BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH is tipped to star in a new film version of Journey’s End, the classic play about the First World War, after Prince Andrew intervened to persuade a Hollywood studio to lift its veto on the project.
The new version of RC Sherriff’s play, first performed in 1928 with Laurence Olivier in the starring role, was given approval after Andrew wrote to the head of Warner Bros in Britain, explaining its significance to the nation.
Instead of portraying public school officers as the inept dolts parodied in the BBC comedy series, Blackadder Goes Forth, the film’s makers say it will more faithfully reflect the truth about the war. The story, set entirely in a dugout on the western front, shows a group of public school officers struggling with the pressures of trench warfare in 1918, the final year of the conflict. They are ordered by their colonel to launch a suicidal daylight raid, and, as feared, the Germans are ready for them and kill the avuncular school master who has held the company together.
Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and a historical adviser to the film, said: “It is one of the great plays, telling the truth about the First World War and any war in history. It will show there is nothing grand about war and nationalism.”
An early film version in 1930 was directed by James Whale while a German remake was banned by the Nazis in 1933.
Seldon said the new film would be aimed at the US and British box office: “It’s the forgotten war for America even though its [American] death toll at 116,000 was approximately twice that in Vietnam.”
There was a backlash in 1960s theatre against Sherriff for seemingly overlooking the contribution of working-class Tommies, but the remake is timed to take advantage of the current crop of leading English actors, many of whom who went to public schools.
Cumberbatch, 37, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, went to Harrow, while another name linked to the project is Eddie Redmayne, 32 — who starred in a television dramatisation of Birdsong, the Sebastian Faulks novel set in the First World War. He was at Eton in the same year as Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.
Other actors set to be approached by the production company, Fluidity Films, include Tom Hiddleston, 33 — who played Loki in the Thor films, and appeared in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse — and Dominic West, 44, a star of The Wire. Both are Old Etonians. Some of the cast will be relative unknowns because some of the officers in the play are barely out of their teens.
A joint statement for Fluidity and the Sherriff estate said “the leading actors of their generation will be a part of what will be seen as a seminal film for the [First World War] centenary”. Cast members have not yet been formally attached to the film because the final contract for rights has not been signed.
The film will be directed by David Grindley, who won a Tony award for a Broadway production of the play. Guy de Beaujeu, the producer, previously made a film version of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel, Private Peaceful. The Duke of York was asked to intervene by Seldon after it emerged that a convoluted series of deals stretching back to 1929 meant the film could not be made.
Worldwide film rights passed from MGM to Turner Entertainment and Time Warner before ending up with Warner Bros. According to the producers and the Sherriff estate, even though Warner Bros had no intention of filming Journey’s End, the studio appeared to have a policy of never giving up the rights it held for any project, whatever the cultural significance.
A palace spokesman said Andrew met Josh Berger, head of Warner Brothers UK, at a Windsor Castle reception and wrote to the studio chief asking him to reconsider. The prince “likes to help where he can”, the spokesman said.
A 10% share of net profits from the film will be donated to charities associated with the centenary of the war, to be chosen by Andrew.