“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
A harrowing film at the heart of World War I trench warfare that offers a cross-sectional analysis into the psychological bond between soldiers without the necessary violence that we are all too familiar with. A fine use of tension with the background knowledge of imminency, a building of camaraderie through words of affirmation and physical proximity, “personal moments in the face of insurmountable fear,” and the bureaucratic wretched squalor that defines what it means to say that “war is young men dying and old men talking.” As Godfrey Cheshire (Roger Ebert) writes:
Saul Dibb’s film provides a satisfying antithesis to Christopher Nolan’s macrocosmic, hyper-sensory view of war: it gives close and sustained attention to a handful of soldiers facing both an implacable foe and their own mortality.
Based on a play by R.C. Sherriff, who fought in the war himself, the film (adapted on several prior occasions) takes us to 1918, north of France, where British units take turns rotating into the front lines where a German attack is always imminent. It depicts monotonous moments prior to and following a raid conducted by the British side to seize intel and the measure of psychological strain placed on soldiers walking along the trench walls as though depicting the proverbial dead men digging his grave with every step forward.
I was unimpressed with the casting decisions. Like Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge (this one worked better), I felt that Asa Butterfield looks way too young to be taken seriously within the context. Their was awkward moments of acting blunders that proved the casting was poorly decided (e.g. Sam Claflin, who is no Laurence Olivier, yelling at Butterfield). The writing itself never moved past the trivial discourse that should ordinarily supplement moments of deeper reflection or simply serve at gateposts for future violence. The fact that this was a play prevented the filmmakers from developing a wider setting even with the hour-forty run-time they absorbed.
And while these sort of films are a fine foundational layer to add to the great war films like All Quiet on the Western Front, Dunkirk, & Saving Private Ryan, it is hard not to cross-compare its design with Paths of Glory and feel it deeply wanting. Adam Graham (Detroit News) says it best:
Its cerebral message boils down to a “war is hell” theme, a sentiment that’s been conveyed more effectively in countless other works. It’s a journey that mostly retraces steps.