Tagged: Second World War

GFF19 #6: The Aftermath (UK-Germany-US-Czech Republic 2019)

A typical melodrama composition suggests that Rachael (Keira Knightley) is trapped by memories and challenged by desire

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.

Herr Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) welcomes Rachael and Colonel Lewis (Jason Clarke) to his house

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.

This Russian poster (also used for Asian territories) suggests a wartime romance familiar in those territories?

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.

Get Cracking (UK 1943)

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George Formby always has the last laugh

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.

The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965)

Film titling sometimes proves difficult. When this film appeared in 1965 I wasn’t able to see it, but I do remember being baffled by the title. I didn’t know then that Telemark was a region of Norway and I don’t think I recognised that this was a Second World War film. It’s now on BBC iPlayer in the UK in what seems to be roughly the correct ratio and I’m glad I caught up with it as there are several intriguing aspects of the production.

Today many people outside Norway are likely to be aware that Telemark is an important tourist destination in Southern Norway for both sightseeing and walking/ski-ing holidays in the ancient upland region. The town of Rjukan where the film is set has been a tourist destination for a long time but in the 1930s it was best known for its fertiliser production and its hydro-electric power station. Norwegian scientists and engineers produced ‘heavy water’ as part of the power plant’s operation and this became an important part of the development of atomic weapons in World War Two. When the Nazis invaded Norway and took control of the plant in 1940 it became imperative for the Allies to prevent that heavy water production from enabling German military scientists to produce an atomic bomb. Several different acts of sabotage by Norwegian resistance fighters and bombing and commando raids from the UK achieved the Allies’ aims between 1940 and 1943. This film condenses these different military operations into a single sustained action. In this sense, the narrative fits the ‘based on real events’ type of film production. On a trivia note, Telemark was also the home region of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who collaborated and became puppet leader of Occupied Norway between 1942 and 1945. ‘Quisling’ later became a general term for any kind of collaborator. There are several collaborator figures in the film, at least one of whom is called a ‘quisling’.

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas as the leaders of the saboteurs

Watching the film in 2019 it now appears in the context of the range of relatively recent local film productions in countries that experienced Occupation, and therefore both ‘Resistance’ and ‘Collaboration’, after 1939. We’ve been interested in these films on this blog, not least because several of them have were major productions attracting large local audiences. The key film here is Max Manus (Norway-Den-Ger 2008) which deals with a group of Norwegian Resistance fighters who sabotage shipping. It’s helpful to use this film as a benchmark to consider how The Heroes of Telemark stands up. The later film is named after the real-life hero of a group of fighters. The central character of The Heroes of Telemark, at least initially, is ‘Knut Strand’ played by Richard Harris. Strand may be based on the historical figure Knut Haukelid, born in New York to Norwegian parents, but back in Norway as an infant from 1914. Haukelid wrote his biography in 1947 and then appeared in a 1948 Norwegian-French film Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, which was a major success in France (and presumably Norway). Haukelid played himself in what was a drama-documentary. He was a military hero and, like Max Manus, a member of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, Norwegians who trained with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in Scotland and returned to Norway to undertake sabotage. There was a second Knut in the group, Knut Haugland, born in Rjukan and later part of the Kon-Tiki expedition with Thor Heyerdahl. The two Knuts were involved in separate missions, both of which were ‘rolled up’ into the single narrative of the film. Rather than a recent feature film production, the various sabotage activities became the basis for a six part TV series in 2015 produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as a co-production with Danish and British partners and titled The Saboteurs in the UK where it was shown on More4 and is now available on DVD. Knut Haughland also appears in a UK television documentary film The Real Heroes of Telemark (2003) made by the BBC. I don’t think Haughland was impressed by the 1965 film.

The Heroes of Telemark is one of several bigger budget Second World War films produced in the mid-1960s (following on from the major success of The Guns of Navarone (1961)) and IMDb suggests that in some territories it was blown up from its 35mm ‘Scope (Panavision) print to a 1:2.20 presentation in 70mm (but only Mono sound). It is sometimes described as an ‘epic’ and the Hollywood director Anthony Mann had previously directed El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The main puzzle about the film is the production company ‘Benton Film Productions’. I can’t find anything about this company which only seems to be mentioned in relation to this film. Did Rank stump up all the money? Did much of it come from Hollywood? The film was made on location in Norway and at Pinewood. Rank distributed it in major European territories and Columbia in North America. With a budget of $US5.6 million the production needed international stars so Harris was joined by Kirk Douglas as a Norwegian University Professor who is persuaded by Harris to join the group. The professor then turns out to be an ‘action hero’ and gradually takes over the lead position. The rest of the cast mainly comprises well-known British character actors with the exception of Michael Redgrave and the Swedish star Ulla Jacobsson. The film was shot by Robert Krasker with music by Malcolm Arnold, so it’s a quality production.

Composition and lighting pick out Kirk Douglas who seems to ‘command’ the narrative

In his book on British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000), Robert Murphy suggests that Douglas is initially an ‘irritating character’ but that he provides a focus for the narrative drive. I think Murphy makes a reasonable argument. Kirk Douglas as a professor is indeed irritating but his star presence and dynamism can’t be denied. He does pull us through the various scenes and the 120 mins plus speeds by. Having said that, he wears a blue anorak which makes him immediately visible and recognisable, unlike the other saboteurs, and he is older than the others. Richard Harris is relatively subdued by comparison. The Douglas casting seems to me to identify the dilemma for an international ‘epic’ rather than a local feature. Although a film like Max Manus has a central heroic figure, we remember the other characters as well – partly because they were boyhood friends. What is also missing in the 1965 film is any kind of training sequence in the UK. Such sequences often help to introduce the members of the team. Instead, Douglas emerges as the leader, although he has no training at all. The Norwegian Company comprised SOE-trained operatives – the Douglas character should be just the scientific adviser. The script is by Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman, two experienced Hollywood writers with many credits including well-known large-scale films. Both men were of the left with Moffat from a distinguished British artistic family and Barzman a Canadian who left Hollywood during the HUAC/McCarthy period alongside Joe Losey. He had a long working relationship with Anthony Mann, working on both the El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. The IMDb credits suggest that the books Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid and But for These Men (1962) by John Drummond provided source material.

The real Norwegian SOE saboteurs back in the UK after their Telemark raids, the figure top right is Birger Stromsheim, the oldest member of the team at 31. He was one of the last survivors when he died in 2012.

The film benefits enormously from being filmed in the real location and the ski chases are spectacular. In 70mm on a big screen I think it would be very entertaining. On TV it is diminished but still worth watching. Telemark is definitely a tourist destination I will consider (assuming the pound sterling will buy any very expensive kroner after Brexit). I realise that I haven’t said anything about Anthony Mann. Mann’s status within film scholarship was based on his early thrillers and particularly his ‘psychological Westerns’ in the 1950s starring James Stewart. In his 1969 book Horizons West, Jim Kitses begins his section on Anthony Mann’s films by arguing that Mann’s ‘personal’ films all focus on an individual who feels compelled to take on insurmountable odds as if he is driven by forces inside himself that he cannot control. Kitses’ second point is that Mann was an early pioneer of location work on Hollywood pictures in the 1940s and that this carried on into his Westerns. It could be argued that the same interest in ‘driven’ heroic characters carried on into the 1960s ‘epics’. Certainly there are elements of Mann’s personal approach in The Heroes of Telemark and these make the film into a successful conventional narrative film. But perhaps something is also lost about the group/community resistance work?

The Demi-Paradise (UK 1943)

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When wearing an Astrakhan hat was meant to signify a good thing

The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.

Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).

Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.

The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.

Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).

The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.

LIFF#12: During One Night (UK 1961)

David (Don Borisenko) and Jean (Susan Hampshire)

The retrospective programme in Leeds this year focused on time-restricted narratives – ‘Time Frames’. Among some interesting East European films from the 1960s and early 1970s was this odd little film by Canadian director Sidney J. Furie. After a couple of directing jobs in Canadian film and TV, Furie had arrived in the UK hoping for bigger and better films. But first he wrote and directed this 85 minute B+W drama which received an ‘X’ Certificate from the British Board of Film Censorship. It was made at Walton Studio in Surrey for Gala films, the company belonging to Kenneth Rive, best known for bringing foreign language films into the UK. My assumption is that it was intended as a ‘programme filler’ for Rive’s European films, many of which were X-rated, as well as some of the adult dramas finally beginning to appear from British studios. The BBFC website suggests that the film was cut to receive an ‘X’ which is quite bewildering. The version we saw (on 35mm film) displayed the X Certificate but was definitely cut as there is at least one still available from a scene which wasn’t in our print.

David’s overnight stay in the village prompts the USAAF to send an officer (Sean Sullivan) to look for him

So you might be wondering what this X film is about. The time frame is less than 24 hours, beginning when a USAAF daylight bombing raid is over Europe about to drop its bombs. The co-pilot is hit by German anti-aircraft and David the young Captain pilot steers the bomber back to the UK. He has just one more mission before he can return home and his crew determine to help him lose his virginity (he’s 21) before that last flight. David’s anxiety increases when he learns that though the co-pilot has recovered in hospital, the shrapnel has castrated him. What follows is a psychological drama spread over a night in the local village. At its centre is David’s encounter with Jean, the daughter of the pub landlady.

The lurid British poster focuses on the prostitute procured by David’s crew

Furie appears to have recruited all the young Canadians he could find in London to play the American airmen. Most of them are fine with just the occasional Toronto vowel showing through, but the lead role of the Captain is played by Don Berisenko, a young man who clearly modelled himself on James Dean and here spends much of his time with his uniform cap pulled low over his eyes and with along wild hand gestures and body movements. Fortunately, his main scenes are with Susan Hampshire as Jean, a couple of years older than him but playing younger. She counters his method acting with something much calmer and quieter but more effective. The script plays with the moral code of the period which was severely tested under wartime conditions. Eventually human feeling prevails, though in a sense the narrative resolution is ‘open’ as to what happened to the ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ afterwards.

A less sensationalist poster

I found the dialogue in the opening scenes on board the aircraft risible but the script improved and if I’d been presented in a cinema with this in 1960 as the ‘B’ picture I would have been quite happy. I’m struggling to work out what would have needed to be cut for an X but then the BBFC’s decisions often baffle me. Researching the film after the screening I discovered that the film has been broadcast several times on Talking Pictures TV, but only in graveyard slots at 01.00 or 02.00 in the morning. If it is listed again I might record it to check out the cuts.

The Cruel Sea (UK 1953)

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The mental scars of war

As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.

Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.

Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.

The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.

The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.

The Silver Fleet (UK 1943)

The American poster for The Silver Fleet distributed by PRC – Producer’s Releasing Corporation

The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.

The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.

The wonderful Kathleen Byron tells the tale of Piet Hein . . .

The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).

. . . and the equally wonderful Googie Withers

Charles Victor (left) and Joss Ackland play shipyard workers who discover a messages from ‘P.H.’ written on the lens of a pair of goggles

I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.

Ralph Richardson as Jaap van Leyden looks over the yard where his submarines are built

The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.

The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.

The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.

The Weaker Sex (UK 1948)

Cecil Parker as Commander Radcliffe and Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane during the lead-up to D-Day

This is another gem from Talking Pictures TV that I’d never heard of before. It’s an intriguing film given the year of its release and its narrative that covers the period from a few days before D-Day in 1944 to the time of the film’s release in 1948. It’s therefore a ‘Home Front’ film covering both the last years of the war and the first three years of peace – and austerity. The continuous theme is about dealing with rationing and attempts to run a home. Not surprising then, the central character is Martha Crane, a middle-class woman in her 40s, widowed and living in her large family house on the south coast near Portsmouth with her two grown-up daughters, both Wrens. Their young brother is in the Navy, serving in the same ship as his older sister’s husband. The spare rooms in the house are occupied by a shore-based naval commander and a young army sergeant (who has quickly developed a relationship with the younger sister). The film opens with the arrival of an agency ‘Mrs Mopp’ hired to relieve Martha of some of the housework. As this character list suggests, the story is based on a stage play by Esther McCracken with the title No Medals.

The playwright Esther McCracken.

I’m surprised that this film does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. (It’s not mentioned in Robert Murphy’s book about British films and the Second World War.) The film’s title is clearly ironic and in that sense is a nod towards The Gentle Sex (1943), the comedy drama about young women coming forward for various kinds of military service. It also sits alongside Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) with its focus on families moving from peace-time into war – though it is the only film of its kind, that I know of, moving from wartime into peace. The film, like the original play before it, seems to have been popular at the box office and given the interest of feminist film scholars in the woman’s picture and home front melodramas of the 1940s, I can only conclude that the film has been unavailable. Now it is free to watch on Bfi Player (only in the UK). The film is also interesting in terms of British film history. It is a ‘Two Cities’ production made at D&P studios (Pinewood). Two Cities was one of the production companies operating under the Rank funding umbrella. It was one of the companies generally expected to provide the ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions with the genre films left to Gainsborough and, t0  lesser extent, Ealing. But this function of Two Cities was usually covered by Filippo Del Giudice, the company’s founder. The Weaker Sex is produced by Paul Soskin, a Russian-born producer. It doesn’t appear to have had a particularly large budget, but the cast is strong with Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane and Cecil Parker as the naval commander. Thora Hird is the Mrs Mopp character, Mrs Gaye (‘Mrs Mopp’ was a character in the radio comedy programme ITMA and soon became a popular way to refer to ‘cleaning ladies’). Lana Morris, who would go on to become a familiar face in British films of the 1950s is the younger daughter. Rank contract players such as Bill Owen and Gladys Henson also appear and I spotted Eleanor Summerfield as a bus conductor. The film was the second directed by Roy Baker and it was photographed by Erwin Hillier, already with a high reputation after his work with Powell and Pressburger on A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).

Back to days on the beach after the war

Cecil Parker is excellent as the Commander, offering that seemingly bumbling exterior beneath which a sharp mind and a calm authority can ‘get on with the job’. Ursula Jeans was married to Roger Livesey and the couple appeared together in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). In The Weaker Sex she plays a role that Celia Johnson might have played if the film had been directed by David Lean. The film’s title is ironic and Martha has real strength that no doubt added to the appeal of the film at the UK box office. The focus on Martha (and her daughters) is also important in pointing towards the pressure they feel to contribute to the war effort. Martha feels she hasn’t done enough but the film’s narrative demonstrates the importance of her wartime role on the ‘Home Front’. Whether the audience felt the same about her struggles with rationing after the war was over is another question. I must try to find other films like this.