Greeting all and sundry!
After many years of watching and enjoying films and television. I have come to the conclusion that the Brits do some things better than the U.S. Documentaries are a given. As are some forms of urban gangster films. Police procedurals that leave U.S. contemporaries in the dust. And costume dramatic and comedic period pieces best enjoyed on wet, rainy weekend afternoons.
One other arena where the Brits do quite well is the war film. Specifically, World War II films. Where character often tops action, though is a major part of any of their myriad offerings.
To that end. Allow me a few moments to wax poetic and nostalgic about a film I caught long ago in the basement of the Maryland University student union building. That mixes humanity with the terror, vulnerability and randomness of war.
In Which We Serve: (1942)
Which owes its subtitle to the film’s opening voiced over line. “The Story of a Ship!”. Which succinctly explains the universe of machinery and souls HMS Torrin will soon create. With the laying of the ship’s keel at a busy ships work in the late 1930s. With hull plates and added and the ship being assembled upward. In a brief montage of tall, ever widening bulkheads being lowered by stories tall cranes. Welder’s sparks and white hot rivets being driven home with pneumatic hammers as its deck expands. Deck guns, turrets and other fittings are managed post christening. Sea trials are challenged and the ship looks in fine shape for the war that is to come.
Yes, the montage is a clever bit of “England can take it!” propaganda, but so is Olivier’s Henry V. Turned suddenly on its head with some of the best night time sea attack model and following morning aerial raid and bombing attack stock footage you’ll see around. Meshed fluidly with the ship’s responding turreted cannons and 20 and 40mm anti aircraft guns. Though the laws of probability finally catch up. The attacking German Dorniers fly ever lower and the destroyer takes two bomb hits in the stern. The order is given to “Abandon Ship!”
The deck crews jumps as the ship develops a wicked list. While others wait for the decks to awash escape. The Captain stays on the open bridge and is pulled away and under by a cresting wave. That introduces a watery, though very well executed bit of flashback.
To the arrival of Torrin’s commanding officer. And few could be better than Captain E.V. Kinross, Royal Navy. Wondrously and quietly played by master craftsman, Noel Coward. Who possesses that quiet authority which commands. Tall, thinning haired. Happily married family man with a few ships under his belt. And more than a bit pleased to be what the U.S. Navy calls a “Plank Officer”. The first assigned to a ship freshly assembled in the works and yard. A veteran who has held the reins and wants nothing more than a happy, efficient ship. One that after a walk through inspection and speech, has enough of his old shipmates amongst the crew to fill the youngsters and others and keep them in line.
Which is quite fortuitous. Since Hitler’s troops have rolled on Poland in a massed Blitzkrieg. And Churchill has announced on the radio that their island nation is at war. And whatever final tasks that had been given three weeks to accomplish are quickly whittled down to three days.Spent tightening nuts and bolts. Loading ammunition, provisions, gas masks, helmets, life jackets, rum and assorted odds and ends. Then being assigned escort duty for incoming and returning convoys and sometimes, porpoises. With plenty of time to introduce and flesh out secondary characters. Chief among them, Derek Elphinstone as “No.1” (XO), Robert Samsone as “Guns” (Artillery Officer), Philip Friend as “Torps” (Torpedo Officer), Hubert Gregg as “Pilot” (Helmsman) and Hubert Gregg as “Doc” amongst the officers. And Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Walter Hardy. And a very young, green and wary John Mills as Ordinary Seaman “Shorty” Blake amongst the enlisted ranks.
A better than decent ensemble to introduce brides to be, wives,in-laws, mothers and babies contending with rationing and moving to smaller, more compact residences. Enduring errant, less organized bombing well into “The Battle of Britain”. And more sporadic urban bombing at night. As Torrin returns damaged and in tow from a convoy run. Allowing for an intriguing interlude that delves deep into the British class system. Where the officers have opulent homes and servants. And the enlisted men have home cooked meals, family, neighbors and friends.
Capped off by a posh end of the decade Christmas celebration of the ship’s staff and their wives, children and fiances. Where Mrs. Alix Kinross (Celia Johnson. Calm elegance personified) gives an impromptu congratulatory and cautionary speech to Maureen (Penelope Dudley-Ward) and “Flags” (Michael Wilding). About the wives of sailors and their husbands’ first and only loves. Their ships. A very eloquent speech before a toast to Torrin and all who sail with her.
Which leaves Torrin and her sister ship, HMS Tremoyne ready to return to convoy duty. Accruing a few aerial and submarine kills when not engaging German raiders. One engagement frightens “Shorty” Blake away from his artillery action station that endangers the ship. A serious charge that Captain Kinross quashes with a private talk to Blake. And a public one with the crew. Where Kinross states that if one man fails in his duty. That he, Kinross has also failed in his. A very ahead of its time speech that quickly steels the crew in their dedication to Captain Kinross and Torrin.
With Poland all but taken care of. German armor, troops and aircraft roll into France on all fronts. The British Expeditionary Force engages in a fighting retreat to Dunkirk. Torrin, Tremoyne and a sizable task force is impressed to deliver protective fire as hundreds of small, private and commercial ships aid in the evacuation. Taking on wounded who are tended to below decks as Kinross and his artillery officer direct counter battery.
Returning to England to disembark troops, replenish and head back out. To sink German troop ships and their defenders in the Battle of Crete. While the Luftwaffe helps from above with Dornier, Heinkel and Junker 87 Stuka dive bombers. Torrin fights well through the night. With “Shorty” Blake going above and beyond the call. Returning to his damaged turret and physically loading shells and propellant bags into its 4 inch cannon’s breech and firing.
Torrin survives the dawn and several aerial attacks. Take one hit abaft its single stack. Then another atop the engine room. Still in the fight but dead in the water and listing badly. Most of the deck and bridge crew survive and are picked up by HMS Tremoyne and sent to Alexandria for hospital and await orders for other ships.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
A film definitely, solidly of its time. A brief yet telling autobiography of not just a ship, but its crew. Their faults and foibles presented against an uncertain situation. Infused with near seamless stage and set work for the ships works and ship itself. Cramped and crowded streets full of narrow brick buildings full of even more narrow flats.Excellent B&W cinematography by Ronald Neame. And fluid editing that meshes stock aerial footage with live action. High marks also to visual effect, matte painter, W. Percy Day for his panoramic aerial views of HMS Torrin’s ships work. And Bill Warrington and his superb model work for battles at sea.
What Makes This Film Great?
Eloquent and memorable writing from Noel Coward shared by a superior cast. Under the direction of Coward and an up and coming young man named David Lean. Backed up by The London Philharmonic Orchestra to heighten the emotion of many scenes. Especially on the home front. Where CPO Hardy’s wife and mother share the small two floor house. Only to take in “Shorty” Blake’s wife, Freda (Kay Walsh) and baby daughter (Juliet Mills) much later on.
Also, Mr. Coward basing his character of Captain Kinross on (future) Lord Louis Mountbatten. Emulating his quiet, straightforward delivery and unique method of command. And the film is much better for it.