A little more than 100 years ago, on March 21, 1918, Germany committed itself to the “Spring Offensive,” its last, desperate attempt to win World War I. Scores of divisions overwhelmed the British front lines and penetrated deep into Allied territory. Four months later, and after the combined losses of half a million dead, the original lines were restored and German defeat was inevitable.
That final victory would be small consolation to those British troops caught in the trenches when the attack began. Like Captain Stanhope (an overwrought Sam Claflin), a company commander whose nerves are already shot by years of combat and who has been hitting the bottle hard. He’s none too pleased when baby-faced Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a younger schoolmate, shows up fresh from training and eager for action (you can tell he’s green — he doesn’t have a mustache). Stanhope is in love with Raleigh’s sister, and he’s worried that Raleigh will write home to tell her that he’s a shattered man.
Meanwhile, there’s a war on, and nobody is looking forward to the big German offensive, which they have learned is coming in two days. Steadying everybody’s nerves with his empathy and stiff-upper-lip fatalism is the old-timer Osborne (a sensitive and affecting performance by Paul Bettany), Claflin’s second in command. Like the officer played by Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), Osborne is a schoolteacher back home, and his heart breaks for the young lives he sees wasted in a futile war.
This adaptation by Saul Dibb (“The Duchess”) of the 1928 play (and subsequent novelization) by R.C. Sherriff — himself a veteran of the trenches — does not expand much beyond the limitations of the stage. It doesn’t come close to the kinetic sweep and epic scope of Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957), though the themes of war’s futility and the criminal indifference of those in command are similar. The clichéd dialogue, stereotypical characters (except for Toby Jones, who distinguishes himself as the wryly incompetent company cook), and the constrained setting (it takes place almost entirely in the officers’ dugout) deadens the suspense and diminishes the mood of dread endured by those awaiting their doom.
Dibb does evoke claustrophobia and tension with his tight compositions and cadaverous color palette and shows skill at action sequences with his treatment of a suicidal, reconnaissance raid across no-man’s land that takes place near the end of the movie. But what follows is lugubrious and anticlimactic, inadequate testimonial to those slaughtered in this pointless battle, and the million more who would die before the war’s end.
Directed by Saul Dibb. Written by Simon Reade, based on the play by R.C. Sherriff and the novel by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett. Starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham. At the Coolidge Corner, West Newton, suburbs. 107 minutes. R (some language and war images).