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BRITISH CINEMA AND WORLD WAR TWO
HOW THE BRITS WON THE WAR
by Harlan Kennedy
Geopolitical musical chairs is a game played across the world today. Nations we've known for decades – as we thought we knew their national characters – suddenly vanish into thin air and the history books. Blocs dissolve into bickering neighbors; neighbors coalesce into bickering blocs (vive la communité Européenne). Who's next? And while we're at it, who in modern times was first?
Fifty years ago
The Way to the Stars, directed
by Anthony Asquith in 1945 and regarded
by some (then and now) as Britain's
best wartime screen drama, is still
moving, still powerfully effective in both structure and sensibility.
At the same time, it seems to have come
from another dimension. Rubbing
our eyes, we 1995 viewers also kept
cupping our ears: what were these characters talking about? Michael Redgrave, John Mills, and Trevor Howard were up there in the skies over
We could see and hear this lost culture in other pix exhumed for the hullabaloo: The First of the Few, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, In Which We Serve, The Way Ahead....
As we were bombed, strafed, and thrown overboard, pushed off one stretch of
The nation's reputation for daft sangfroid goes back at least to Sir Francis Drake and his battle-postponing game of bowls
("I will finish my game and then the
enemy," he said – or is said to have said – as the Spanish fleet sailed into view off Plymouth), and encompasses the likes
of Dr. Livingstone and
General Gordon on the way to the London
Blitz and the Battle of Britain.
But by World War II the stiff upper
lip had become an all-defining
heraldic emblem. That odd area of rigor vitae between an Englishman's
nose and mouth was an advertisement
for the superglue of Empire, or for the entire long history of
Since 1945, though,
The Way to the Stars is a
filmic gateway between the war and the after-war – and arguably between
Wartime British cinema's strength and fascination is its seriousness – moral seriousness – about emotion. Feelings are the more moving because they cannot be fully expressed. In The Way to the Stars the deaths of three key characters serve as narrative marker-stones. The station's first Commanding Officer, Trevor Howard, is shot down near the film's beginning in 1940. Two years later, newly married flying ace Michael Redgrave dies in action. Finally, in 1944, the American airman, Douglass Montgomery, who has befriended Redgrave's widow, Rosamund John, dies heroically in a blazing crash landing after saving his crew. After each demise, life goes on in the main setting, which is not the airbase itself but the hotel and saloon bar of the nearby village. Rosamund John's bereaved hotelier glides ever gracious, ever stoical, through the rooms, a figure who attracts tragedy yet seems to deflect or sublimate for others its worst effects.
Human feelings and life's continuities, the film suggests, are not denied indefinitely-they are on wartime hold ("Think of others before you weep or break down; think of others before you fall in love or marry"). And in some cases the film questions whether they should be. John Mills plays the young airman who loses his two best friends (Redgrave, Montgomery) and who, in the film's most harrowing scene, has to tell Rosamund John of the first man's death. As they utter stricken banalities ("I know what you've come to tell me"), we could be looking at British reticence gone pathological. But Asquith locks in on the two actors' faces – marooned amid the defocused, seemingly gravity-free mementos on the new widow's office wall and desk – and watches the glow of unspoken feeling.
Alone among the movie's leading males, Mills survives. But he too has made a sacrifice. Shaken by Redgrave's death and the tact that his friend left behind a wife and newborn child, Mills breaks off his own romance with a young hotel guest (Renee Asherson): "No right to get married while this is going on," he mutters to a pal. But the film fixes on this as one emotion-denial too many. Before war's end he has been pushed back by friends into the girl's arms. The movie ends with lines from a poem Redgrave left for his widow, urging the continuities of love and life: "Better by far for Johnny the bright star / To keep your head and see his children fed."
The "way to the stars" is through hardship, in accord with the Royal Air Force motto – Per ardua ad astra – from which the title is taken. And hardship may involve taking a courageous step to feel emotion as well as taking those steps to deny or control it.
The tension between expression and suppression fills the best Forties British movies with their almost lyrical mixture of pain and transcendence. The Way to the Stars contributes its own perspective: every individual tragedy is part of a vast, felt communal loss. Asquith prepares us for Redgrave's death with a montage of faces turning to the sky as the roar of a returning fighter squadron – minus one plane – swells overhead. Each closeup dissolves into the next, in virtually the same frame position and angle of head. By making a chorus out of imminent grief and bereavement, and by emphasizing the characters' response in a wordless knowingness, the film evokes a nation whose stored-up heritage of shared historical extremity runs so deep that words are not needed. And even when they are, short-change phrases like "Bad show," underpinned by that antiquity of sensibility, can have the eloquence of a requiem.
Asquith's film is also shaped and informed by the whole canon of British war cinema preceding it. The movie's haunting quietism can and should be seen as the resolution of a warlong struggle in British movies between conflicting styles, attitudes, and even classes: a struggle concerned with Britain's feelings about herself at home as much as about her enemies abroad.
The shadows that fell over British stiff-upper-lippery are at their darkest and most moving in The Way to the Stars: the film begins in bright sunlight and ends in chastened , with the frequency of nocturnal scenes increasing as the story proceeds. Yet before this movie, the whole war and its reenactment on film could be seen as variations on that theme of emotional suppression or sublimation. Even early WWII cinema, with its full-mobilization propagandist chirpiness, made good cheer seem a mask clapped over national foreboding. From Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel to Leslie Howard's Pimpernel Smith, the sound of a call to arms can be heard in the hyperkinetic plotlines and urgently heraldic characters.
Patriotic chivvying was the order of the day, but done with the debonair, stoic bravura we expect from Drake's descendants. Howard was the country-at-war's perfect early star. His heroes were pipe-smoking idealists with a permanent Holy Grail glint in their eyes. Though born Hungarian, amazingly enough, he became an ambassador of the British spirit to both Europe (in his own modern variant on the French Revolutionary swashbuckler, The Scarlet Pimpernel, he had made in the Thirties for fellow Hungarian-become-British Alexander Korda) and North America (as the philosopher-king of outdoorsmen in 49th Parallel).
But Howard, who died a war martyr's death when the plane he was traveling in "disappeared" in 1943,
was a screen figure to look up to rather
than identify with. The first
collective shift in wartime British
filmmaking came around 1942: towards a democratization of cinema. Films like Millions Like Us (factory life and working-class romance under the
shadow of war), The Foreman Went to
The apparent diversification, though, only revealed a more powerful unity. Wartime British stoicism was common – at least in the filmmakers' vision – to all classes. It wasn't just RAF chaps with moustaches like overgrown shaving brushes who countered crisis with selfcontrol. Stiff upper lips could be displayed – even more explicitly, since hairlessly – by plain folk, too: by the northern factory girl (Patricia Roc) in Millions Like Us who loses her new airman husband and chokes back tears as the planes roar overhead during the last-scene singalong, or by the Chief Petty Officer (Bernard Miles) who learns he has lost home and wife to the Blitz in In Which We Serve ('42).
This, the most popular film of the midwar years, was a flagship for the changing mood of British movies. It blends public service filmmaking in the early war style – much puffing of the Navy; Leslie Howard providing the closing voiceover – with the new Demotic touch. Both the Bernard Miles character and the young seaman who breaks the news to him (played by a John Mills limbering up for death-messenger duties in The Way to the Stars) are cockneys. In this socially cross-sectioned movie pic, they constitute the warmer subplot filling beneath the upper-crust pastry of Captain Noel Coward and his wife Celia Johnson.
Coward and Johnson seem to be the only ones, at first, suffering from stiff-lip syndrome. They live in what looks like
We would expect the working classes to be more liberated than this. But no. At crunch time, seaman Mills forms his voice and features into a mask no less impenetrable than Coward's. His corrugated brow and chipmunk face are set in grim determination as he delivers his heartbreak news to Miles. That newly widowed sea salt's reaction to tragedy is as stoical as his informant's: a moment's dazed silence; a polite word of thanks; a slow, matter-of-fact walk to the deck, and the mute pitching overboard of his last, unfinished letter to his wife.
If the proletariat can't be
emotional in a crisis, and if the middle and upper classes don't allow themselves to be emotional, who is
emotional? Is there life after – or beyond – the Englishman's stiff upper
lip? By 1944 in British war cinema one answer is becoming clear: Americans.
"Overpaid, oversexed, and over here,"
In Powell-Pressburger's A Canterbury
Tale a young GI played by a
real GI (Sergeant John Sweet)
chatters away endearingly during most of the film, as if he alone in
the dramatis personae were licensed to
express his wonder at life's continuance
amid death. He also incarnates the
principle of renewal in an almost terminally fuddy-duddy
In the later film, the playoff between British repression and American open-heartedness is unprecedentedly many-leveled. The Way to the Stars shifts about between distaste and admiration for the "Yanks." The RAF station and nearby village burst open first with the bruising ebullience of Bonar Colleano's young airman, a loudmouth who horrifies hotel guests with his gale-force prattle; later with the candor and bright wryness of Douglass Montgomery, whose large-spiritedness alone wakes the widowed Rosamund John from her coma of bereaved politeness.
For British audiences the John Mills character, positioned gnomically at the story's center, becomes our identification figure – and the stalking-horse for our nervous curiosity about this brash, unphlegmatic race from across the sea. We interact with each new interloper through this hero's tiny flickers of distaste, confusion, satire, or approval. In the scene of him and Colleano continually getting in each other's way in the bunkroom – brilliantly timed and blocked by Asquith, with the tight-in camera seeming to close off the "fourth wall" and make the comical pas de deux more confined – Mills's patience suggests all at once irritation, amusement, and an honest will to rapprochement. The plural responses of the audience are poured into a single character.
By evolving into a study of
Shot during the war, The Way to the Stars was postproduced after the war, so the film itself swings on a hinge in time. A late addition was the flashback structure, which has the movie opening with a camera tracking/dissolving through the abandoned base and spying the "forgotten" objects and graffiti whose meaning will become clear as the film unreels. Even the setting – "Halfpenny Field," which the Americans can't pronounce (it should be "Haypenny") and which the British point out goes back to the Domesday Book – becomes part of the push-pull panorama of time.
After this movie consummation, the post-1945 British war drama – a theoretically redundant genre that proved as stubborn as a non-departing party guest – seemed ever more bizarrely regressive. Since no one wanted tears in a new dawn, Fifties films like The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story, Above Us the Waves, and Dunkirk cranked out a prolonged, pin-brained triumphalism. They were action highlights of a bygone contest that you could swear was more interesting – and more interestingly downbeat – when you watched it live and complete.
The final, death-rattle year
was 1958. Three films, all featuring John
Mills (or was
Dunkirk, a dull,
hopelessly confused epic about the small boats' rescue of British troops from France in 1940, makes Mrs. Miniver look like War and Peace. In I Was Monty's Double, Mills dashes
Only Ice Cold in Alex approaches the war experience with some kind of post-war, even postmodern, irony. Like David Lean's Hollywood-produced The Bridge on the River Kwai of the previous year, it kicks some sand into the machinery of war nostalgia. Where Lean gave us Alec Guinness deconstructing military heroism as a poker-backed Colonel whose "good soldier" qualities are put down to a mixture of jingoist brainwashing and personal madness, director J. Lee Thompson gives us three chaps in an ambulance (plus Sylvia Syms), slogging it from Tobruk to Alexandria with Germans in their wake.
Ice Cold in Alex is a wake dancing on the corpse it is mourning. Yet there had been a kind of bravery even in those latterday rally-to-the-Union-Jack pictures Alex derides.
They saw that
In that decade the revolution became complete and spectacular. From a Sixties vantage, even the enlightened parts of the Fifties are unrecognizable. Nowhere is the change more apparent – likewise young
The Sixties' emphasis on working-class heroes dug a grave for the "posh" voice that had served as exemplar and main instrument for the stiff-upper-lip manner. You can hear that accent (which almost requires a stiff upper lip) throughout the Forties-Fifties cinema. It says "cheps" and not "chaps"; "hice," not "house." Soon it became the plain-speaking norm for early TV broadcasters, too.
This accent had escaped unscathed from the first Demotic revolution after the war: the election of a Labour government in 1945 to sweep the military hero Churchill from power and to build on the egalitarian yearning implicit in films like Millions Like Us and The Foreman Went to France. But a second cultural putsch by the working class in the Sixties – the ascension of "kitchen sink" directors like John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz and actors like Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay – was too much. "Cheps" was ironed into "chaps," "hice" into "house."
Listening to those Fifties voices today, we can hardly believe our ears, or credit that a country's whole style of locution could change in the turn of a decade. No other modern nation has gone through such a high-speed idiomatic rewiring.
But the accent revolution wasn't just phonetic, of course – it was social and moral. The
It was essential for this
Twenty years after Victory Day, a
A nation that for centuries had
bred assumption in its bones – the
assumption that the right word or
shrug could command the world – won
the war but collapsed with the
peace. The "Bad shows" and
"Oh I says" could defeat another old-breed empire-builder across the
In an early scene of The Way to the Stars, the camera performs a strange "dance" while holding the Michael Redgrave character in frame. Standing silently in front of a pillar in the airmen's mess, as the pilots return from the mission that has cost the life of their C.O. (Trevor Howard), Redgrave's character seems lost in musings. The camera pulls back to allow the trooping airmen to thump slowly past him in their own booted silence. Then it dollies in again on his face, posed in stillness against the pillar's one decoration: a photo of fighter planes that seem to be issuing, like thoughts, from Redgrave's troubled head.
Not a word is said, not a note of music sounded in this one-shot sequence. Yet in a single continuous
movement it seems to hold all the
silent courage of
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1996 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.