Shooting for one's country
BRITISH WAR FILMS, 1939-1945 by S. P. MacKenzie Hambledon and London, f19.95, pp.256 ISBN 1852852585 During the second world war the British cinema achieved for the first time a coherent identity in the cause of uniting the nation in the face of a common enemy and raising morale on the home front. Films about the war by no means dominated neighbourhood cinemas — though universally despised by critics, the most popular movies were the Gainsborough melodramas, mostly sexy costume pictures, and their biggest star, James Mason, was a conscientious objector, for which reason he was excluded from films about the armed forces. But fictional films and documentaries about the experience of war helped audiences understand life in the army, navy and air force, as well as in factories and the fire service, and it's those that characterise the period and are among its most striking achievements.
Of course war movies didn't end in 1945, and indeed local audiences were diverted from confronting contemporary reality by a nostalgic film genre celebrating our finest hour that dominated the British cinema during the post-war decades. Some of these films affected to be anti-war, and the majority from the late 50s onwards (e.g. The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone) were financed by Hollywood and featured Americans in leading roles, but their role was essentially enfeebling.
The expansion of university film studies has inevitably led to a sizeable body of work on wartime cinema, and S. P. MacKenzie (who teaches at the University of South Carolina but appears from his style and assumptions to be British) has written a book that covers a longer period and a narrower subject than the title British War Films 1939-1945 suggests. What it's about is the way the armed services co-operated (or refused to co-operate) with film-makers from the Boer War up until the 1970s, by which time the cinema had given way to television as a means of influencing public
opinion. From the start the service chiefs and their generally unimaginative public relations advisers had a patronising, middleclass and upper-class attitude to the new popular medium, and in fact official policy towards the cinema in Britain today is still dogged by a belief that the movies are artistically and socially inferior to theatre, opera and literature. During the Great War, Admiral Lord Fisher was against letting film crews onto his ships; Air Marshal 'Bomber' Harris loathed Terence Rattigan's play Flarepath for presenting a vulnerable, self-doubting RAF pilot and discouraged feature films about Bomber Command. Winston Churchill, a movie fan with a preference for Hollywood pictures, was affronted by any picture that presented military setbacks or questioned British values and
did his best to prevent the screening abroad of Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a movie generally regarded today as the best native production of the period.
From 1916 onwards, however, an uneasy relationship existed between brusque military men and the people they viewed as effete artists, beginning most significantly with the still impressive The Battle of the Somme, which proved an immense popular success. They preferred documentaries to what they invariably characterised as 'romantic films', but it was the fictional movies that made the biggest impact and reached the largest audiences, though, as MacKenzie points out, the public invariably approached propaganda entertainments with a healthy scepticism.
On the outbreak of the second world war the RAF got in first during the Phoney War by encouraging the patriotic The Lion Has Wings. but it was the navy that sponsored the film that endures as some sort of masterpiece. In Which We Serve, wherein Noel Coward took the role of his naval friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. The army's equivalent of this, Carol Reed's The Way Ahead, which opened to coincide with D-Day, is structurally similar in some ways to Coward's, but is less romantic in tone and less inclined towards self-parody. The RAF didn't get The Way to the Stars, their big, representative movie, into release until after VE-Day, a circumstance anticipated by the device of presenting the events in flashback to the early years of the war. As it happens, MacKenzie much prefers another RAF movie, the little known Journey Together, also released following hostilities.
MacKenzie's book is full of interesting information, but his narrow focus leads him to relegate some important pictures (Millions Like Us for instance) to the notes, which take up 70 pages of a relatively slim book. He hasn't made any major discoveries and he has surprisingly ignored one of the most important films in his field. Brian Desmond Hurst's 1946 Theirs is the Glory, a feature-length recreation of the Arnhem campaign using documentary footage, with surviving members of Airborne Forces playing themselves, in some cases on the actual Dutch locations. For years it was proudly shown to all Parachute Regiment volunteers at the end of their Aldershot selection course.
MacKenzie also appears, like virtually all writers on Carol Reed, not to have seen the ur-version of The Way Ahead, a 40minute army training picture called The New Lot. also scripted by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, which for a combination of commercial and political reasons was never shown and thought lost until a copy turned up at the Imperial War Museum in the 90s. Contrary to MacKenzie (who relies on Ambler's erroneous memoir Here Lies), William Hartnell, who gave an unforgettable performance as Sergeant Fletcher in The Way Ahead, did not appear in the original. In The New Lot, an uncredited Geoffrey Keen plays the squad's training corporal, and the part of the critical private soldier taken by the genial Stanley Hol loway in The Way Ahead was played by an abrasive Bernard Miles, who gets to deliver a left-wing speech about the necessity for changes in post-war Britain of which there is no equivalent in the expanded version.