IN WHICH WE SERVE
Noel Coward / John Mills / Celia Johnson / Dere Elphinstone / Michael Wilding / Robert Sansom / Phillip Friend / Richard Attenborough / Ballard Berkeley / Kenneth Carten / Kay Walsh / Kathleen Harrison / Soundtrack Noel Coward / Cinematography Ronald Nearne / Produced Noel Coward / Directed Noel Coward & David Lean
THE STORY OF A SHIP..
Few films made during the war years in Britain (with WWII as subject matter) are worthy of much more than curiosity value. Dated morale boosters with little art to carry them through the years. There were of course some wonderful films turned out from the British studios at the time, such as Brief Encounter & Blithe Spirit (both incidentally Lean’s work), but those tended to skirt around the edges of the War, or steer a different course altogether. ‘In Which We Serve’ is an entirely different kettle of fish though. Whilst it decidedly helped to puff-up the resolve of this small islands’ ..eternal and indominitable pride, it does so with such moving power and keen social & cultural observation that it isn’t at all unfair to call it the best of all War films.
With ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Speilberg spent a considerable fortune reconstructing the Normandy landings down to the n’th degree, but really nothing can quite compete with a war film where practically the entire cast were enlisted soldiers (including John Mills, Richard Attenborough and half of it’s production crew) all given short leave by the war office for the tight shooting schedule. Tom Hanks may have spent months getting into character (and given a powerful performance it’s agreed), but Coward gathered together men who had first hand experience of the terrors of war, and it shows on their faces. Through the old thinly stretched mask of plucky British spirit, the stiff upper lip and the unwillingness to show emotion, it sits.. somewhere behind the eyes, bursting out into the light of day for brief moments when left unchecked, before being hastily tucked away, covered by a shrug and a “there’s no use in making a fuss is there.”
Coward wrote, produced and directed In Which We Serve (with the indispensible help of David Lean) in a style that has since become synonymous with Tarantino. Bouncing around the days preceeding the loss of a British destroyer, adding flesh to the usually faceless sailors, from when they first came aboard till their ultimate demise or rescue from the sea. Based in part on the sinking of HMS Kelly off of Crete mid-war, Coward assumes the role that is escentially Captain Lord Mountbatten (Coward even wears Mountbatten’s own cap in many scenes), with Mills, Attenbourgh and the rest under his command. Critics at the time smirkingly dubbed the film ‘In Which We Sank’, but as with much in history, how we cope with defeat is at least as important as how we react to success. Besides, we British always did back the under-dog.
Aside from the marvelous leads Noel Coward & John Mills.. Dickie Attenborough shines with a youthful intensity that is to be put on hold till the war’s end, when he can finally get his teeth into the juicy lead role of villain Pinkie Brown in ‘Brighton Rock’. In a genre that generally relegates women to the sidelines, In Which We Serve gives us two well developed female characters in Coward’s wife Celia Johnson (so, so beautiful) and Mill’s newlywed Kay Walsh, as well as other unusually feisty women in Penelope Dudley-Ward & Dora Gregory (to admittedly Kathleen Harrison’s steriotypical cockney screecher). Between these two couples we see as many parallels as solid divisions in class. Each as instrumental in maintaining the divide as the other. For lovers of film trivia, the onscreen baby son of Kay Walsh & John Mills is actually played by Mill’s own daughter Juliet Mills..beating sister Hayley Mills in the child actor stakes by a few years.
‘..men must work and women must weep.’
‘Here ends the story of a ship, but there will always be other ships; we are an island race, through all our centuries the sea has ruled our destiny. There will always be other ships and men to sail in them. It is these men, in peace or war, to whom we owe so much. Above all victories, beyond all loss, in spite of changing values and a changing world they give to us, their countrymen, eternal and indominitable pride.’
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