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.
There were many British films of the 1950s that referenced the 1939-45 war and its aftermath. For several reasons they’ve attracted negative coverage from many film historians, scholars and critics, much of it unwarranted. One misconception is that they are all similar. This particular example is from a sub-genre dealing with the ‘returning soldier’. In this specific grouping there are some interesting films which also draw on other genres/categories, especially film noir melodramas such as Mine Own Executioner (1947) and Cage of Gold (1950). Others drew on noir crime stories like They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). The Intruder isn’t quite the crime drama its title suggests, though there are crime elements in the mix. Neither is it a melodrama, though there is a kind of surrogate father-son relationship at its centre. It is a strange mixture of drama with a couple of comic sequences – a combination that IMDb implies was a feature of the work of Guy Hamilton, best known for his war pictures and later James Bond/Harry Palmer films. This was just his second directorial venture, working on Robin Maugham’s adaptation of his own novel.
The film begins with stockbroker Wolf Merton playing golf. A wayward shot takes Merton’s ball off the course and into a scrapyard where later Hammer favourite Michael Ripper is cutting up war-time tanks. We will soon learn that Merton was a Colonel of a tank regiment. When he gets home (in Central London) he surprises a burglar (the ‘intruder’ of the title) who turns out to be one his men he hasn’t seen for seven years. Before he can reason with ‘Ginger’ Edwards (Michael Medwin), the young man runs off, taking Merton’s revolver. At this point we get the first of several flashbacks to wartime incidents and we realise that Edwards was a brave soldier who looked out for his mates. We also sense that Merton (Jack Hawkins) was a successful leader of men and that he was well aware of Edwards’ qualities. He determines to track Edwards down and find out why he has turned to crime. The film’s narrative thus becomes a succession of meetings with a group of men who were in the same unit, building up to a final showdown when Merton will again confront Edwards.
I enjoyed The Intruder. It looks good with photography by Ted Scaife and Maugham’s story ideas are strong (he later wrote the novel The Servant adapted by Harold Pinter for for Joe Losey). The ending is rather abrupt and may not satisfy everyone but that could be a budget problem. As it is, the film is a brisk 84 minutes into which a drama with plenty of action and several characters’ stories are inserted. The film was made by British Lion at Shepperton and received a circuit release in ABC cinemas. The cast is strong with Hawkins that year also leading in the biggest British film of the year The Cruel Sea. Hawkins is both the genuine star of the film and possibly an indicator of some of the problems for older audiences now. Throughout the 1950s, Hawkins’ gruff but almost avuncular authority figure inhabited similar roles in Army, Navy and Air Force officer roles as well as Police Superintendents/Commanders etc. Occasionally he could be less avuncular and much tougher as in The Cruel Sea and sometimes he could ‘go wrong’ as in The League of Gentlemen (1960). We soon know who he is in The Intruder which does diminish his impact a little – but he’s such a good actor he’s always worth watching.
We also know who everyone else is, partly because we’ve seen them in later films. So, when we see Arthur Howard as a soldier in the Pay Corps we aren’t at all surprised that in civvy street he is a dotty schoolteacher, since in 1956 he began to appear on TV in the sitcom Whack-O! as a dotty public school teacher in the Jimmy Edwards series. Similarly, a young George Cole, like Howard and Dora Bryan as an ENSA ( girl, is in a comedy sequence (ENSA put on entertainment shows for the troops) and Dennis Price is a slimy and cowardly officer who becomes an equally creepy businessman (who keeps the title ‘Captain’ much to Merton’s disgust). I’m not sure if the comedy sequences really work in the context of the drama but the George Cole routine is used to show up the class divide in the army (Cole’s character is an enlisted man who is commissioned by Merton). When we do get to find out what started the trouble for Ginger, it too has an element of social commentary. So, I think overall, The Intruder works as a worthwhile ‘war aftermath’ picture. I won’t spoil the narrative, only point out that there is no indication of whether Merton has been married or has always been single and Ginger’s story could be related to Merton’s own story if there was more narrative space to explore such ideas. But there is quite enough there already. Enjoy The Intruder on Talking Pictures TV, Network DVD or Amazon Prime.
Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.
Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.
Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?
Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’. Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.
‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.
The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.
The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.
To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.
Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes).
The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative. Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).
This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent viewings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War. I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.
This was the latest film screened as part of the series WWI Through the Lens at the Hyde Park Picture House. On this occasion the University Students organising the series had arranged an exhibition before the film of WWI military equipment with explanatory notes. This included a soldier’s gas mask, later seen in one of the trench sequences in the film. There was also a short talk from the University Legacy Project. The speaker talked about two Leeds people involved in the WWI conflict. Horace enrolled in the army at 14 years and by 16 years was dead, killed on the Western Front. Mary was more fortunate; she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, survived the war and benefited from a government-assisted passage to Canada.
The feature film told a story closer to that of Horace. Private Peaceful was adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote War Horse. This British feature was a long way from the adaptation of the latter novel by Stephen Spielberg. This film has a ring of authenticity, avoided over sentimentality, and enjoyed a rich roster of characters.
The two key protagonists are brothers, Tommo (George Mackay) and Charlie (Jack O’Connell, recruited again into the British army for the recent ’71). They are bought up in a rural setting in Devon, and when their father dies, by their strong minded mother Hazel (Maxine Peake). Later both enrol in the army and see service on the Western Front. It is here that the drama develops with a court-martial and subsequent execution. This is, of course, the territory of Paths of Glory (1957) and King and Country (1964).
The film opens in 1916 and then a series of flashbacks take us back to 1908. We see the experiences of the family suffering from economic deprivation and harsh landlords. Both personal disappointment and peer pressures lead to their enlistment. The film offers a rather sceptical representation of the patriotic values that were rife in the early stages of the conflict.
The picture of rural exploitation is entirely convincing as are the scenes of front line action that follow. Necessarily the plotting revisits situations and tropes familiar from other films set during this conflict. But the cinematographer, Jerzy Zielinski, does manage a distinctive palette for the scenes of wartime activity. This is partly due to the film including battle scenes set in Flanders from the early months of the war: many films focus on the later stages.
I did have one problem with the film, the plotting of the brothers’ experiences and the flashbacks. However, I checked out the novel and the film was faithfully following that in the book. I do not think it works as effectively on film though: in the book we read the voiced memories of Tommo. In the film these occupy the flashbacks and the literal depiction that one commonly gets in cinema made them seem [to me] rather contrived.
Morpurgo records in an afterword to the book that 290 British soldiers died by firing squad. The student notes for the film recorded that this was out of a total of about 3,000 court-martials. I am somewhat sceptical about the former figure. In Ken Loach’s memorable Days of Hope – 1916: Joining Up (BBC 1976) there is an example of the ‘informal’ style of execution practised by the British military. And the interesting television series The Monocled Mutineer (BBC 1986) recorded [without sufficient details] the violence inflicted on soldiers celebrating through rebellion the Great Soviet Revolution of 1917. There is an interesting sequence in Private Peaceful where the discussion of the ordinary soldiers pre-figures the type of ‘fragging’ that occurred during the US military aggression in Vietnam. But that feeds into an overall tone which is ant-military and anti-high command rather than critically opposing the whole rationale of the conflict. In the same way Charlie, before the war, expresses inchoate class antagonism to the landed gentry, but it does not achieve the coherence of the class and anti-war stance in Days of Hope.
The series is to continue with Oh What a Lovely War (1969 – in May): Paths of Glory (in June): and in July a film titled 120 (2008). The last is a Turkish film set during World War I on the Russian front alongside Armenia and what was then Persia.
This played on BBC2. I missed it on its very brief appearance in UK cinemas. The two observations that spring immediately to mind are firstly that it is a story that deserves a big mainstream film release and secondly that what actually appears in the film is something of an insult to the talent on screen and the audience watching. The ‘Red Tails’ were a substantial group of African-American fighter pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group in WWII. In the context of the Jim Crow laws in the US at the time and the segregated American armed forces these pilots were extremely successful, especially in their role of escorting daylight raids on Germany by American heavy bombers. The ‘Red Tails’ were those painted on the tail fins of the P51 Mustangs they used on bomber escort duty.
The pilots involved were all trained at Tuskegee Alabama and aspects of their story and related stories have been covered in an HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and various documentaries and independent productions. In 1988 George Lucas started thinking about an epic three hour film that would tell the story complete with detailed action sequences of the air war in Europe. Lucas appears to have been sincere in his attempts to put the story on the screen and to draw on the knowledge of surviving members of the group. However, in the long process of getting the project into production several dubious decisions were taken. The result is a two hour film that focuses mainly on the CGI/green screen dogfight scenes (remarkably similar in their choreography to the dogfights in Star Wars). Most of the ‘back story’ about the experiences of the men in training and their interaction with white officers and airmen is left out. And, as Film Comment‘s reviewer Ina Diane Archer (daughter of one of the surviving airmen) points out, there is nothing about the families at home or the African-Americans who followed the exploits of the airmen in the US media. There are one or two lines of dialogue that convey the backgrounds of individual flyers (the pilots were mainly officers with college degrees or professional training), but in the most part the dialogue doesn’t expand far beyond banter and war-whoops.
The film’s director is listed as Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV director, but many commentators suspect that Lucas himself is responsible for the action scenes. The tragedy is that the film has a stellar cast with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the senior officers and David Oyelowo as the most glamorous ‘ace’ pilot. Howard’s character has to deal with the racist postures of the top military and Oyelowo gets the romance with a beautiful Italian girl. The main setting is an Italian air base which at times reminded me of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Unfortunately there is nothing of either the absurdist satire or the psychological depth of that film in Red Tails.
It’s generally agreed that the action scenes in the film are exciting – but I also find them ludicrous. It’s partly a fault of the script by John Ridley (who scripted 12 Years a Slave) and partly the other-worldliness of the digital creation. It does a disservice to brave airmen to depict them as so successful immediately. They are highly trained but have no experience of combat – yet they easily out-manoeuvre German fighter pilots who are veterans. This a film where bombers and fighters fly in tight formations of equal spacing through clear blue skies as if in a manga or anime presentation. The damage to American aircraft and the loss of pilots is minimal compared to the total devastation they cause on German airfields, trains and shipping as well as in the air. The ‘real’ results for the 332nd were impressive but the exaggerations here diminish those achievements.
Rather than watch this film, I recommend the Spike Lee film The Miracle at St Anna (2008) and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story 1984. These are films about African-Americans in the US Army (rather than USAF) in World War II, but they deal with the realities of the war-time experience that are missing in Red Tails. The CGI aircraft catch fire, explode etc. in dramatic fashion in Red Tails but I don’t believe a frame of it. I think I prefer the realism and pathos of David Niven in a burning Lancaster bomber limping home to the UK in A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, UK 1946).
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.
Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.
So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.
Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.