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.
The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.
Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.
The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.
I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.
My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.
On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.
Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?