleigh's senior and Raleigh somewhat heroworshipped him. Stanhope is [now] a very, very different man to the one that Raleigh knows, and when Raleigh arrives in the dugout on the front line, there's an immediate shock.
'Stanhope is aware of the horrors that are to befall them and is aware that Raleigh is coming to his death.'
Born in Ipswich, but brought up in Norwich, Sam has appeared in some of the biggest Hollywood blockbuster franchises, including Pirates of the Caribbean and playing Finnick Odair in the Hunger Games films, but Journey's End is a project he was keen to do justice to.
To prepare for the role, he met with veterans suffering from PTSD. 'Having the opportunity to talk to people living through the experience that your character is feeling is invaluable,' he says. 'It's a wound that people can't see and therefore struggle to relate to, so to have people divulge their secrets and [reveal] the psychological darkness is so helpful. I can only hope that I do it justice.'
Sam is not the only local connection to the film. It has been directed by Saul Dibb, a graduate of the University of East Anglia who got his big break co-writing and directing Bullet Boy, before directing The Duchess and Second World War drama Suite Française.
'I felt it just had this incredible ring of truth to it,' he explains of what attracted him to the material. 'A really honest, really human account of what it was like to be there. Sherriff was a brilliant writer and he was writing from personal experience.
'We had the opportunity to make a very truthful account. The First World War was just a waste. It wiped out this whole generation, and for what? These people have been sacrificed. We just wanted to make it clear from the start that these are dead men walking. It's not about slowly coming to understand it. All they come to understand, really, is what day it's going to happen.'
Another local link is that some of the harrowing scenes amid muddy, collapsing trenches and rat-a-tat gunfire, exploding shells and blood-curdling screams, were filmed in an existing trench network just outside Ipswich, before the production moved to Wales.
Dibb says he spent time before the shoot talking through the screenplay in detail with the actors and mornings on set were spent rehearsing to ensure as much authenticity as possible.
'Nothing was faked,' he says. 'We started early each morning and embraced whatever weather was thrown at us because that's what happened with the men at war. Two days before we started shooting there was an enormous downpour, so the mud you see in the film is just the mud we found on set; we didn't add to it.
'The actors didn't go off to trailers. Everyone stayed on set and by the end of it, their feet were frozen, they were covered in mud, it was uncomfortable. With the dugout, we built it to scale in a studio but we went in and shut the doors. It was lit only with candlelight.'
The ethos of seeking truth at all times extended to Laurie Rose's remarkable camerawork.
'We had a very clear idea that the camera was the extra officer in the dugout,' says Dibb. 'It was assuming the position of Sherriff, in a way – of somebody who was there and present with all these people at all times. We would never be too far from them. It would always be handheld or on an Easyrig or Steadicam so we were hugging close to our main characters and the action.'
Even the frantic, terrifying forays into No Man's Land were shot for maximum verisimilitude. 'We tried to do everything for real as much as possible,' continues Dibb. 'The explosions you see them running towards are in-camera; they're not visual effects. They are dynamite exploding as close as we were allowed to put it. We did the whole scenes in one take. We ran across with them. Crawling up, getting over, the bombs blasting in front of them, jumping into the trench and soldiers shooting…'
Sam Claflin, meanwhile, insists that Journey's End is as relevant now as it has ever been. 'It's a real insight into war,' he says. 'War is still happening; people are still losing their lives. This is hopefully an opportunity to channel some of that frustration.
'Captain Stanhope is someone who's in war and is highly affected by what he's seen and what he's been through. We know it as PTSD, and it's something that so many people suffer from, and so many people are afraid to talk about. Hopefully it shines a light on that.'
As for Dibb, he has no trouble locating the position of Journey's End within both the current cinematic landscape and among today's headlines. 'Journey's End is much more like The Hurt Locker than a traditional blockbuster war movie, where we are talking about the authentic experience of war not glorifying it.'
He pauses and then suggests another reason that Journey's End is essential viewing. 'I was sent the script soon after the whole Brexit referendum, where it seems like people are naively tampering with alliances and allegiances that have been built up over decades to avoid precisely this kind of thing,' he finishes. 'It felt like there's a real relevance to it.'
• Journey's End is in cinemas from February 2