This is the second of my ‘Home Front’ study texts, following Another Time, Another Place. The Land Girls was quite a high-profile release in 1998 (a reported £6 million budget – double the UK median budget at the time) with a number of special screenings set up for former members of the ‘Women’s Land Army’ in the Second World War. It is one of several TV and film representations of ‘Land Girls’ and was based on a 1995 novel by Angela Huth, who was one of the writers of the adaptation alongside director David Leland. I enjoyed the film on release and used it on an evening class. I was disappointed by the general lack of interest from critics which I put down to its use of comedy within a melodrama structure. Critics generally don’t rate comedy (unless the films are extremely popular) and many British critics don’t really understand melodrama at all.
The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1941 a Dorset farmer, John Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), is being pressurised by Ministry officials to increase his output during wartime. He eventually agrees to pay a fee to receive three Land Girls and the film begins with their arrival. We quickly realise that two of the ‘girls’ (they are all in their twenties), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack) are experienced and have known each other for some time. They have worked to get this posting so that Stella can be near Southampton where her Navy boyfriend is stationed. The third and younger woman, Prue (Anna Friel) is new to farm work and reveals herself to be a hairdresser from Manchester (a third of Land Girls in the 1940s were from cities). The mixed farm has plenty of work and Joe (Stephen Mackintosh), the farmer’s son, plans to join the RAF to train as a pilot. He hasn’t been conscripted because farming is a ‘reserved occupation’. Though he has a fiancée in the WAAF, Joe is a young man (he’s actually older than the three ‘girls’) who proves attractive to all three Land Girls for different reasons.
David Leland has had a long career as actor, writer and director. He’s probably best known as the director of Wish You Were Here (UK 1987), a joyful and provocative film about a young girl’s ‘awakening’ in a 1950s seaside town starring Emily Lloyd and earlier as the writer of a trio of TV films about youth and education. In 1986 he wrote the hit film Mona Lisa. I think some of the sheer vitality and of those earlier works is evident in The Land Girls. The film was was very well cast and all the players are very good indeed. Catherine McCormack has the lead role in the sense that her voiceover introduces the three young women’s arrival at the farm and also introduces the coda at the end of the film. I think it’s a shame that her two co-stars here have gone on to have more high-profile careers in film and television, though her Wikipedia page suggests that she prefers the stage to the film camera. Our loss, I think. In a sense all three Land Girls are socially ‘typed’ and the roles correspond with the actors’ personae. Ag is a ‘blue-stocking’ Oxbridge scholar and Stella is the daughter of a bank manager.
I categorise this film as a ‘rural romance melodrama’ with a Home Front narrative structure. Most Home Front narratives are female-centred and the romance possibilities come about because a group of strangers ‘disturb’ a settled and socially conservative rural community. Often, the strangers are men, either from an Allied army (usually, Canadians or Americans in a British context, but also Poles, French etc.) or POWs (German or Italian). The Land Girls (and the munitions workers in other films) provide a female disturbance. ‘Romance’ becomes a sexual liaison because it is wartime and every relationship could be short-lived. These relationships drive the melodrama which runs up against the taboos of rural society. The disruption is presented through uses of music and photography marked by use of landscape, compositions and spectacular events including the appearance of enemy aircraft. In a film like The Land Girls, all these are present and more. Although the tone is light and comedic sequences are including, there are also dark scenes. The script is also careful to show that the Land Girls, especially Ag and Stella had already learned many farm-working skills and are able to improve the farm’s output.
The ‘test’ of melodramas like this is to be found in the narrative resolution in which we expect to learn something about how the women at its centre emerge from their adventures. The assumption is in a wartime film that the women will be changed and possibly that the changes for these women will be representative of potential changes for all women across society. Historically we know that many of the changes were nullified to an extent in the post-war period for various reasons (slightly different in the UK and the US) as men were demobbed. The 1950s are often seen as a return to more socially conservative norms, at least until the mid 1950s. It will depend to some extent on when the films were made. Millions Like Us (UK 1943) as a wartime film is optimistic about ‘winning the peace’ and closing some of the inequality gaps in British society. Films made after the war, in the context of austerity are more circumspect. The Land Girls, made 45 years later is likely to have absorbed some of the later social changes, expressed particularly through the character of Prue. Like some other Home Front dramas, The Land Girls does involve a coda in which we meet the five women from the narrative (the three girls, Mrs Lawrence and Janet who was Joe’s fiancée) a few years after the war. It’s an interesting addition which resolves some questions and leaves at least one open. As a melodrama ending it makes very good use of colour and costumes. I wish I knew more about the New Look and what followed in the early 1950s but this is a real visual treat. The idea of this coda reminds me that The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) has a slightly different strategy by offering a narrative that runs from 1944 through to 1948 in what I remember as a continuous narrative rather than a wartime narrative with a separate peacetime coda. I’m also reminded that Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale makes its female lead a Land Girl played by Sheila Sim.
I’m currently doing some work on ‘Home Front’ narratives, stories about wartime communities and especially the disruptions they experience. Another Time, Another Place is a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it on release in 1983. One of the reasons for this is because I had been on holiday in the area where it was filmed only a few years earlier. It’s a story based on a book written by Jessie Kesson which was published at roughly the time when the film was released. Kesson was inspired by her own experiences as a farmer’s wife in North East Scotland from 1939 to 1951. Later she became a BBC radio producer.
The central character in Jessie Kesson’s story is ‘Janie’, the young wife of an older farmer on the Black Isle in the Summer of 1943. Janie is portrayed in a stunning performance by Phyllis Logan, making her début. The film is directed by Michael Radford and this was his cinema film début after several years in TV which included directing Phyllis Logan in The White Bird Passes as a younger Janie in an earlier story by Jessie Kesson, made for the BBC in 1980. Janie in the 1983 film is unhappy in a marriage which offers little joy and plenty of hard work. As the film narrative opens three Italian prisoners of war are arriving at Janie’s farm to be housed in the ‘pig-man’s bothy’, rudimentary accommodation at best. Janie has tried to clean it out and she welcomes three disparate characters, Paulo, Umberto and Luigi. Paulo is tall, dark and handsome, Umberto is quietly miserable with thick round glasses and Luigi looks lugubrious but is actually the liveliest of the three. Janie at last has something new to excite her. We might expect that Paulo would be the one she is attracted to and we will be surprised when it turns out to be Luigi.
Radford doesn’t spell everything out for us. It looks as if there are several farms which may each be tenancies and that there is a factor or agent in the form of ‘Findlay’. The farmers’ wives are expected to work collectively on harvesting and planting. Whether Janie’s husband works on his own patch isn’t clear but the couple certainly have their own livestock. The work looks very hard and the cinematography (by a young Roger Deakins) at first presents the area as remote, windswept and bleak. The Black Isle is not an ‘isle’ at all but a broad spit of land pushing out into the Moray Firth. In summer it can be very beautiful with the grain fields running down to the sea. There is no record of what makes it ‘black’ but since it is fertile farmland it may be the rich soil. The narrative follows the seasons and the celebrations – a ceilidh one night when Luigi watches Janie dancing and a Christmas party held by the Italians with singing and dancing. Janie is the only local present.
As a Home Front narrative, my main interest here is in the ‘disturbance’ caused by the arrival of the Italians. Most of the locals are at first reluctant to accept the Italians. One woman in particular has a husband fighting in Italy at Monte Cassino (she ignores a POW protest that it is the Germans not the Italians who are the enemy in that famous conflict). Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ in the UK in the Second World War. However, younger men under 25 in the farming community were initially allowed to volunteer and many did. Farmers on their own land were generally required to increase production and for this they needed all the women in the community and both Land Army recruits and POWs. One of the few younger men in Janie’s community is the tractor driver played by Gregor Fisher, a well-known figure in both film and TV in the UK, especially as ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ in the popular sitcom named after the character which ran between 1988 and 2014. This character would be around 30 in 1943. Janie’s husband is in his late 30s/early 40s. Janie herself is in her mid-twenties.
Janie can’t help herself. She dreams about the Italians. Compared to the local men, Luigi might not be a big improvement in terms of his physical appearance, but he can sing very well and he knows how to seduce Janie. For Janie there is sexual desire and excitement but she knows that Luigi is only interested in a physical relationship. Nevertheless she does care about what happens to him and we worry that it will not end well. I won’t spoil the ending but I do disagree with many of the critics who seem to dismiss the ending as predictable. (It may be predictable, but that isn’t necessarily a weakness.) Home Front narratives are usually female-centred for the simple reason that women in wartime are likely to making more decisions for themselves and also working in key roles in society. In Janie’s case we could argue that she has discovered her own sexuality and her capacity to do something about it rather than relying on her husband. Many thousands of women did the same across Europe. It had consequences of course, including ‘mixed marriages’ and a rise in children without fathers – a major societal change in many countries. At the same time some women became more confident and assertive. Post-war, the (male) authorities would try to recuperate the patriarchy, but the changes would have a long-lasting impact.
I enjoyed Another Time, Another Place as much, if not more, than when I watched it the first time. Michael Radford went on to have three further successful films, 1984, White Mischief (1987) and Il Postino (1994). His career continued with some other high profile films but nothing that attracted my attention. Phyllis Logan made more films but rarely in leading roles. Instead her career took her into TV drama where she had two big successes in Lovejoy (UK 1986-94), as ‘Lady Jane’ playing opposite Ian McShane as the titular character. I enjoyed episodes of that series very much. Logan appeared in many others and possibly her largest audience internationally came via Downton Abbey (2010-19). I can’t really comment on that. It seems a long way from Another Time, Another Place, which will remain for me a far better representation of her talent. Janie is the central figure of a romance melodrama. The ‘exaggeration’ of emotion in the film comes through in Janie’s dreams both when awake and asleep. It’s also there in the cinematography and the music – several songs in Italian by Luigi, the ceilidh and a plaintive score by John McLeod melded with the winds.
One of the four funders behind Another Time, Another Place was Channel 4 Productions which had started making its own films in 1982 for its new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s entry into the film market could be seen as one of the factors keeping British film culture alive in cinemas in the 1980s. Many films made for TV were released in cinemas. Another Time, Another Place was, as far as I know, always intended for cinema release (even though one of the other partners was Associated-Rediffusion, the UK TV company which lost its ITV franchise in 1968. What was it doing funding a film in 1983? Answers on a postcard please.
Another Time, Another Place can be streamed on BFI Player in the UK and free on Tubi TV in the US.
This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.
The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.
The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.
The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.
I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.
Mayak is presented by MUBI in a restored print, re-constructed from two surviving 35mm prints. It’s a beautiful and extraordinary film – a stark beauty expressed in a brown/olive dominated palette, sometimes with a ‘bleached out’ look. (How much this is influenced by the effects of restoration is unclear, but I assume the film looks as close to its original appearance as possible.) It’s a début feature film by Mariya Saakyan, an Armenian woman who studied at the Moscow Film School, VGIK. Tragically, she died of cancer, aged only 37 in 2018 after completing a second feature. She was the mother of five children and this restoration is to be particularly welcomed because it enables more audiences to recognise her achievements during her brief career.
Lena (Anna Kapaleva) is a young Armenian woman who has been living in Moscow and now she is on a train heading back to Armenia. The date is not specified but it must be some time during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992-4. The war is represented by helicopter raids in the mountains and troop movements on the railway. The film is not about the fighting as such but more about the ‘home front’ of the people who have decided to stay while the young adults are fighting. The war did in fact see large numbers of displaced people. The causes of the war are not mentioned directly. Lena eventually returns to her village where she finds her aunt and her grandparents. It soon becomes clear that they must leave but her grandparents are reluctant.
This is a film in which landscape is almost a second central character. We are in the mountains of the South Caucasus where roads snake round the valley sides rising slowly in long sweeps to counter the steep inclines. Mist descends to the valley floor and the cinematography by Maksim Drozdov offers us long shot compositions which emphasise the sense of isolation. The railway is single track and the small station is at the centre of people’s attention even if there are seemingly no trains that stop to pick up passengers. There is very little narrative development as such but this shortish feature (78 minutes) is richly layered with different types of visual images as well as music and choral singing. The cinematography and sound are presented through different editing styles. The film feels more like an art film about memories than a melodrama about families, although that is what holds it together to some extent.
The consensus of commentators is that this a highly ‘poetic’ film and inevitably Tarkovsky is suggested as an influence, but it appears that the director has poets in her own family background and I’m also reminded that poetry features heavily in the films of Northern Iran which isn’t too far away across the mountains. In fact the film was shot, according to a Notebooks essay on MUBI, close to the border between Armenia and Georgia and scripted by a Georgian, Givi Shavgulidze who described events that took place during the Georgian-Abkhaz War of 1992-3. The village which features in the film is Madan, first built in the mountains around the site of a copper mine and featuring a significant Greek minority community. All these dislocations add to the sense that the film is about memories and especially the ways in which identity is felt by a wide range of peoples who experienced the break up of the Soviet empire in the 1990s.
Here is a quote from an interview with Maksim Drozdov:
I consider it important for the understanding of this film to note that for none of us was it a “film about war” at the very least for the reason that in the beginning of the ‘90s all of us were still kids and we could understand little about the events happening around us. The Lighthouse is a film about the childhood home, the reality around which has changed, has become unhomely, extrusive. And one seemingly needs to run from this uncozy reality, but it is so hard to leave your home behind. So many people in different parts of a big country that was at that time falling apart had to leave their homes and go into the unknown. (from https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/heavenly-authors-discussing-the-lighthouse-with-cinematographer-maksim-drozdov)
In the time it has taken me to watch the film, read about the background and write this posting over two or three weeks, war has again broken out in Nagorno-Karabakh the Armenian enclave within Azeri territory and the ostensible setting of this narrative. I’ve learned a great deal on this project and the film itself has been affecting for me. The Lighthouse (Mayak) is also available on a Second Run DVD (Region Free) and is highly recommended.
World on Fire is an example of the UK’s current ‘high-end’ TV production boom. This 7 x 60 mins episodes serial attempts to follow multiple characters, mainly young men and women, through the first year of the Second World War from the German invasion of Poland up to the Battle of Britain. It is a ‘long form narrative’ complementing recent ‘short form narratives’ such as State of the Union. As a formal project this differs from more typical British serials adapted from ‘classic’ (or not so classic) novels and feels more like the original serials developed for US cable TV. Surprisingly perhaps, World on Fire does not seem to have required US funding or to be an official co-production with a European partner. I think that the production has been sold to PBS in the US and I would expect it to sell to Poland and other territories. The production company Mammoth Screen is actually owned by ITV Studios but Mammoth’s projects are often, like this one, screened by the BBC. Presumably the production benefited from the tax schemes for high-end TV programmes. This is the new ecology of TV but does it work to produce interesting narratives?
The writer of the serial is Peter Bowker, a Northern lad with 25 years of writing for TV and many hits. My two favourites would be Blackpool (2004) and Eric and Ernie (2011) (from an idea by and starring Victoria Wood). More recently he has had success with three seasons of The A Word (2016-2019). My first thought was that Bowker might have been inspired by the German serial Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013). That controversial but very successful production took five young Berliners (men and women aged 18-21) in 1941, all friends before they set off on different ‘journeys’, mostly on the Eastern front. Three of the five survive to be re-united during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Bowker’s script for World on Fire focuses on a larger group of 8-10 characters, although interestingly it shares an interest in a young woman who is a singer, a young officer in the Army and a character acting as a guerrilla fighter in Poland. The German narrative had fewer characters and less time but was broadcast as three 90 minute episodes, i.e. each the equivalent of a cinema feature. It covered a longer time period, but not such a wide geographical spread. I mention these differences because at this point, after watching five out of seven episodes of World on Fire, I’m already worrying that there are too many separate stories, even though most of them are strongly linked together.
The promotional material suggests that the characters are ‘ordinary people’ whose lives are turned upside down by the outbreak of war. I’m not sure that is true for all the characters but it is important that the starting point for the narrative is a young middle-class man, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and a working-class young woman, Lois (Julia Brown) singing as a form of disruption of an Oswald Moseley fascist rally in Manchester in March 1939. Afterwards Lois will go back to work in a local factory and to her singing gigs at a local dancehall. Harry is sent to Warsaw as an interpreter for the British diplomatic mission. While there he will meet a young Polish woman Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz, who I saw recently in Spoor) and her family, her brothers and her parents. When the Nazis invade in September the stories of the Polish family (three separate stories) Harry’s mother (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s father (Sean Bean) and brother (Ewan Mitchell) will all develop. Also in Warsaw is an American correspondent Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who, as the invasion starts decides to go to Berlin. She is also worried about her nephew in Paris whose story will be picked up later when Paris falls. There is another narrative involving Nancy with a family in her Berlin apartment block. This story exposes a brutal aspect of Nazi ‘family policy’ but it doesn’t, as far as I can see, connect with the other stories
What should be clear, even from this brief outline, is that there are many stories and there isn’t much space to develop any one story without losing track of others. It also means that a major battle, the confrontation between the German pocket-battleship The Graf Spee and the British cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter is over in a few spectacular and shocking minutes. I’ve seen the famous Powell & Pressburger film many times, but audiences without detailed knowledge may find the scenes difficult to comprehend. (Most take place below decks or on deck with only a few shots of CGI ships.) Kasia’s parents in Warsaw are played by the two top Polish actors who appeared in Pawel Pawlikowski’s award-winning films Ida and Cold War – but they appear only fleetingly. Comments like this appear in several negative reviews of the serial but it isn’t my aim to be negative, I’m simply pointing out some of the outcomes of the narrative structure. On the plus side, a piece in the Observer a few weeks ago praised the serial for its attention to the stories set in Poland. As I’ve noted the cast includes some well-known Polish cinema actors and although the main dialogue is in English, there is subtitling for much of the Polish, German (and later French) exchanges. Subtitled drama on BBC1 is rare.
Episode 5 sees the main narratives converging in the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. I think that this episode demonstrates the strengths and possible weaknesses of Bowker’s script. But my personal view is that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. An unlikely group of characters are on the beaches during a 24 hour period. They include a British sailor, a Polish soldier, an American jazz musician and Harry, now a British infantry officer, with an oddly assorted group of soldiers he as taken under his wing (although Harry himself is not always totally in control). These include shell-shocked British soldiers and a couple of Senegalese soldiers. At one point several of the disparate characters are brought together through song. Harry joins his men in singing (quietly and plaintively, but with a sense of strength through solidarity) ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. The tune is picked up by the African-American jazz musician close to the beach and then by Lois who is singing as an ENSA entertainer in an RAF hangar. The editing has connected this moment to Kasia in Warsaw and to Harry and Lois’s parents in Manchester listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. This narrative device recall’s Bowker’s Blackpool which used similar devices from musicals. The whole Dunkirk sequence also links back to the debates around Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017). Bowker seems to have picked out characters such as the Senegalese soldiers to address contemporary concerns about representation. He does this throughout the serial, so Lois’s female partner from her singing career in Manchester is a Black British woman who joins Lois in ENSA. And while Lois sings we see that there are two other ‘people of colour’ in the RAF audience. I’m in effect naming Peter Bowker as auteur here, simply because he has written the whole serial. There are three different directors of separate episodes but the casting decisions may have been taken by producers or Mammoth executives, I simply don’t know. The point is that there was great diversity in the Allied forces, even in 1940. But in a sense it doesn’t matter if World on Fire is completely authentic. The casting may be colour blind or to seek that historical diversity. Either way it can be seen as an attempt to engage contemporary younger audiences with wartime narratives through human stories. I prefer this to the more technologically-driven ‘immersive’ cinema of Nolan. It’s also worth going back to Generation War and the debate after the screening involving historians discussing the accuracy of the representations and the importance of access to younger viewers. I also want to give credit to the four cinematographers on the serial with their mix of backgrounds and experience – Søren Bay (2 episodes), Suzie Lavelle (2 episodes), Mika Orasmaa (2 episodes), John de Borman (1 episode)
I’m going to watch the last two episodes and the first five are currently available in the UK on iPlayer. I’ve enjoyed all the performances but especially Julia Brown’s and the feuding between Lesley Manville’s ‘lady of the manor’ and Sean Bean’s shell-shocked First World War veteran. Here’s the ‘Benelux trailer’, stressing the attempt to produce a ‘European story’:
Malta Story screened on Talking Pictures TV a few weeks ago. I don’t remember seeing it before and I found it an intriguing watch for several reasons. The early 1950s fascinates me as a much-derided period of British filmmaking, but also a commercially successful one for some studios and a time when British audiences preferred British stars to Amnericans. The war films of the period have become the most derided by many film scholars and, perhaps not coincidentally they also appear to give comfort to the Brexiteers. Malta Story is a particularly strong example of a film celebrating the bravery and resilience of the Maltese people and the heroics of both the RAF and Royal Navy. It was one of the most popular films at the British box office in 1953. Sue Harper and Vincent Porter (British Cinema of the 1950s) report that the idea for the film came originally from the Central Office of Information under Labour (presumably in the late 1940s) as a propaganda film supporting the three armed services. This version would have been directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by William Fairchild. The project was eventually funded as a production of ‘British Film Makers’ a joint operation between Rank and the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Nigel Balchin developed the script and Brian Desmond Hurst took over as director for a production based at Pinewood with location shots on Malta and access to archive footage of air and sea battles in the Mediterranean. (The Talking Pictures print still announces the film as a ‘Theta Production’ – the company set up by Dickinson and producer Peter De Sarigny.)
As a child in the 1950s I was aware of the powerful mythology associated with ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, the three Gloster Gladiator bi-planes which defended Malta in 1940 in the early months of the war. But Malta Story deals with the later period when the island’s strategic importance made it the target for both German and Italian bombers, attempting destroy its defences for an invasion that would then allow the Axis powers to guarantee their own supply route to North Africa. One of the two lead roles in the film was taken by Jack Hawkins as the senior RAF officer, Air Commodore Frank. It is his responsibility to maintain the the airfields and the dwindling numbers of Spitfires for long enough to allow the RN to bring in reinforcements. He faces a Catch-22 situation since his aircraft are vulnerable on the ground or in the air in facing Luftwaffe superiority of numbers. But if he can’t protect the convoys carrying the reinforcements, they may be lost as well. The ‘inciting moment’ of the narrative is the arrival on the island of a reconnaissance flyer en route to Egypt. Frank gets permission to keep the flyer on Malta and to use him to monitor Italian ports and railways for an invasion build-up. The flyer is F/Lt Peter Ross, played by Alec Guinness. Ross has a double function in the narrative. First he provides the mechanism by which Frank can gain intelligence on enemy troop/shipping movements. Second, he can ‘personalise’ the story by falling for one of the young Maltese women, Maria (Muriel Pavlow) working in the RAF ops room. Maria’s family headed by her mother (Flora Robson) will also provide a secondary narrative about a possible spy in the shape of Maria’s brother.
In 1953 Jack Hawkins was at the peak of his popularity with British audiences. 1953 was also the year of his naval Commander in The Cruel Sea and his ex Army officer in The Intruder and the year before he had been in The Planter’s Wife resisting Malayan independence fighters. In 1952 he’d also had a senior RAF post in Angels One Five and the pioneering head teacher in Mandy. It’s difficult to think of another star actor who carried the same sense of authority and gravitas, but who could also be affable and avuncular and, when necessary, ruthless. I think Hawkins has tended to suffer in retrospect from charges of ‘stolidity’ but for me he is the outstanding male actor of 1950s British cinema. There is much more to him than the ‘stiff upper lip’. The top-billed actor on Malta Story is Alec Guinness but I confess I’m not always a Guinness fan. It seems he angled for the part of Ross as ‘something different’ and he does create an interesting character, the almost unworldly Cambridge archaeologist who had done some aerial photography pre-war. His courtship of the beautiful Maria is sometimes uncomfortable to watch because of his awkwardness but this is resolved in the final scenes which I did actually find quite moving, especially in Muriel Pavlow’s performance.
I’m wondering how much of the original script survived the ‘front office pressure’ of Rank’s John Davis and executive producer Earl St John. Balchin was both a celebrated novelist as well as a top scriptwriter of the period. My suspicions are raised by the relatively minor role played by the relationship between Anthony Steel’s Wing Commander Bartlett and Renee Asherson as another of the women working in the Ops Room. Steel is third-billed on the film’s poster and Asherson is billed alongside Muriel Pavlow but neither role seems to contribute much to the narrative development. Steel’s Bartlett should be the representative of the Spitfire pilots on the island (i.e. those defending the base) but because the role isn’t developed, the twin axis of the narrative is the ‘high command’ and Maria’s Maltese family headed by Flora Robson with what I assume is meant to be a ‘Maltese’ accent. Visually the film is dominated by the location shooting amongst the ruins and across the harbour skilfully edited with archive footage. Similarly in 1952/3 there were still wartime aircraft available to complement the archive footage. (Although because of the rapid development of marques during the war, the Spitfires are mainly later models than those of the 1942 Malta siege.) I didn’t particularly notice the use of model work on my TV screening but others suggest it is extensive in the film.
It isn’t easy to make a film with real narrative drive about a siege lasting several weeks. There is always the risk that the spectacle of aerial dogfights will overtake the drama faced by civilians on the Home Front and the military personnel on the ground in the harbour and on the airfields. There is also a danger in trying to tell too many stories and the 1969 Battle of Britain film fell into both traps for me. In this respect, Malta Story is strengthened by the drama of Ross trying to find a German convoy on its way to support Rommel at El Alamein. If he can do this, the struggles of everyone on Malta will have been worthwhile because the new British bombers which have eventually got through to the island will then be able to attack the German supply line. The irony is that Ross, the Cambridge archaeologist, should be the man whose single mission becomes so important. Several years later, Guinness played ‘Aircraftman Ross’, the assumed name of T. E. Lawrence in the RAF in a 1960 play by Terence Rattigan. Without the family, Malta Story might have become another 1950s war film showing the British middle classes winning the war through good management and strength of character. Ordinary people and ‘the lower ranks’ were important in the 1940s but in the 1950s establishment values were being re-asserted – or at least that is what several film scholars have suggested. History however, records that the ‘people of Malta’ were awarded a collective George Cross for their resistance in 1942 and this is included in the film. Later still Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964, became a Republic in 1974 and joined the EU in 2004. I wonder what the Brexiteers think of that?