R C Sheriff was an author, playwrite and movie scriptwriter who is now most famous for his first succesfull play, Journey’s End. This was only the start of a successful three decade career as a writer, which saw him publish acclaimed novels, have further success in the theatre, and win acclaim as a movie scriptwriter.
The trigger for his successful career was the success of Journey’s End, which was widely regarded as being one of the most realistic theatrical portrayals of the life of a junior officer on the Western Front and was a smash hit at the time. As a result the examination of Sherriff’s own wartime experiences is important both in its own right and for the influence it had on his later works.
The chapter of Sherriff’s time in the trenches is rather different to most. Sherriff clearly suffered badly from nerves when he was in or near the front line, and it looks like his superiors were well aware of that, and tried to a certain extent to work around it. Probably as a result he was chosen to lead a detachment that spent several weeks supporting a mining unit behind the lines and was sent on training when his battalion was about to attack Messines Ridge. However he was with his battalion at the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, but was almost immediately wounded by a near miss, and although he remained in the army into 1919 never returned to France.
From the point of view of the military historian, the most interesting parts of the rest of his story are the period of Journey’s End, his Second World War experiences as a writer and his work on the script for the Dam Busters.
Journey’s End wasn’t Sherriff’s first play, but it was the first to be commercially staged, and by far the most successful of his plays. It also stands out as being dramatically different to most of his other plays, which tend to be quite domestic affairs, normally set in rural England and quite conservative in nature. In contrast Journey’s End is set in a dugout on the Western Front in 1918, and explores the tensions between a group of officers in the days before the start of the German spring offensives. Ironically, given that his writing career was almost ended by the appearance of the Angry Young Men in the 1950s, his own debut appears to have had a similar impact.
The other parts of the book are interesting in their own right. As a scriptwriter Sherriff came into contact with many of the major figures of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s cinema, working for major Hollywood studies as well as with British film makers. What really stands out here is just how many of his scripts simply disappeared – even having someone as famous as Sherriff attached to a project was clearly no guarantee that a film would actually be made!
1 - Into Uniform, Beginning - 1916
2 - In the Trenches, 1916-19
3 - A Writer in the Making, 1919-1926
4 - The Writing of Journey's End, 1927-28
5 - The Aftermath, 1929
6 - What Next? 1930-31
7 - The Universal Years, 1932-35
8 - Pastures New, 1935-37
9 - Korda and MGM, 1937-40
10 - Semi-Official Business, 1940-44
11 - Back to Blighty, 1944-50
12 - Pinnacle, 1950-56
13 - Curtain, 1956-75
Author: Roland Wales
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military