I went equipped – alone, handkerchief, mini bottle of wine – prepared to silently sob my way through most of the 107 minutes. After all, I cried at the end of Paddington 2 (when Q – sorry, Paddington – opens the door and there’s Aunt Lucy) and I wept as the soldiers read Churchill’s speech post-Dunkirk. I even wiped away a tear more recently when the presses rolled in The Post.
But Journey’s End? Emotionally drained and totally befuddled as I stumbled out into the daylight – but completely dry-eyed.
We love to cry during movies. Crying during a film bonds us with others (all that oxytocin washing around) and, after a short satisfying period of misery, we actually feel happier than we did before the film started.
It’s social interactions that make us cry in films, rather than planetary destruction. As the story unfolds we mirror the expressions of the actors, so when things go badly we empathise and reach for the tissues. There doesn’t even have to be a human or a golden retriever involved; Toy Story 3 prides itself on making grown men cry. Heroism, self-sacrifice, and loss are all recognised triggers and close-ups make it all more visceral – which is why we’re far less likely to cry in the theatre. At least 30% of the tears shed in cinemas are happy tears (yes, looking at you, Aunt Lucy); usually tears of relief after a period of tension.
There’s plenty to cry about in Journey’s End (clue: its the Great War, at the start of the spring offensives of 1918; backs to the wall and so on) so why didn’t I cry?
Was it because I was forewarned, my heart preemptively hardened? I’ve read the play, written in 1928 by R.C. Sherriff, a veteran of the Western Front. I’ve also read dozens of other first-hand accounts and memoirs. I know the set-up: Grim-faced men smoking, officer looking at watch with whistle poised. You just know it’s going to end badly. Maybe I was over-familiar with the genre; maybe I am (heavens forbid) desensitised?
I don’t think so.
We love to cry during movies. More significantly, movies makers love to make us cry – because movies with a high weep factor tend to get the awards. Aristotle identified three strands to the art of persuasion, one of which is pathos – or stirring emotion in your audience to induce them to make the right choices. We could call it manipulation. I don’t have a problem with that: Bums on seats. More films. More mindless misery and rebound happiness.
But the height of manipulation – or the depths, depending on your viewpoint – is, of course, the final scene of the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. (Just Google it – and don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The building tension in spite of the silliness. The close-ups (Good luck, everyone!) The scramble over the top into a hail of bullets. And then the relief – for the viewer at least; the retreat into monochrome slow-motion and dirge-like theme tune before we fade to a field of poppies. Good God, I’m welling-up just writing about it!
The one thing I feared above all else was that Journey’s End would be given the Blackadder treatment and that the attitudes of another three generations would be consolidated into futility and tragedy and one-dimensional Great War stereotypes. It wasn’t and I don’t think they will be.
So, why didn’t I cry?
First: There was no soaring movie music; just occasional discordant, edgy bursts of notes. No subliminal prompts when tragedy struck. Nothing to tell me when to blub as surely as traffic lights changing to green. Just the muffled pounding of exploding shells.
Second: There was no break in the tension. A ‘dark night of the soul’ moment in Act 3 but with no resolution. He died but we know this particular death is only the beginning; the beginning of the end of the war, true – but there was no sense of sacrifice or heroism, just love and sadness. (PS The weird aerial shot at the end? Not needed, Mr Dibb. It was a bit too close to fading to a field of poppies.)
Third: He didn’t cry – so why should I? In fact, how dare I indulge myself with weeping in the midst of such tragedy, such steadfastness, such angry stoicism? The sergeant major says come now, sir! So he stood up and he walked away. I didn’t feel manipulated. I felt I was intruding.
What does this mean for the writer?
I have two particularly sad chapters in my first book. I wept as I wrote both of them (not surprising for someone who cries when Aunt Lucy knocks at the door) – yet one of my beta readers described the first as “heartbreaking” and the other as “sentimental”.
I think I have a bit of work to do to understand the difference.