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?
Amma Asante has completed three more films since her first, the remarkable A Way of Life, appeared in 2004. That film won prizes as a small independent production but struggled to find an audience outside festivals and a limited UK release. Belle in 2013 brought her to the attention of North American audiences and a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. A United Kingdom in 2016 continued her move towards international co-production and a bigger budget with two major stars in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Each of these three films dealt with issues of identity in unusual circumstances and they proved difficult projects to get made despite help from the British Film Institute. The films were not without their critics but they did win prizes and some very enthusiastic audiences. Because Belle was a narrative that dealt with issues arising from the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century it proved the most attractive to African-American audiences. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanaian filmmaker who has moved from acting to scriptwriting and writing-directing. She has very clear ideas about the kinds of stories she wants to put on screen. She has proved determined to present these stories in the most accessible way she can and each of her films is strong in terms of cinematography, editing and art direction. Equally, she draws strong performances from well-chosen casts. I’ve been impressed by all the films but there are critics who find her stories too conventional and lacking in sophisticated ideas. I don’t accept those criticisms but they have been there and I must admit to my concerns prior to watching Where Hands Touch. I was forced to watch the film on VOD just three weeks after its UK release because I couldn’t find it locally in cinemas. The film was released first in North America in September 2018, seemingly for only 3 days in 103 cinemas. In the UK it opened on only 5 screens and the following week was on only one. The distributor, Spirit Entertainment is mainly known for DVD/Blu-ray and VOD. Could the film be as bad as these indicators of a lack of faith in cinema distribution suggest?
I’m relieved to say that many of the criticisms from North American viewers and some critics are either malicious or just silly. There have also been some very enthusiastic responses, but there is something about the film that perhaps doesn’t work. Nevertheless, given the subject she has tackled, this is another win for a brave filmmaker. The story of how the film came to be made and the historical basis is laid out on Amma Asante’s website. I’ll just include a brief summary here.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 included the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland which would last until 1930. The French Occupation Forces included 25,000 to 40,000 ‘colonial troops’. A significant proportion of these soldiers were Tirailleurs sénégalais, West Africans from various African territories in the French Empire. Some of these men married local German women, but many babies were born to unmarried mothers and these became known in Germany as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Wikipedia quotes the British historian Richard Evans who suggests that these children comprised 500-600 new ‘Black Germans’. Where Hands Touch focuses on a teenage girl who grows up as one of the 500+. An important point to note here is that the children of a married couple automatically took their father’s nationality, but those born ‘out of wedlock’ took their mother’s nationality. When the Nazis came to power and began to implement policies designed to secure the ‘racial purity’ of ‘Aryan Germany’, they at first had more problems with the Rhineland Bastards because they were German citizens. But after 1937 they adopted a policy of forced sterilisation to prevent any further ‘mixed marriages’ (not only involving Black youth but also Gypsies and others deemed ‘non-Aryan’).
Plot outline (no major spoilers)
Leyna Schlegel (Amandla Stenberg) is a bi-racial girl of 15 in 1944 and still living in the Rhineland when her mother hides her to prevent her arrest by agents who would no doubt find ways to force her sterilisation. Leyna and her white little step-brother Koen are then taken to Berlin where they must try to be ‘invisible’. Leyna will eventually find it impossible to stay in a Berlin school and instead will move into factory work with her mother. False papers keep her safe and she starts a relationship with a young man she meets. He’s in the Hitler Youth, just like every Aryan child, including Koen. In late 1944/early 1945 Berlin is a dangerous place and it’s inevitable that Leyna will be arrested at some point. What will happen to her?
In one sense, this is a family melodrama with an emphasis on the drama. It is also a romance, a very dangerous romance. But in many ways the ‘action’ in the narrative is of less importance than the complicated questions and difficulties that surround Leyna’s sense of who she is. What is this identity in Germany in 1945? Leyna maintains that she is German. She has no other Black friends and no role models (her father disappeared some time earlier, when she was an infant). When she visits Lutz (George MacKay) he plays her a Billie Holiday record from his father’s collection and shows her images of female jazz singers. Leyna is thrown by this, she has had no chance to think about her African roots or about an African diaspora in America. Lutz is looking forward to being sent to the Eastern front. He wants to fight and to protect his country. But both Leyna and Lutz will have to deal with the questions of what it means to be German when they find themselves caught up in questions about how Jews are being killed in the camps.
I think that the central problem with the film is that Amma Asante started to write a story when she discovered the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and the more she discovered, the more historical facts and issues she tried to include. There is an interesting analysis of ‘Black Germans in Nazi Germany’ by Professor Eve Rosenhaft on the Amma Asante website and we can see the clever way in which Asante has woven into the narrative all the questions and problems discussed. But in wanting the film to speak to mainstream audiences, Amma Asante has also chosen to develop a romance. A focus on emotional relationships has been Asante’s strategy in each of her films and generally I think it works well, but in this case it feels as if there isn’t enough room for the romance itself as well as all the other issues. It may be because the project has been so long in the making. It should have been Amma Asante’s second film – she felt very driven by a search through what she saw as the neglected history of Black people in other parts of Europe. But she couldn’t raise the finance to make the film until she’d had the successes of Belle and A United Kingdom. I’m wondering now if when she finally got to make it, she tried too hard to explore all sides of the story? The film is already quite long at 122 minutes. It may be that it would have worked better as a TV serial like Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013).
There are two issues here that might explain the less than stellar reception the film has received. I’ve indicated Amma Asante’s ambition and the possible problems of structure and the sheer scale of the narrative. It isn’t the fault of the actors Amandla Stenberg, fresh from her triumph in The Hate U Give (US 2018) (a film under-appreciated in the UK, I think) is excellent and George Mackay works as well as he can with the script. Unfortunately for UK audiences there is the feeling that he’s been 19-20 for quite a long time now after roles in successful British pictures such as Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Pride (2014) – he was approaching 26 when he played Lutz. I think his efforts to ‘act younger’ make him possibly weaker as a character. The rest of the cast includes heavy-hitters such as Abbie Cornish as Leyna’s mother and Christopher Eccleston as the father of Lutz, an interesting character who fought in the 1914-18 war and who now wants to simply survive the war and protect his son, using his relatively senior position. Between the four central characters Asante does manage to represent a range of attitudes and feelings amongst ‘ordinary Germans’ in a very difficult situation. But this is something that audiences (still) might not be ready to accept. The history of the war and the Holocaust is too often reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and not conflicted characters who aren’t sure how and why they should act. I like the fact that the script makes clear that Lutz risks all for the romance – it is as dangerous for him as for Leyna.
This second issue about audiences and how they might understand, sympathise with or identify with characters is the most difficult challenge of all. There is also the decision to use English dialogue with the central characters mostly speaking without a noticeable accent, while some of the minor characters do. I’d be interested to see the film with a German cast or with a dubbed German soundtrack (as was the case with the recent Trautmann/The Keeper).
I hope my analysis hasn’t put you off wanting to watch this film. It’s an important piece of work and Amma Asante is a director who always produces interesting and valuable films. Finally, I wanted to mention the work of Remi Adefarasin, one of the few Black cinematographers in the UK. It’s good to see him as an industry veteran supporting Amma Asante and presenting Amandla Stenberg so beautifully on screen.
I booked to see this film simply because it seemed the best choice in the particular slot in the festival programme. I’m not sure why Glasgow selected the film which was released widely in the UK just three days after its two festival screenings. Perhaps it was a purely commercial decision – it was a sell-out on the night for a screening that must have been a première (I don’t tend to notice these things). I wonder if the distributors Fox Searchlight lost faith in the film and avoided a big London opening? Anyway, there was a festival flavour to the screening with the presence of director James Kent and one of the producers (Jack Arbuthnot I think, but apologies because I missed his name) and the Q&A that followed was enjoyable and interesting in terms of audience feedback.
The narrative explores a period of a few months from October 1946 during the British military mission in Hamburg, a city almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing earlier in the war. Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is in charge of the clear-up in the city with the unearthing of corpses buried in the rubble and small groups of Nazis still creating disorder and launching attacks on British personnel. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives to join her husband and the couple are assigned a requisitioned country house on the outskirts which is undamaged. The house belongs to an architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who is a widower with a teenage daughter, Freda. The Luberts and the servants are to stay on but at first Rachael finds it difficult to have them in the house and they retreat to rooms in the attic spaces. We sense that a form of romantic melodrama is about to play out since Lewis is overworked and out much of the time while Rachael has time on her hands to think about the loss of her son two or three years earlier in a bombing raid. Herr Lubert lost his wife during the firestorm created by British incendiaries around the same time.
The situation is based on the real events experienced by the novelist Rhidian Brook’s grandparents. There is an interesting account of this history on the BBC website. A script by Brook was originally commissioned by Scott Free (Ridley Scott, who is credited as a producer on the film, was a 10 year-old with his parents in Hamburg a year later) which Brook then turned into a novel. The film took shape after the novel’s publication and two new writers were brought in to develop the romance and in doing so to move further away from the ‘real’ events. Much of the film was shot in the Czech Republic and the film is very much a European co-production with important German involvement through producer Malte Grunert.
Since the film has now been given a wide release in the UK, it has been widely reviewed and I’m not going to use my space here to repeat many of the comments. Most reviewers come to the same conclusion – that despite the potential of the situation and the characters’ interaction, the film doesn’t really generate the emotion that might be expected. I’m afraid I have to agree. The word that kept coming into my head when watching it was ‘bloodless’ which seems strange for a drama set in the rubble, but there you are. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bad film’. It’s well-made, possibly too well-made with the costumes and the decor of the house sometimes overwhelming the tensions of the living arrangements. The three leads all give good performances and I was impressed by Jason Clarke in particular. I kept wondering where I’d seen him before (he has made several big budget American films) and it wasn’t until later that I realised it was in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002). Few would recognise him as coming from Queensland in this role.
Glasgow Film Festival programmed the film as part of the ‘Local Heroes’ strand – celebrating Scottish contributions to cinema. James Kent told us that he had family connections in Paisley and was glad to be in Glasgow, but I presume that the only Scottish contribution came via fourth-billed Martin Compston who plays an intelligence officer, a hard and hard-drinking man. Not Compston’s finest moment I feel. The character didn’t work for me and I’m usually a big admirer.
The Q&A that followed was in some ways more interesting for me that the film itself. On the whole, the people who stayed for the session (the majority of the audience, I think) appeared to have enjoyed themselves. A couple of Germans in the audience commented favourably on the representation of Germans in the film and others said how interesting it was to focus on this period. It’s easy to forget that for most people under 60(?) this is not a history that will be familiar. One questioner asked about the balance between the romance and the historical/political back story. James Kent admitted that the production team had discussed this and opted for the romance. The questioner said they would have liked more ‘history’. Kent replied that some audiences might be ‘bored’ by the history. So there we have it. Actually, a bit more history might have created a bit more drama. As it is the history sub-plot (involving the daughter and a young Nazi ‘guerilla’) doesn’t quite work as well as it might. This was an educated audience and someone mentioned Lore (Germany-Australia-UK 2012) as a film set in the same period. Kent agreed and suggested Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015) on which Malte Grunert was a producer. I refrained from asking whether the production team had looked at German ‘rubble films’ (Trümmerfilme) both from the late 1940s and at various times since. These were mostly set in Berlin, I think, but they might have informed a film set in Hamburg.
I think James Kent was probably considered a ‘safe’ choice to direct the film and in the sense that he has made several major TV films and series as well as the adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth in 2014, that’s probably a reasonable judgement by Fox Searchlight in funding the film. As one of the American reviews suggests, the film will work well on rainy afternoons as a TV or cinema matinée, but it could have been much more. On the other hand, audiences may prove that to be too conservative a view and if the film introduces just a little history alongside the costumes and the tasteful sex scenes that might be a good thing.
George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 – an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.
Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.
Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:
“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”
Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.
No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.