Tagged: Second World War

Against the Wind (UK 1948)

Eagle-Lion’s US poster

This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.

Simone Signoret

As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later,  in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.

Robert Beatty as the priest meeting James Robertson Justice as the Head of Section

The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Hawkins), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.

Michèle (Signoret) meets Duncan (Gordon Jackson) who shows off his sabotage gadgets

The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.

The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.

John Slater (Emile) and Jack Warner (Max) ready for their parachute jump into Belgian territory

Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.

Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.

In the Fog (V tumane, Germany-Netherlands-Belarus-Russia-Latvia 2012)

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No way out

It’s not surprising that the non-propaganda war films that came out of the Soviet Union, and come out of the former Soviet Union (in this instance Belarus), are particularly brutal in their representations. As The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich details, the reality of war was virtually unimaginable depravity and, as the eastern European war was particularly a territorial battle, it was a fertile ground for ‘hell on earth’. British and American movies, at least, tend to emphasise heroism and, in the case of the former, contribute to the myth of British exceptionalism; a myth that’s been shown for what it’s worth during the current pandemic. Indeed, the recent VE day celebrations erased the Soviet contribution as if they had never been allies. The extreme right wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, even called the day ‘Victory over Europe’ somewhat ironic as, before the war, it was on the side of Hitler and no doubt would be today.

Director Sergey Loznitsa adapted Vasily Bykov’s novel which focuses on the consequences of an act of sabotage against the occupying Nazis. It was Loznitsa’s second film as director; he’s probably better known for Maidan (Ukraine-Netherlands, 2014) that documented the uprising in the Ukraine. In the Fog did compete for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and although the tension sags occasionally it’s a fascinating film (available until May 23 on the Kino Klassika website).

The film’s narrative unveils itself through a series of flashbacks (although there is one scene that I cannot fit into the narrative at all; I must have missed something) that piece together how we come to the opening situation where Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a partisan, has come to punish Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). This is preceded by a virtuoso long take, hand held camera through the village where the Nazis are staging an execution. The characters are taciturn, seemingly doing ‘what a man’s got to do’; what is striking about Alexievich’s book is how different the women she interviewed dealt with their war experiences compared to men who had sunk into silence. Sushenya, even though he does eventually explain what happened, knows that words are useless and he’s as trapped as Josef K is in The Trial.

Oleg Mutu’s cinematography captures to glorious beauty of the forest but I found the night time scenes less credible. Other than the uncinematic virtual darkness, night time in the countryside is incredibly hard to film; however, even taking that into account, I kept expecting to see an arc light appear in the scene: it was distracting.

That didn’t distract from the power of the film and its central metaphor: the fog of war. In Errol Morris’ documentary of that title (full title: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, US, 2003) the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War candidly explained his reasoning for the brutality of war. Whether you agreed with him or not probably depends upon your political orientation but the fog our protagonists deal with is not abstract, they are in it. In the UK, many on the right are telling teachers to ‘be brave’ and go back to school (Private Schools, which the elite attend, are shut until September): keyboard warriors happy to have others take the risk. In the Fog firmly places the spectator in the nightmare ensuring the film speaks to our emotions.

Portrait from Life (UK 1949)

This was the first film under Mai Zetterling’s seven-year contract with Rank. I was delighted to find it being shown on Talking Pictures TV since Ms Zetterling’s career is one of my possible future projects. She started as a film actor when still at the National Theatre School in Stockholm as a teenager and her first film role was in Torment (Sweden 1944) written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Alf Sjöberg. More Swedish films followed including one directed by Bergman, but in 1947 she appeared in the titular role in Frieda, the Ealing Studios melodrama about a young German woman brought back to England by an RAF officer (David Farrar). Frieda was a prestigious production directed by Basil Dearden who had travelled to Stockholm to see Mai Zetterling in 1945.

A Rank publicity photo of Mai Zetterling from the late 1940s.

Portrait from Life was released in the UK in January 1949. Confusingly it had at least two other titles. In the US I think it was called The Girl in the Painting or The Lost Daughter and it had various titles in different European territories. Mai Zetterling was not happy because her role was so similar to that in Frieda. She was again a young German woman, this time in a ‘Displacement Camp’ in Germany in the British Zone after 1945. There is a theory that audiences might not have accepted a German actor in the lead for these films. Zetterling worried about typecasting – though her first Gainsborough role had been a few months earlier in one of the Somerset Maugham stories in Quartet in which she plays a wealthy young woman in a Monte Carlo casino. Portrait from Life begins with a British Major (Guy Rolfe) back in London on leave only to discover he has been jilted by his girlfriend. Taking refuge in an art gallery he is transfixed by a painting of a young woman named Hildegarde. He is joined by an older man who is similarly transfixed and claims that the girl is his daughter he was forced to leave behind in Austria when he escaped the Nazis. But he claims the girl’s name is Lydia. Major Lawrence and Professor Menzel (Arnold Marlé) discover that the painting was submitted to the exhibition by a Canadian artist (Robert Beatty) who visited a camp in Germany while still serving in the forces. But Lawrence and the Professor aren’t going to get any more information from him. Lawrence returns to Hanover but still has leave owing and gets permission to visit the various camps looking for the girl. When he eventually finds her a series of flashbacks are required to explain how the portrait came about. A dramatic finale ensues.

A studio promo photo, the actual scene has back projection of the woods around the camp. Robert Beatty is the artist.

There are several interesting aspects of the film’s production. It was directed by a young Terence Fisher – his third feature as a director after a career as a film editor in the 1930s. Fisher would go on to become a celebrated director at Hammer Films with many horror film credits. He makes a decent fist of this film. The film was mainly shot in Gainsborough’s small Islington studio with some location footage in Germany and a visit to a displaced persons camp in the South of England. Scattered throughout the cast are a number of familiar faces in small parts – Thora Hird, Sam Kydd, Pete Murray, Donald Sinden and a young Anthony Steel all appear. The other leading cast members include Patrick Holt and Herbert Lom as the man in the camp masquerading as Lydia’s father. There were in fact several actors in the cast who were German-speaking and the film does feature both English and German dialogue quite convincingly. I do wonder if this was more common in films in the immediate post-war period.

From left, Guy Rolfe, Herbert Lom, Mai Zetterling with the doll and Patrick Holt in the foreground

The film received a good mini review in Film Review of 1949 and in David Quinlan’s British Sound Films. Despite Mai Zetterling’s worries about being typecast, she became popular with British audiences. I’ve seen a review suggesting that the dramatic final scenes overwhelm the detailed investigation that went before. I don’t agree with this. I think that David Evans’ original story and the script developed by Muriel and Sydney Box and Frank Harvey manage to offer an insight into the long and difficult process of dealing with displacement and that the drama probably matched what happened in some cases. Perhaps it is exaggerated but it doesn’t derail the narrative.

The Train (France-Italy-US 1964)

Michel Simon as driver Boule and Burt Lancaster as Labiche

There are plenty of films that feature train journeys, several where the whole narrative takes place on a train, but the number of films that combine an exciting narrative and involve every aspect of railway operation is very small. The Train not only fulfils those criteria but it is also brilliantly performed, photographed and directed. 1964 is around the peak period of ‘Hollywood in Europe’ when American money helped fund films that were both co-produced with European film industries and used European crews and actors. The film is an adaptation of a French memoir, Le front de l’art by Rose Valland. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the story of this remarkable woman. Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis wrote a screenplay loosely based on Valland’s book and several other writers also contributed. IMDb implies that the film may have had a separate French version, presumably dubbed as the dialogue is almost entirely in English with some German, despite the use of French actors.

Paul Scofield as Colonel von Waldheim

The narrative deals with the short period in August 1944 when the German command in Paris realised that the Allies would reach the capital within days. Plans were quickly made to send armaments and men back to Germany by train despite the danger posed by Allied air attacks. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has his own plans to send to Germany the stolen artworks he has been guarding in a Paris Museum. Mlle. Millard (Suzanne Flon) who has catalogued all the works informs the Résistance, pleading that the train must be delayed but not damaged. She emphasises the importance of France’s ‘artistic heritage’. The man who has the skills to organise a complex résistance plan is Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the Paris ‘yardmaster’ and effective controller of the line. At first he is reluctant to risk the lives of résistance fighters and undercover workers as well as the ‘civilians’ who may be killed in reprisals. But eventually he is convinced by the argument and creates a highly complex plan that will involve dozens of railway workers across Northern France. I won’t spoil the clever tricks played on the German guards on the train.

Labiche’s view in the Paris yards

Planned ‘accidents’ are one way of delaying the train’s progress to Berlin

This is a long film (133 mins) but the energy levels never drop and the film is spectacular in its use of landscape and railway infrastructure and locos etc. As long as younger audiences can get over the fact that it is in black and white and in the European ‘widescreen’ format of 1.66:1, everyone should enjoy the film – remember though that it is a résistance film and there are many deaths as well as victories for the rail workers. Director John Frankenheimer, though he emerged from US TV, initially as an actor, built a career which focused on large scale action pictures – often in a European setting. He also worked with Burt Lancaster on several films. Lancaster himself was a frequent visitor to Europe, making films in the UK and Italy as well as France. Paul Scofield offers a relatively early example of a Brit chosen to portray a Nazi Colonel with arrogance and an obsession about getting these artworks to Berlin. Elsewhere, however, the film offers us the great Michel Simon as an engine-driver close to retirement, Jeanne Moreau (as entrancing as always) as the proprietor of a ‘station hotel’ and Albert Rémy as Labiche’s right-hand man. The film is photographed by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz and music is by Michel Jarre.

The narrative contrives the meeting of Labiche and the hotel manager, but when it’s Jeanne Moreau, we should be grateful

I saw this film on release in 1964 and though I didn’t remember the details of the plot, I do remember the impact it made on me, sitting in the stalls of Blackpool’s cavernous 3,000 seat Odeon. It would be good to see it on the big screen again. Once you’ve seen it, you should also look out for René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (France 1946) which tells the story of the sabotage of the railways by résistance groups in a neo-realist style soon after the events themselves.

In the clip below, Labiche has managed to sabotage the train and halt it, but an Allied air raid is due and his men must paint the roofs of carriages white to warn the bombers not to destroy the paintings.

The Foreman Went to France (UK 1942)

Fred and Anne with the machines in the French factory

The programming on Talking Pictures TV coupled with the availability of Ealing Studios titles in Network’s ‘Rarities’ DVD series now makes it more possible to trace the rapid changes in approaches to British propaganda films during the early part of the Second World War. It’s a very long time since I’ve seen The Foreman Went to France and I’m very grateful for this recent broadcast.

Ealing boss Michael Balcon had a distinctive attitude towards supporting the war effort, represented visually by the end credits of Ealing films in 1942 which proclaimed their national identity against a full screen image of a fluttering Union Jack. Balcon did take into Ealing two of the most significant members of the 1930s documentary movement, Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt, but the others went to Pinewood. Up to 1942, the Ealing films that attempted to be supportive of the war effort were still imbued with the 1930s middle-class, ‘West End theatre’ ethos (with the exception of Pen Tennyson’s The Proud Valley (1940) or conversely with the comedies featuring first George Formby  and then Will Hay. Cavalcanti’s first input was to the transitionary film The Big Blockade (1942) directed by Charles Frend in his first directorial role after ten years as an editor on a string of important films, The Big Blockade was a move in the right direction but is still an uncomfortable film to watch. It deserves a post of its own on the blog. Frend followed it up with The Foreman Went to France. It was from this point that realist elements began to figure more prominently in Ealing’s output. Cavalcanti was ‘Associate Producer’ with an onscreen credit. Also notable about the production was the editing of Robert Hamer, Wilkie Cooper’s camerawork and music by William Walton.

The Foreman Went to France is inspired by a ‘real’ character, Melbourne Johns. The film begins in 1942 with an onscreen date (the release date was April 1942) and a munitions factory about to experience an air raid. While the workers are sent to the shelter, the shopfloor foreman (‘Fred Carrick’ played by Clifford Evans) decides to go up to the roof and watch the raid. When the searchlights reveal that a German raider has been downed by a British nightfighter he comments to the fire watchers that it was likely that the cannon shells came from the factory below. The rest of the narrative is then one long flashback to June 1940 when the foreman, as he then was, went to France largely under his own initiative to bring back three new machines for manufacturing shells that the company had lent to the French.

Fred and Anne and Anne with the two squaddies, Tommy and Jock

Evans had been a theatre actor in the 1930s and had appeared in several major films, headlining with Deborah Kerr in Love on the Dole (1941) and Penn of Pennsylvania (1942). He’d made just one Ealing film before, The Proud Valley. In 1943 he disappears from film credits. I believe he was a conscientious objector and perhaps he joined the Non-Combatant Corps? He returned to the screen in 1947. He didn’t seem to mind using a gun in this film and I thought he was very good in the role, marking the Ealing shift to more ‘capable’ men (in this case Welsh) rather than the effete officer class of the earlier war films. Fred has to use his wit and charm to find the factory in Northern France and then to find a means of transporting the equipment to the coast. He finds an American woman still in the factory after its evacuation by the French in the face of the German advance. This is Anne, played by Constance Cummings who had been in the UK since 1934. Anne speaks French and knows what’s what. Fred also discovers a pair of squaddies from the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) clearly lost with a lorry and a consignment of curry powder. These two are played by the Cockney comedian Tommy Trinder (an Ealing contract player and the ostensible star of the film) and a young scot (Gordon Jackson in his first credited film role – he would go on to become an Ealing regular). Before this quartet can get to know each other they have to skedaddle as local French fascists led by the mayor (Robert Morley) are also after the machines.

The rest of the narrative follows the quartet as they try to reach the coast. In their way are large numbers of refugees blocking the roads, more ‘Fifth Columnists’/local fascists, the remnants of the French Army and the Germans.  It was the journey that I remembered from viewings forty years ago. I thought the quartet worked well together. The presence of Gordon Jackson and the developing relationship between ‘Foreman Fred’ and the American woman summon up the successful later film about munitions factories, Millions Like Us (1943) with Eric Portman as the foreman and Anne Crawford as the upper middle-class factory worker. Jackson plays a young airman who marries Patricia Roc, the lower middle-class factory girl. JB Priestley, the Bradford novelist wrote both original stories so perhaps it’s not a surprise. Trinder stands out against the other three in The Foreman went to France and Charles Barr in his book Ealing Studios comes down on Trinder and isn’t that impressed with Evans either. Trinder does have a different register, but it worked for me and I’ve already praised Evans. It’s also worth noting that Diana Morgan had a supporting role on the script and this was partly an inspiration for the recent under-rated Their Finest (2016) with Gemma Arterton as a wartime screenwriter.

The film was mostly shot in Cornwall doubling for the terrain of Western France and the credits acknowledge the help of the Free French Forces. The attacks by German fighters and dive bombers on the refugees on the road remain the most impressive scenes for me and the increasing realism of the major sequences is carried through in the succeeding two films of the loose trilogy of hard-hitting ‘warning films’ about loose talk and Fifth Columnists, Next of Kin and Went the Day Well.

Here are two short clips of the quartet (uploaded as two scenes with Constance Cummings smoking!):

World on Fire (UK 2019)

Harry Chase (JONAH HAUER-KING), Kasia Tomaszeski (ZOFIA WICHLAZ) © Mammoth Screen, Photographer: Gareth Gatrell

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?

Julia Brown as Lois, a working-class young woman in Manchester

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.

Sean Bean and Lesley Manville as the two single parents awaiting news at home

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.

Two BAME actors get parts as RAF personnel in this scene

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’: