This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?
Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.
The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.
Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.
Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.
But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.
At this dire time of the year with foreign language films still as scarce as hen’s teeth around here, it’s a relief to turn to the occasional Polish release via distributor Project London and the multiplex chain Cineworld. Jack Strong is currently on release in 17 multiplexes across the UK and Ireland just a week after its Warsaw opening and it offers great entertainment plus a new perspective on the Cold War spy thriller for UK audiences.
The film deals with the real-life story of a Polish army officer who was so concerned that Poland would be destroyed in any war between NATO and the Soviet Union that he decided to provide the Americans with secret Soviet planning papers. Code-named ‘Jack Strong’ he operated under cover for several years before his situation became ‘critical’.
This isn’t a ‘biopic’ as such since the story begins when Colonel Ryszard Kulkiński is already one of the brightest military planners in the Polish Army. He first becomes concerned after the success of the Soviet planning of the ‘clear-up’ after the Prague Spring in 1968 in which he played a key role in Poland’s contribution. But the decisive moment is when he talks with colleagues who were on the ground in Gdansk in 1970 when Polish troops fired on shipyard workers. He becomes increasingly convinced that he is threatening the future of Poland through his work with the Soviets. He isn’t a traitor, he’s a patriot saving Poland from the hell that the Soviet military will lead it towards.
Unlike the heroes of many spy stories Kulkiński lived with his family who were unaware of his activities. Inevitably this created tensions with his long hours and occasional disappearances. These scenes of family life and the procedural aspects of his job in the Polish military headquarters form a major part of the film’s central sequence alongside the usual tropes of the spy film such as the passing of messages etc. These realist touches work very effectively in building up to the thrills of the closing scenes. The film is also bookend with scenes in which an older Kulkiński tells his story. I won’t spoil the narrative any further. We know from the beginning that he survived the initial crisis but we don’t know how the story ends or who is actually asking him questions.
The film is very well made and presented in CinemaScope. It looks good and the performances are excellent. I can’t fault it in terms of entertainment and I learned a lot. Kulkiński worked with the Russians in Vietnam (as a military attaché in the early 1960s?) and the extra earnings from this helped him to acquire a car and the means to go sailing.
I imagine that this must be a big budget film for Poland. The director Władysław Pasikowski is a veteran of action cinema and the star in the title role, Marcin Dorociński, is one of the most critically and popularly celebrated of Polish actors.
I imagine that the film will stay in cinemas a second week so check out the Polish Film Institute website to see where it is playing. Weirdly the film was part-financed by Vue Distribution in Poland but its UK partner company in the UK isn’t taking the film. Bravo to Cineworld – but they don’t seem to have advertised the film – presumably relying on Polish media. This is a shame because I know UK audiences who would go to see this as a spy thriller. (For anyone outside the UK baffled by all of this, the 2011 UK census revealed that Polish is now the first language of over 500,000 people in England and Wales.)