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As all of the other reviewers have stated, this is an excellent film. It really captures the fear, claustrophobia, camaraderie, and occasional boredom of life in the trenches of World War I. As everyone knows, both R.C. Sheriff and James Whale had served in the trenches, and they brought their experiences to the play, and then the film. It is a product of its time, 1929-1930, so there are technical and other limitations, but it is still a great film. Full of pathos and a sense of desperation.
The actors work well together, and many of them give what I feel are their best career performances. Much has been written about the superb acting of Colin Clive, as Stanhope, and it is true. He is great. You really feel the anguish of this man, who has been at the front for three years. He has been pushed beyond his limit, and reacts as any normal person would-- exhibiting signs of battle fatigue, never-ending fear, and occasional hopelessness. What is amazing is that he continues to endure, and to do what he considers to be his duty. He finds solace in the bottle, and in the company of his mates.
Clive was a brilliant actor, and gave his all to whatever part he played. Many of them were variations on the Stanhope theme. His role as Henry Frankenstein, in the two films directed by Whale, are similar in tone to this part. It's a shame that he didn't have more movie roles with real meat in them, but perhaps there were only so many such parts in Hollywood, and not always available. He was good in all of his other films, such as "One More River," 1934, as a sadistic husband; "The Key," very good as a sympathetic British Intelligence officer in Ireland during the "Black and Tan" period; "Jane Eyre," 1934, as Rochester; "The Right to Live," 1935, as a husband paralyzed in a plane crash; "The Girl From Tenth Avenue," 1935, as a very funny drunk, etc. He acts with Bette Davis in that latter film, and they play well together. You hear a lot about his real-life demons, and alcoholism, but he seems to have been a good guy, and many people regretted his early death.
David Manners, as Raleigh, is also excellent. He plays the school boy well-- innocent, eager to please, ready to do his part, and admiring of Stanhope. He captures the essence of this character. I think it is Manners' best role. He was very good in "The Miracle Woman," 1931, as the blind man involved with Barbara Stanwyck, and in a slightly similar role in "The Last Flight," also 1931. But I think he is best here. I also like him in all the horror films like "Dracula," "The Mummy," and "The Black Cat," but he doesn't have much to do in those films, except stand around, be romantic, and be kind of ineffectual. He had a good career, though, acting with some of the biggest stars of the day. He was good with Loretta Young, Katherine Hepburn, and Kay Francis, and, reportedly, was liked by them.
Of the other supporting actors, I think Ian MacLaren is the best. He is quite moving as Osborne (also known as "Uncle"). He supports and encourages Stanhope, and offers real friendship to Raleigh. It is a warm and sensitive performance, and integral to the film. I think it is the biggest film role of his career. You see him in some other 1930s films, but usually in small, unobtrusive parts. On the evidence of this film, he was an excellent actor.
Billy Bevan, a former silent-film comedian, is very good, too. His Trotter is full of good cheer, optimism, and kindness. He would play similar types in many more films. Anthony Bushell is good as Hibbert, the coward. He is continually trying to shirk his duty, and he manages to bring out the worst in Stanhope. Charles Gerrard, as Mason the cook, is kind of amusing, and acts as a sort of comedy relief. Gerrard showed up the next year in "Dracula," as Martin, the sanitarium guard who takes away Renfield's spiders and flies. Interesting in that Manners is also in that film. Gerrard played a more serious military type in John Ford's "Men Without Women," and was hilarious as Lord Ambrose Plumtree, husband of Thelma Todd, in Laurel and Hardy's "Another Fine Mess."
It's surprising that this film hasn't been picked up by Kino or Criterion or someone, and given a full restoration. I have always wondered why it is not more widely seen or revived. The only copies available are grainy ones on eBay or somewhere. It never seems to show up on PBS, or in film retrospectives. It is so good, that it shouldn't be relegated to obscurity. I would place it in the select group of James Whale's best films, alongside "Waterloo Bridge," "Showboat," and the quartet of horror films. Let's hope that it shows up soon in a pristine, restored print, with perhaps a commentary by someone like Whale biographer James Curtis. That would be a nice treat.
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