Friday, January 15, 2010

Reeling Backward: "In Which We Serve"

"In Which We Serve" starts off as an annoyingly British bit of World War II propaganda. You know the type -- lots of really fast talking, airy upper-crust accents, and stiff upper lip type of bravery.

In the first scene the H.M.S. Torrin is fatally crippled by a German dive bomber. After the captain -- played by Noel Coward, who also wrote the screenplay, co-directed, produced, wrote the musical score and, I think, personally provided all the catering -- gives the order to abandon ship, he and the other survivors give the sinking vessel three cheers.

The first half of the film is also filled with many cutaway scenes of the sailors' personal lives back home -- saying hello and goodbye to their wives, meeting soon-to-be wives, etc. They happen so rapidly that there's more smoochy time than fighting for a good long while, a when you're expecting a good ripping war movie, one feels like quoting the little kid from "The Princess Bride": "They're kissing again!"

But as the picture wore on I found myself liking it more and more. As the captain and his crew cling to a life raft awaiting rescue as German fighter planes strafe them, picking off more and more of them, they reflect on their lives aboard the Torrin, how it shaped them, and how they struggled to maintain that famously imperturbable English facade.

This was the only movie that Coward directed, reportedly at the behest of Winston Churchill himself, who was friend of the prolific playwright/composer. Coward decided he needed an able assistant to lean on, and chose a fellow named David Lean, who'd done some assistant directing and gained a reputation as a top-notch editor. Lean insisted on being listed as co-director, so "In Which We Serve" marks the first time Lean was credited as a director.

A number of young British actors have small roles in this picture, including James Donald and a very young Richard Attenborough, making his screen debut as a sailor who loses his nerve during a fight and deserts his post. Despite not receiving a screen credit, Attenborough has a considerable amount of screen time, including a great scene where the captain addresses his cowardice in front of the entire crew without naming him.

The battle scenes are a bit hammy -- there wasn't a lot of resources to put into a war picture in 1942, as one might imagine. So Coward/Lean rely upon a lot of stock footage that is only haphazardly woven together.

As I say, the second half of the film contains many very moving moments. The biggest impact is the scene in which Shorty Blake (John Mills), a low-ranking seaman, receives a letter from his wife.

She had been staying at the house of the chief petty officer when it was bombed, killing the officer's wife and mother. Blake goes up to the mess to let the chief, Hardy (Bernard Miles), know that the only members of his family were killed. His own wife was unhurt, and successfully gave birth to a baby boy. So the chief, in the midst of his own grief, congratulates the seaman for becoming a father.

What a moment -- and just one reason why I left "In Which We Serve" much more impressed than when I started.

3.5 stars

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