The BBC has deposited another tranche of its RKO titles on iPlayer in the UK to enable us to entertain ourselves under lockdown. It’s a mixed bag but I haven’t seen any of them before and I’m always grateful for films without ads. I plumped for Yellow Canary which promised an interesting cast in a Herbert Wilcox production, released in the UK and the US through RKO. I’ve noted before on this blog that Wilcox was arguably the UK producer-director who attracted the largest audiences in the late 1940s for films most often built around the star performances of his partner Anna Neagle. The couple married in August 1943 soon after this film finished shooting. I think I’ve previously avoided quite a few of the couple’s films because the subject matter didn’t appeal but this is another rarity, a wartime spy thriller which isn’t a biopic (like Odette (1950)) and in which Anna Neagle is perceived as a villain.
This is an odd film in some ways, adapted from a story by P.M. Bower with a screenplay by British writer Miles Malleson and the American writer DeWitt Bodeen, who is possibly best known as the writer of Cat People (US 1942) and two other titles for Val Lewton at RKO. The explanation for this is that Wilcox and Neagle were working with RKO in the US in 1940-42 before coming back to the UK. The narrative of Yellow Canary is actually set in September 1940, meaning that the film had a slightly ‘looking back’ feel in 1944 when most audiences saw it. This is evident for me with the constant propaganda messages about ‘careless talk’ etc., much of it involving a character played by Margaret Lockwood. Such ‘warning’ films were more common in the early part of the war. Anna Neagle plays Sally Maitland, a ‘girl’ from a well-off military family who was in Germany pre-war and seems to be still favouring the Germans even after a year of the war. Her character is perhaps inspired by the ‘Mitford girls’. The six girls of that ‘real’ aristocratic family included Diana who was a fascist, the partner of Oswald Mosley, and who was interned during the war. Unity Mitford was attracted to Hitler and attempted suicide soon after war was declared. The film narrative suggests that Sally Maitland is pro-fascist but not dangerous enough to intern, especially as she is intending to leave for exile in Canada. Her parents and her younger sister Betty (an underused Nova Pilbeam), who has joined the Wrens, are glad to see her leave. They don’t know that she has been behaving suspiciously in a London flat where a man has been killed and attempts have been made to signal to German bombers. But British intelligence is watching her and when she boards a train to Liverpool she is followed by Commander Garrick of Naval Intelligence (Richard Greene) in civilian disguise.
The passage to Canada on a modest steamer sees Sally meeting Captain Orlock (Albet Lieven, a Polish officer who has escaped from Warsaw and is making the same trip to meet up with his mother in Canada. Is Sally a Nazi spy and is Orlock in danger? What does Garrick know? The final section of the film is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia where these questions are resolved. Note the exhortations in the film poster above. Years before Hitchcock and Psycho, audiences are advised to watch from the beginning and to avoid knowing the ending in advance. In 1943 screenings might have been in a ‘continuous programme’ with audiences entering a screening at any point.
I can’t quite make my mind up about this film. Anna Neagle is a strong performer and believable as a hard fascist character (though some of the actions and re-actions around her are harder to take). Richard Greene is more problematic for me because I haven’t seen anything of his work in Hollywood or British films up to this point. For me he has always been Robin Hood in the 1950s TV series. I’ve seen a suggestion that his good looks saw him rivalling Tyrone Power as a handsome action lead for 20th Century Fox. But in 1940 he had returned to the UK and enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps which released him to make propaganda pictures like this one on three separate occasions. His post-war career didn’t meet the success he perhaps deserved but 144 episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood imprinted his action hero image on a generation of British children (the shows were broadcast from the start of ITV in 1955). Yellow Canary is generally well made at Denham with some atmospheric cinematography by Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and it is quite pacey and engaging.
Somehow, however, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like the other similar wartime spy thrillers and I have to agree with Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in 1943 (who calls it a ‘spy melodrama’) that although the script is ingenious, it invites a comparison with Hitchcock’s spy films and suffers as a result. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Sally and Garrick have to work together in the end. The idea that they don’t trust each other and that they might have things to hide recalls Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps (1935). The script for Yellow Canary doesn’t really exploit the potential of this relationship. All spy films by their very nature test the audience’s credibility threshold but in this case the script goes too far. My comparison would be with Michael Powell’s films written by Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940). Powell & Pressburger (who joined to become ‘The Archers’) also produced 49th Parallel (1941), one of the best propaganda films ever made by UK filmmakers which was made entirely in Canada under wartime conditions before the Americans joined the Allies. There are some parallels between Yellow Canary and 49th Parallel, especially in the focus on the vulnerability of the Canadian Atlantic coast to penetration by U-boats. But The Archers films are far more exciting, and plausible, I think. I’m intrigued that Anna Neagle played opposite a much younger leading man. There seem to be some doubts about Richard Greene’s birth date but he is at least nine years younger and by most accounts thirteen years younger than Anna Neagle. It says a great deal about Anna Neagle’s status that such casting was possible in 1943 and she presents as a much younger woman. Would it happen today without any notice? I’m not suggesting it is a problem, just trying to understand how the film industry was then.
A trivia note to close on: it was interesting to see Cyril Fletcher in one of his first film roles. At the beginning of the film he is in effect playing himself as a swanky night-club entertainer, delivering waspish short pieces, one of which has Sally as its target. He became one of the first ‘celebrity TV entertainers’ in the 1950s.
This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.
It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.
The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.
The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.
IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.
René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.
This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.
Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!
The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.
This is the second of my ‘Home Front’ study texts, following Another Time, Another Place. The Land Girls was quite a high-profile release in 1998 (a reported £6 million budget – double the UK median budget at the time) with a number of special screenings set up for former members of the ‘Women’s Land Army’ in the Second World War. It is one of several TV and film representations of ‘Land Girls’ and was based on a 1995 novel by Angela Huth, who was one of the writers of the adaptation alongside director David Leland. I enjoyed the film on release and used it on an evening class. I was disappointed by the general lack of interest from critics which I put down to its use of comedy within a melodrama structure. Critics generally don’t rate comedy (unless the films are extremely popular) and many British critics don’t really understand melodrama at all.
The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1941 a Dorset farmer, John Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), is being pressurised by Ministry officials to increase his output during wartime. He eventually agrees to pay a fee to receive three Land Girls and the film begins with their arrival. We quickly realise that two of the ‘girls’ (they are all in their twenties), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack) are experienced and have known each other for some time. They have worked to get this posting so that Stella can be near Southampton where her Navy boyfriend is stationed. The third and younger woman, Prue (Anna Friel) is new to farm work and reveals herself to be a hairdresser from Manchester (a third of Land Girls in the 1940s were from cities). The mixed farm has plenty of work and Joe (Stephen Mackintosh), the farmer’s son, plans to join the RAF to train as a pilot. He hasn’t been conscripted because farming is a ‘reserved occupation’. Though he has a fiancée in the WAAF, Joe is a young man (he’s actually older than the three ‘girls’) who proves attractive to all three Land Girls for different reasons.
David Leland has had a long career as actor, writer and director. He’s probably best known as the director of Wish You Were Here (UK 1987), a joyful and provocative film about a young girl’s ‘awakening’ in a 1950s seaside town starring Emily Lloyd and earlier as the writer of a trio of TV films about youth and education. In 1986 he wrote the hit film Mona Lisa. I think some of the sheer vitality and of those earlier works is evident in The Land Girls. The film was was very well cast and all the players are very good indeed. Catherine McCormack has the lead role in the sense that her voiceover introduces the three young women’s arrival at the farm and also introduces the coda at the end of the film. I think it’s a shame that her two co-stars here have gone on to have more high-profile careers in film and television, though her Wikipedia page suggests that she prefers the stage to the film camera. Our loss, I think. In a sense all three Land Girls are socially ‘typed’ and the roles correspond with the actors’ personae. Ag is a ‘blue-stocking’ Oxbridge scholar and Stella is the daughter of a bank manager.
I categorise this film as a ‘rural romance melodrama’ with a Home Front narrative structure. Most Home Front narratives are female-centred and the romance possibilities come about because a group of strangers ‘disturb’ a settled and socially conservative rural community. Often, the strangers are men, either from an Allied army (usually, Canadians or Americans in a British context, but also Poles, French etc.) or POWs (German or Italian). The Land Girls (and the munitions workers in other films) provide a female disturbance. ‘Romance’ becomes a sexual liaison because it is wartime and every relationship could be short-lived. These relationships drive the melodrama which runs up against the taboos of rural society. The disruption is presented through uses of music and photography marked by use of landscape, compositions and spectacular events including the appearance of enemy aircraft. In a film like The Land Girls, all these are present and more. Although the tone is light and comedic sequences are including, there are also dark scenes. The script is also careful to show that the Land Girls, especially Ag and Stella had already learned many farm-working skills and are able to improve the farm’s output.
The ‘test’ of melodramas like this is to be found in the narrative resolution in which we expect to learn something about how the women at its centre emerge from their adventures. The assumption is in a wartime film that the women will be changed and possibly that the changes for these women will be representative of potential changes for all women across society. Historically we know that many of the changes were nullified to an extent in the post-war period for various reasons (slightly different in the UK and the US) as men were demobbed. The 1950s are often seen as a return to more socially conservative norms, at least until the mid 1950s. It will depend to some extent on when the films were made. Millions Like Us (UK 1943) as a wartime film is optimistic about ‘winning the peace’ and closing some of the inequality gaps in British society. Films made after the war, in the context of austerity are more circumspect. The Land Girls, made 45 years later is likely to have absorbed some of the later social changes, expressed particularly through the character of Prue. Like some other Home Front dramas, The Land Girls does involve a coda in which we meet the five women from the narrative (the three girls, Mrs Lawrence and Janet who was Joe’s fiancée) a few years after the war. It’s an interesting addition which resolves some questions and leaves at least one open. As a melodrama ending it makes very good use of colour and costumes. I wish I knew more about the New Look and what followed in the early 1950s but this is a real visual treat. The idea of this coda reminds me that The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) has a slightly different strategy by offering a narrative that runs from 1944 through to 1948 in what I remember as a continuous narrative rather than a wartime narrative with a separate peacetime coda. I’m also reminded that Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale makes its female lead a Land Girl played by Sheila Sim.
I’m currently doing some work on ‘Home Front’ narratives, stories about wartime communities and especially the disruptions they experience. Another Time, Another Place is a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it on release in 1983. One of the reasons for this is because I had been on holiday in the area where it was filmed only a few years earlier. It’s a story based on a book written by Jessie Kesson which was published at roughly the time when the film was released. Kesson was inspired by her own experiences as a farmer’s wife in North East Scotland from 1939 to 1951. Later she became a BBC radio producer.
The central character in Jessie Kesson’s story is ‘Janie’, the young wife of an older farmer on the Black Isle in the Summer of 1943. Janie is portrayed in a stunning performance by Phyllis Logan, making her début. The film is directed by Michael Radford and this was his cinema film début after several years in TV which included directing Phyllis Logan in The White Bird Passes as a younger Janie in an earlier story by Jessie Kesson, made for the BBC in 1980. Janie in the 1983 film is unhappy in a marriage which offers little joy and plenty of hard work. As the film narrative opens three Italian prisoners of war are arriving at Janie’s farm to be housed in the ‘pig-man’s bothy’, rudimentary accommodation at best. Janie has tried to clean it out and she welcomes three disparate characters, Paulo, Umberto and Luigi. Paulo is tall, dark and handsome, Umberto is quietly miserable with thick round glasses and Luigi looks lugubrious but is actually the liveliest of the three. Janie at last has something new to excite her. We might expect that Paulo would be the one she is attracted to and we will be surprised when it turns out to be Luigi.
Radford doesn’t spell everything out for us. It looks as if there are several farms which may each be tenancies and that there is a factor or agent in the form of ‘Findlay’. The farmers’ wives are expected to work collectively on harvesting and planting. Whether Janie’s husband works on his own patch isn’t clear but the couple certainly have their own livestock. The work looks very hard and the cinematography (by a young Roger Deakins) at first presents the area as remote, windswept and bleak. The Black Isle is not an ‘isle’ at all but a broad spit of land pushing out into the Moray Firth. In summer it can be very beautiful with the grain fields running down to the sea. There is no record of what makes it ‘black’ but since it is fertile farmland it may be the rich soil. The narrative follows the seasons and the celebrations – a ceilidh one night when Luigi watches Janie dancing and a Christmas party held by the Italians with singing and dancing. Janie is the only local present.
As a Home Front narrative, my main interest here is in the ‘disturbance’ caused by the arrival of the Italians. Most of the locals are at first reluctant to accept the Italians. One woman in particular has a husband fighting in Italy at Monte Cassino (she ignores a POW protest that it is the Germans not the Italians who are the enemy in that famous conflict). Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ in the UK in the Second World War. However, younger men under 25 in the farming community were initially allowed to volunteer and many did. Farmers on their own land were generally required to increase production and for this they needed all the women in the community and both Land Army recruits and POWs. One of the few younger men in Janie’s community is the tractor driver played by Gregor Fisher, a well-known figure in both film and TV in the UK, especially as ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ in the popular sitcom named after the character which ran between 1988 and 2014. This character would be around 30 in 1943. Janie’s husband is in his late 30s/early 40s. Janie herself is in her mid-twenties.
Janie can’t help herself. She dreams about the Italians. Compared to the local men, Luigi might not be a big improvement in terms of his physical appearance, but he can sing very well and he knows how to seduce Janie. For Janie there is sexual desire and excitement but she knows that Luigi is only interested in a physical relationship. Nevertheless she does care about what happens to him and we worry that it will not end well. I won’t spoil the ending but I do disagree with many of the critics who seem to dismiss the ending as predictable. (It may be predictable, but that isn’t necessarily a weakness.) Home Front narratives are usually female-centred for the simple reason that women in wartime are likely to making more decisions for themselves and also working in key roles in society. In Janie’s case we could argue that she has discovered her own sexuality and her capacity to do something about it rather than relying on her husband. Many thousands of women did the same across Europe. It had consequences of course, including ‘mixed marriages’ and a rise in children without fathers – a major societal change in many countries. At the same time some women became more confident and assertive. Post-war, the (male) authorities would try to recuperate the patriarchy, but the changes would have a long-lasting impact.
I enjoyed Another Time, Another Place as much, if not more, than when I watched it the first time. Michael Radford went on to have three further successful films, 1984, White Mischief (1987) and Il Postino (1994). His career continued with some other high profile films but nothing that attracted my attention. Phyllis Logan made more films but rarely in leading roles. Instead her career took her into TV drama where she had two big successes in Lovejoy (UK 1986-94), as ‘Lady Jane’ playing opposite Ian McShane as the titular character. I enjoyed episodes of that series very much. Logan appeared in many others and possibly her largest audience internationally came via Downton Abbey (2010-19). I can’t really comment on that. It seems a long way from Another Time, Another Place, which will remain for me a far better representation of her talent. Janie is the central figure of a romance melodrama. The ‘exaggeration’ of emotion in the film comes through in Janie’s dreams both when awake and asleep. It’s also there in the cinematography and the music – several songs in Italian by Luigi, the ceilidh and a plaintive score by John McLeod melded with the winds.
One of the four funders behind Another Time, Another Place was Channel 4 Productions which had started making its own films in 1982 for its new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s entry into the film market could be seen as one of the factors keeping British film culture alive in cinemas in the 1980s. Many films made for TV were released in cinemas. Another Time, Another Place was, as far as I know, always intended for cinema release (even though one of the other partners was Associated-Rediffusion, the UK TV company which lost its ITV franchise in 1968. What was it doing funding a film in 1983? Answers on a postcard please.
Another Time, Another Place can be streamed on BFI Player in the UK and free on Tubi TV in the US.
In 2018, two Polish-UK co-productions about the Polish aircrews who fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940 were released. 303 Squadron is the Polish ‘majority production’ directed by Denis Delic with a predominantly Polish cast and all-Polish crew. Hurricane is a similar UK majority production covering much of the same ground. Why these two productions competed and came out in 2018 is a question that I can’t answer at this point. I am interested in this specific film for three reasons. My general interest is in non-UK productions which deal with UK-based events. Most such films are American, usually with significant British involvement but some of the best such productions are French in my view. Most of the others suffer in various ways from unfamiliarity with language and culture. I have a special interest in this particular story because I was at school with with several sons of Polish fathers who had been stationed locally during the Second World War. Finally, I welcome the film(s) because, if nothing else, they refute the populist flag-waving of current right-wing British politicians about the glorious history of “Britain standing alone” in 1940.
303 Squadron is based on a non-fiction book by Arkady Fiedler which was circulated in Poland during the German Occupation. Fiedler was a successful writer who was allowed to be ‘resident’ with the Polish airmen of 303 Squadron at Northolt in 1940 and he must have been one of the first ’embedded’ writers on war-time operations. The book was published in the UK in 1942 and reached Poland, circulating clandestinely, in 1943. Reports suggest that it did much to raise morale in the Polish underground and the population generally. The ‘Making Of’ film on the Blu-ray I watched of 303 Squadron includes a comment by Fiedler’s son who says his father would have been delighted by the adaptation because he thought it was his most important book.
‘303 Squadron’ was formed in Blackpool in 1940 from Polish airman who had escaped, travelling across Europe, after the fall of Poland in 1939. (Blackpool was a major RAF centre and the ‘receiving point’ for the Polish Air Force or PAF.) The Polish contingent was arguably the largest of the various groups of European military personnel who made it to the UK. In 1940 there were 8,000 Polish airmen. Eventually the total reached 17,000 personnel (I don’t know how many women there might have been). Once ready to begin training on Hurricanes, the squadron moved to Northolt (in the present day London Borough of Ealing) in early August. It did not join the Battle of Britain until the end of August. Even so, they became the most successful of the 71 squadrons of the RAF engaged in the battle. The Polish airman were all very experienced flyers but not of the modern aircraft, the Hurricane, or of British procedures, especially the use of radar and the whole sophisticated air defence system (which required the flyers to learn enough operational English). The film makes much of the waiting and frustration experienced by the pilots and the British reluctance to use them in battle before training was completed – which of course makes a good story when the Poles were able to demonstrate just how effective they could be. In reality, there were many debates about how the battle should be fought as well as several difficulties associated with what was a truly international defence force comprising various other European groups as well as significant numbers of Canadians and other ‘Empire’ flyers. (There have been other Battle of Britain films produced from outside the UK including Dark Blue World, Czech Republic 2001). There are many myths about the Battle of Britain but the one salient point is that British aircraft production was highly prolific by September 1940 and was quite capable of supplying replacement aircraft for each one lost in battle. The problem was that it took longer to replace trained pilots than to build new planes. This is why all the pilots from other countries were so important – and eventually so much appreciated. However, given recent comments, perhaps their contribution to the war effort has been forgotten by some?
The film narrative has some interesting aspects. The story starts pre-war and introduces a female aeronautical engineer in Poland and the escape of some Polish flyers via Romania. It also depicts a rivalry between a Polish and a German flyer at various airshows prior to 1939. This enables the narrative to include a German strand with an airfield close to the Channel in France so that a personal rivalry can be a focus between German and Polish flyers. As well as the aerial ‘dog fights’, the narrative includes a romance (attached to a sub-plot about the propaganda potential of Polish successes) and various comic interludes. The squadron had a couple of RAF officers attached as flight leaders and this allows some dramatic potential. But the ‘action’ is in the skies over Southern England and the channel.
The production problems for the film include the fact that only one wartime Hurricane was still available to fly and other original aircraft types were similarly scarce. The dog fights are therefore produced via CGI. The British and Canadian characters are played by perfectly acceptable actors and the dialogue is not that bad (most of the film is in English with some subtitled exchanges in Polish and German). The main problem with the film is that which is common to all the previous recent attempts to present reconstructions of the Battle of Britain. It is perfectly possible to present a ‘personal battle’ between a Hurricane and a Messerschmitt Bf109 but not to represent the reality of the whole operation. The Polish airmen made a huge contribution to the RAF’s firepower but the other British strength was the use of RDF (radar), early warning and the capacity to put huge numbers of fighters in the air at any one time and to direct them towards equally huge fleets of German bombers and fighter cover. We don’t see any of this. You have to go back to the early 1950s and films like Angels One Five (1952) and parts of Reach for the Sky (1956) to get an overall sense of the battle. Battle of Britain (1969) was the big budget ‘prestige’ version of the events. It is the most comprehensive in trying to cover every aspect of the battle (which lasted for nearly four months). I did see that film in the cinema but I was slightly underwhelmed. I had read about the aerial combats during my childhood and youth and I was probably hung up on realism at that point. IMDb reminds me that Battle of Britain‘s credits attempted to list all the nationalities flying in/with the RAF during the battle. So just to emphasise the scale, the RAF drew on two Polish and two Czech squadrons as well as including a host of other nationalities as members of mainly British squadrons. Northolt was a base with four squadrons in total, three of them Hurricane squadrons. As part of 11 Group, 303 Squadron was used on its own because the short notice for raiders coming in over the Channel didn’t allow the build-up of a so-called ‘Big Wing’ of fighter squadrons favoured by 12 Group further North in Duxford. Even so, the skies would have been busier than represented in 303 Squadron.
On the other hand, 303 Squadron is based on real events and almost everything in the film has some kind of link to the ‘real’ story. The young Polish actors are generally a handsome, dashing bunch and apart from some iffy music scoring, the film is technically well put together. It is an ‘uplifting’ story but very ‘gung ho’. The Poles, though experienced and skilled flyers were seen as possibly ‘reckless’ in their eagerness to engage the enemy. Even so they had relatively small losses of 7 killed, 5 seriously wounded – fewer than most British squadrons with much less flying experience. The importance of the film is the opportunity it affords young Poles to be aware of the country’s history. The film did well in Poland with 1.5 million admissions in cinemas. It is also important that British audiences (and the large numbers of Poles in the UK) get a chance to learn about this history. The film’s UK cinema release was not extensive but it is now available on many streaming sites and on DVD and Blu-ray (see ‘Just Watch).
This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.
The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.
The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.
The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.
I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.