Tagged: national service

Queen & Country (UK-Ireland-France-Romania 2014)

Bill’s family watches the Coronation on their first TV

‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968)Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.

The new conscripts at the start of their National Service

John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.

Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) brings the Sergeant Instructors Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones, left) and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) to face the CO

In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.

Bill with the ‘mystery woman’ (Tamsin Egerton)

Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.

Bill dances with one of the nurses, Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) at a regimental dance. The other nurse, Peggy (Miriam Rizea) is with Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.

But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer:

The Bofors Gun (UK 1968)

This important British film was not easily available for many years until a UK Region 2 DVD appeared in 2012 from Odeon (It appears to be still available for rental from Cinema Paradiso in the UK). I believe the film was also screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014. Production began in 1967 with funding from the ill-fated ‘pot’ put together by Jay Kantner at Universal’s London office. Universal invested around $30 million over the next few years in a dozen British films, most of which turned out to be either expensive flops or critically-praised low budget films that failed to attract audiences. (See Alexander Walker’s Hollywood England, London: Harrap, 1974 p. 345). The Bofors Gun was in the latter category with an estimated production budget of $800,000. The production brought together writer (and director) John McGrath and director Jack Gold, both of whom were getting established in UK television drama and both of whom had strong progressive, Leftist politics. Based on McGrath’s stage play Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun (1966), the film has an outstanding cast. The narrative covers one night when a group of British soldiers are on guard duty at a military base in Northern Germany in 1954. In particular, they are guarding a Bofors gun.

David Warner as L/Bdr Evans

The Odeon DVD carries an interview with the prolific Jack Gold about his career (he died in August 2015 with 50+ film and TV directorial credits) plus a commentary on the film by Gold, ‘moderated’ by Steve Chibnall, one of the leading film scholars associated with British Cinema. I haven’t listened to the whole commentary, which is certainly interesting and useful, but Gold tells us that he missed National Service because of a medical condition. I don’t know if Steve Chibnall has any experience of the British Army, but this is a script clearly informed by McGrath’s National Service (1953-5?) and it does require some knowledge of Army procedures to fully comprehend all aspects of the narrative. I missed National Service by ten years or so (though my brother served) but at my school the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory and I spent several weeks at Army barracks in Brecon and in Scotland.

Ian Holm as Gunner Flynn

National Service in the UK meant the conscription of able-bodied men into military service after 1939. When the Second World War ended, Britain’s military commitments carried on and further legislation extended and formalised National Service for a period of up to two years (in practice, longer for some conscripts). What is now considered ‘National Service’ applied to all men born between 1928 and 1939 who were ‘called up’ between 1949 and 1960. The last conscript was able to go home in May 1963. In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in what National Service meant for the young men, for the armed forces and for UK society. I am using as a resource National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 by Richard Viner, Penguin 2014. My aim is to find as many filmic representations of National Service as possible. For those outside the UK, it is worth spelling out that although various forms of National Service/conscription have been common across many European and other countries for many years – and indeed some are still current – ‘conscription’, as Viner points out, has never been seen as part of the British tradition. The 1945-63 experience occurred at a particular time (the end of Empire) when the UK had military commitments across the world and National Servicemen fought alongside ‘regular soldiers’ in Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus and other places. This period was also one of great social change in the UK and this is also part of the National Service story.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O’Rourke

Reviews of The Bofors Gun consistently refer to the gun itself as a ‘piece of obsolete kit’ – thus suggesting the absurdity of ‘guarding the gun’. I’m quite prepared to accept that the gun has a symbolic role in the narrative and that the script contains several references to jokes about the Russians and the Chinese and the nuclear threat which the gun is helpless to counteract. This is one of the main jibes against authority made by Gunner O’Rourke. On the other hand, the gun was not necessarily ‘obsolete’. A Swedish design from the 1930s, several thousand were built in the UK and Canada for anti-aircraft use in the Second World War. When it became apparent that the original design was useless against jet aircraft, the gun was redesigned and a new version used in various guises up until the 1990s. The Bofors Gun is, in many ways, a ‘realist’ representation of a night on guard duty in 1954.

Plot outline (no spoilers as such)

Lance-Bombardier (the Artillery version of Lance-Corporal) Terry Evans (David Warner) receives news that he is to attend a War Office Selection Board in London which he hopes will mean a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and an escape from the drudgery of life in the barracks room. He is due to travel to the UK the following day, but tonight he is the leader of the guard detail – six gunners (i.e. ‘privates’) who are expected to patrol in pairs on a freezing February night for two hours at a time throughout the night while the rest of the guard shelter in a hut. If anything should go wrong, Evans knows that he won’t get to the WOSB.

The four gunners in the guardroom talk about L/Bdr Evans as he takes a nap (from left Richard O’Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw).

Commentary

Certain facts are made clear in the dialogue. Others have to be gleaned more indirectly. Evans more or less tells us that he is a National Serviceman. He could only apply for a commission after six months, but if he is the ‘right material’ he could be commissioned and serve as a junior officer for around twelve months. Viner suggests that 3-4% of National Servicemen in the British Army were commissioned in this way. We know Evans is ‘different’ (the film begins with him as the only soldier in the audience for a classical music concert in the local town). We also learn that he is from Manchester and that his father “sells paraffin” in Wythenshawe. I think this makes him ‘petty-bourgeois’ or ‘lower middle-class’ (I’m assuming his father owns a shop). He could be working-class if his father is a shop-worker. But what is safe to assume, I think, is that Evans represents those later to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act and the establishment of grammar schools as part of the state education system. (He would be too old in 1954 to have got into one of the new grammar schools.) The emergence of grammar school boys amongst the conscripts for National Service caused the Army several headaches. Up until this point it had drawn its officers from the best ‘Public Schools’ – i.e. private schools such as Eton, Harrow etc. Public schoolboys had an expectation of receiving a commission during their National Service (after which they expected to go to university). The Army thought that the middle classes from industrial regions in the North were unsuitable as officers (too ‘insular’) and it was suspicious of the academically-gifted grammar school boys (not all of whom were keen on being officers). Viner spends a whole chapter on these issues and he points out that the Navy was more meritocratic and that the RAF commissioned the highest proportion of such young men. It seems clear to me that McGrath intended Evans to be a case study of the problems facing the grammar school boy in this context.

Initially, there is little indication which of the gunners are National Servicemen and which are ‘regular soldiers’ (i.e. professional soldiers who have ‘signed on’ for more than three years). All of the actors are too old to be raw National Service conscripts and, to confuse matters, John Thaw (Gunner Featherstone), the youngest of them (at 24 in 1966), was already well known to UK TV audiences as a military policeman in the series Redcap (ABC TV, 1964-66). The two actors most likely to be playing regular soldiers are Nicole Williamson as O’Rourke and Ian Holm as Flynn. These two are almost polar opposites – O’Rourke is a tall, wild Catholic Irishman from the south, Flynn is a short, reserved Protestant Ulsterman. The inevitable religious conflict bubbles below the surface (and in retrospect prompts us to reflect on what might have happened in the North of Ireland if National Service had continued and conscripts had patrolled the streets of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s). More relevant here is that O’Rourke is the main source of anger channeled through Evans, whereas Flynn tries, in vain, to talk sense into the young NCO and help him wherever possible.

Barry Jackson (Shone) and Richard O’Callaghan (Rowe) play the youngest characters who are presumably National Servicemen. It’s noticeable that they do most of the tasks and that they are most likely to be bullied by the other four. Donald Gee plays Crowley as the older, quieter regular who has seen everything before and knows how to keep his nose clean. John Thaw’s character is the mouthy Londoner (although Thaw, like Warner and Gee was from the Manchester region). Inevitably, perhaps, McGrath’s script draws on the repertoire of British narratives about barracks life in which soldiers are identified by region and social class. It’s important for the drama that the group mixes regulars and national servicemen. Each has a different perspective on military life and different experience of what life outside the army might mean.

Distribution and reception

The film was distributed by Universal through its long relationship with Rank which meant it opened at the Odeon St. Martin’s Lane in London, but I’m not sure if it made it to too many Odeons around the country. The opening in London was in August, a time when distributors released those titles they had little faith in. (In those days in the UK the only cinemas that did good business in August were in seaside resorts.) That August The Bofors Gun and The Graduate bucked the trend for the critics and both were acclaimed. This is evident from the display ad shown above which is taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of September 28th 1968. The Essoldo cinema was part of a North East cinema chain. Note that the critics (in reality newspaper reviewers) quoted are all from the ‘popular press’, not the broadsheets. The film is also offered in a double bill with The Birds (1963) with the Hitchcock film offering more familiar genre pleasures. This looks like a smart move. The critics loved the film, the public often didn’t (and IMDb has an American poster announcing this and challenging cinemagoers to see a film that “has something to say”). I did see the film in a cinema but I can’t remember which one.

This “landmark in British cinema”, as one critic pronounced it, was edited by the great Anne V. Coates, had music by Carl Davis and was photographed by Alan Hume. Those are three of the best in the business and it is shocking that with its cast and writer-director combination, The Bofors Gun is available only in a rare DVD edition that is very hard to find and now very expensive. The DVD print is in the 1.37:1 ratio, possibly reduced from 1.66:1? The video quality is quite poor. Even so, the film needs to be seen for both its content and theme, its ensemble acting and the McGrath-Gold collaboration in its creation and presentation. If you want to catch Nicol Williamson at his height, this the film to see.

A Hill in Korea (UK 1956)

In most respects a conventional ‘war combat’ film featuring a unit attempting to fend off overwhelming enemy forces, A Hill in Korea does have some interesting features. It’s a Wessex Films production and as in the much earlier Once a Jolly Swagman, Ian Dalrymple’s production carries a couple of reminders of his documentary roots. The film begins and ends with a ‘voice of authority’ voiceover explaining that this unit went out on patrol at a certain time and that there were ‘ten national servicemen’ among the 16 men in the unit. The story is set during the retreat of UN forces during the Korean War in late 1950 as the Chinese advance.

British films about the war in Korea are hard to find and the action is largely represented on screen by Hollywood. The British contribution to the UN Command forces was part of a ‘Commonwealth Division’ with Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian personnel. In numerical terms, the Commonwealth forces comprised only a fraction of the total UN forces compared to the dominant American contribution. ‘National Service’ was began in the UK in 1949 and lasted until 1963 with young men required to serve  for two years by the time of Korea. Later British films featured the independence struggles in the British colonies of Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus as well as the débacle of Suez, in each of which national servicemen saw action. In A Hill in Korea, there are various taunts and squabbles between the national servicemen and the ‘regulars’ – the regular soldiers who had voluntarily signed on for three years or more.

The unit finds what appears to be an abandoned village. The two men in the foreground are infantry privates played by Robert Shaw (left) and Percy Herbert

Although there are two prolonged action sequences, two hills to be defended in fact, much of the interest in this relatively short film is now in the casting, which serves as a commentary on how the British film industry was developing. The biggest contemporary name has the smallest part with Michael Caine seemingly having one line in one of his earliest credited appearances. The unit is commanded by George Baker as a young Lieutenant who may actually be a national serviceman – it was possible to be commissioned on entry. Certainly he has never seen combat before, unlike the ‘regulars’ Harry Andrews as the Sergeant and Stanley Baker as the hard-bitten corporal. The rest of the cast are also mainly familiar names, known through theatre and TV as well as film in the 1950s. Victor Maddern and Percy Herbert would become well-known character actors while future Hollywood stars Robert Shaw and Stephen Boyd have a few lines each. Ronald Lewis, an actor who is not well-known now, has a fairly prominent role as a more middle-class serviceman who plays the one member of the unit who breaks down psychologically – and is not supported by his fellow squaddies.

One aspect of the film that grated with me was the use of the term ‘Chinks’ to refer to the Chinese troops. Every character uses this term and the most loquacious refers to ‘yellow men’. The enemy troops are never seen in close-up but only as tiny figures running towards the British positions. I’m assuming this racist terminology was meant to be ‘realistic’ in terms of how soldiers referred to the enemy in 1950 when the film was set. There is a South Korean soldier attached to the unit and he is played by an English actor, Charles Laurence with heavy make-up. I think it must have been a budget issue that meant that this film didn’t attempt to represent Chinese and Korean culture in any ‘authentic’ way. Hollywood, with bigger budgets and more access to Korean  actors and extras does at least give a veneer of authenticity, even if the locations used are in California. According to one review I read, this British film was shot in Portugal with American jet fighters purchased for the Portuguese Air Force. These were possibly Lockheed T-33 training aircraft, a variant of the Shooting Star fighter-bombers used by the Americans in Korea.

Sgt Payne (Harry Andrews, left) and Lt. Butler (George Baker) in the bombed temple

A Hill in Korea was directed by Julian Aymes. He was a TV director who only made two cinema features but worked extensively on ‘TV films’ and series from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. The great director-cinematographer Freddie Francis made his debut as DoP on the film shooting in B&W. IMDb lists the aspect ratio as Academy and certainly that was the ratio used on the print shown on Talking Pictures TV. It’s late to still be using Academy and some of the shots did seem possibly cropped to me. Does anyone have more information? Malcolm Arnold is credited with the music score. The film was released outside the UK (including in the US) as Hell in Korea.

A lot of viewers must come to the film hoping to see the Michael Caine performance, but as I’ve indicated, he has a very small role. Caine himself was one of those national servicemen aged 19 sent out to Korea and it’s worth listening to an extract from his recent radio broadcast of his autobiography about his time as a soldier in Korea. It’s on YouTube as ‘The Korean War and Michael Caine’. It sounds like the real experience wasn’t too different from the film. Searching for images, I discovered that Robert Shaw seems to have been the actor that most attracted the stills photographer on set. A Hill in Korea isn’t an action spectacular but as a gritty drama about a bunch of squaddies fighting against overwhelming odds it’s definitely worth a watch.