The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.
Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).
Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.
The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.
Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).
The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.
The retrospective programme in Leeds this year focused on time-restricted narratives – ‘Time Frames’. Among some interesting East European films from the 1960s and early 1970s was this odd little film by Canadian director Sidney J. Furie. After a couple of directing jobs in Canadian film and TV, Furie had arrived in the UK hoping for bigger and better films. But first he wrote and directed this 85 minute B+W drama which received an ‘X’ Certificate from the British Board of Film Censorship. It was made at Walton Studio in Surrey for Gala films, the company belonging to Kenneth Rive, best known for bringing foreign language films into the UK. My assumption is that it was intended as a ‘programme filler’ for Rive’s European films, many of which were X-rated, as well as some of the adult dramas finally beginning to appear from British studios. The BBFC website suggests that the film was cut to receive an ‘X’ which is quite bewildering. The version we saw (on 35mm film) displayed the X Certificate but was definitely cut as there is at least one still available from a scene which wasn’t in our print.
So you might be wondering what this X film is about. The time frame is less than 24 hours, beginning when a USAAF daylight bombing raid is over Europe about to drop its bombs. The co-pilot is hit by German anti-aircraft and David the young Captain pilot steers the bomber back to the UK. He has just one more mission before he can return home and his crew determine to help him lose his virginity (he’s 21) before that last flight. David’s anxiety increases when he learns that though the co-pilot has recovered in hospital, the shrapnel has castrated him. What follows is a psychological drama spread over a night in the local village. At its centre is David’s encounter with Jean, the daughter of the pub landlady.
Furie appears to have recruited all the young Canadians he could find in London to play the American airmen. Most of them are fine with just the occasional Toronto vowel showing through, but the lead role of the Captain is played by Don Berisenko, a young man who clearly modelled himself on James Dean and here spends much of his time with his uniform cap pulled low over his eyes and with along wild hand gestures and body movements. Fortunately, his main scenes are with Susan Hampshire as Jean, a couple of years older than him but playing younger. She counters his method acting with something much calmer and quieter but more effective. The script plays with the moral code of the period which was severely tested under wartime conditions. Eventually human feeling prevails, though in a sense the narrative resolution is ‘open’ as to what happened to the ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ afterwards.
I found the dialogue in the opening scenes on board the aircraft risible but the script improved and if I’d been presented in a cinema with this in 1960 as the ‘B’ picture I would have been quite happy. I’m struggling to work out what would have needed to be cut for an X but then the BBFC’s decisions often baffle me. Researching the film after the screening I discovered that the film has been broadcast several times on Talking Pictures TV, but only in graveyard slots at 01.00 or 02.00 in the morning. If it is listed again I might record it to check out the cuts.
This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.
Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.
Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.
Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.
Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.
I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.
This is another gem from Talking Pictures TV that I’d never heard of before. It’s an intriguing film given the year of its release and its narrative that covers the period from a few days before D-Day in 1944 to the time of the film’s release in 1948. It’s therefore a ‘Home Front’ film covering both the last years of the war and the first three years of peace – and austerity. The continuous theme is about dealing with rationing and attempts to run a home. Not surprising then, the central character is Martha Crane, a middle-class woman in her 40s, widowed and living in her large family house on the south coast near Portsmouth with her two grown-up daughters, both Wrens. Their young brother is in the Navy, serving in the same ship as his older sister’s husband. The spare rooms in the house are occupied by a shore-based naval commander and a young army sergeant (who has quickly developed a relationship with the younger sister). The film opens with the arrival of an agency ‘Mrs Mopp’ hired to relieve Martha of some of the housework. As this character list suggests, the story is based on a stage play by Esther McCracken with the title No Medals.
I’m surprised that this film does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. (It’s not mentioned in Robert Murphy’s book about British films and the Second World War.) The film’s title is clearly ironic and in that sense is a nod towards The Gentle Sex (1943), the comedy drama about young women coming forward for various kinds of military service. It also sits alongside Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) with its focus on families moving from peace-time into war – though it is the only film of its kind, that I know of, moving from wartime into peace. The film, like the original play before it, seems to have been popular at the box office and given the interest of feminist film scholars in the woman’s picture and home front melodramas of the 1940s, I can only conclude that the film has been unavailable. Now it is free to watch on Bfi Player (only in the UK). The film is also interesting in terms of British film history. It is a ‘Two Cities’ production made at D&P studios (Pinewood). Two Cities was one of the production companies operating under the Rank funding umbrella. It was one of the companies generally expected to provide the ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions with the genre films left to Gainsborough and, t0 lesser extent, Ealing. But this function of Two Cities was usually covered by Filippo Del Giudice, the company’s founder. The Weaker Sex is produced by Paul Soskin, a Russian-born producer. It doesn’t appear to have had a particularly large budget, but the cast is strong with Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane and Cecil Parker as the naval commander. Thora Hird is the Mrs Mopp character, Mrs Gaye (‘Mrs Mopp’ was a character in the radio comedy programme ITMA and soon became a popular way to refer to ‘cleaning ladies’). Lana Morris, who would go on to become a familiar face in British films of the 1950s is the younger daughter. Rank contract players such as Bill Owen and Gladys Henson also appear and I spotted Eleanor Summerfield as a bus conductor. The film was the second directed by Roy Baker and it was photographed by Erwin Hillier, already with a high reputation after his work with Powell and Pressburger on A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).
Cecil Parker is excellent as the Commander, offering that seemingly bumbling exterior beneath which a sharp mind and a calm authority can ‘get on with the job’. Ursula Jeans was married to Roger Livesey and the couple appeared together in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). In The Weaker Sex she plays a role that Celia Johnson might have played if the film had been directed by David Lean. The film’s title is ironic and Martha has real strength that no doubt added to the appeal of the film at the UK box office. The focus on Martha (and her daughters) is also important in pointing towards the pressure they feel to contribute to the war effort. Martha feels she hasn’t done enough but the film’s narrative demonstrates the importance of her wartime role on the ‘Home Front’. Whether the audience felt the same about her struggles with rationing after the war was over is another question. I must try to find other films like this.
Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband
Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.
Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.
Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x”’ narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him in those films, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.
The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder, and Gordon Jackson playing British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.
Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.
Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.
The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)
Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.
The story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.
Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.
The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)
There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.
In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).
Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.
The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.
The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.
The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the Alex von Tunzelmann one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.
The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)
The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.
The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.
I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).
So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.