Recommended WWII Films
As for the films? Such a variety, ranging from wartime propaganda to post-war reflections and tales of heroism, as well as some questioning of actions. What most of these films do show is how individuals behave, how they react under stress as they are thrown into situations they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares.
An uncle would tell me little of his time in the desert, but I remember having a whisky with him before I set off for a stint in Libya. ‘Being in the desert,’ he said, ‘is a bit like being at sea for days on end. It is exciting and daunting at first, but then it just becomes dune after dune after dune, or just shimmering miles of rubble, just as crossing the Atlantic becomes only wave after wave after wave.’ That is something I could believe. What I could not grasp and did not until I was there, was the heat. The damnable, unforgiving and deadly heat. One soon learns to walk slowly and in the shade. I was lucky. I was not living on rations, listening to the rumble of distant and nearing artillery or waiting for tanks to come rolling into view. Not sure of what reading material I would be able to find in those Ghaddafi days, I armed myself with my two bibles: Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M.Forster and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The El Awrence because of my favourite film of all time: Lawrence of Arabia, and the E.M. Forster because I was introduced to the book by one of my favourite teachers, my ‘A’ level Eng.Lit. teacher, Mrs Barrington-Brown, if I remember her name correctly. It is an aged and tatty copy with its front cover missing, but in the same vein as a raggedy and multi-snagged old gardening jumper, it is a good and generous companion.
Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea, making perhaps the worst decision a man or woman could ever make. He decides to sacrifice – and be accused of murder by sailors – as he orders the depth-charging of a U Boat, knowing that British sailors will die. The death of those men will save the lives of hundreds. Sure, on one hand it can be justified, but I have no idea how I would behave. And that is what these films make us do. They make us think how we would behave in such situations, amidst such horrors.
John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex – one of my favourites. It is not just the struggle through the desert that makes this a great film. It is also the ending where John Mills and his fellow travellers treat their enemy with compassion, with humanity. That is important in a war film. Somewhere amidst the slaughter and inhumanity there must be the spark of humanity. That dim light must never go out.
Albert Cavalcanti’s, Went the Day Well? Notice the question mark in the title. The title is taken from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds. ‘Went the day well? We died and never knew; But well or ill, England, we died for you.’ 1918. It has a ring of Ceos ‘ coming home after Thermopylae about it. In this 1942 film a whole village is thrown into the mayhem and danger. We are shown the gamut of society in this sleepy little village – very Hubert Parry, from the posh woman – we are pushed to see her as toffee-nosed and snooty – as she throws herself onto a grenade. We don’t see it, but her personal sacrifice is clear. The young boy who is shot by the savage Germans, but still does his heroic bit. This is wartime, so of course, the Germans are savage beasts. And of course, the church is there doing its bit. After all, Britain was fighting for its Jerusalem. And of course, the enemy within, the intellectual politician, squire, with his mealy-mouthed words, his smoothness, his touch of spiv. The women are there too, clever, curious and alert as they pick out the little clues. The chocolate and the continental writing style. And there is brutality from all sides. The plump, middle-aged housewife has no qualms about killing the enemy with an axe until she has done the deed and realizes what she has become, what she has had to do to beat the enemy. This film was made during a time when Britain really was at risk of being invaded. War had come home and was not something happening far away.
When I was very young I watched – most probably on a rainy Sunday afternoon – David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which we Serve. This film combines the heroism of men at sea with the fighting spirit of the women back home suffering the deprivation and bombing. Again we get that ‘all in it together’ as we see jolly jack-tar John Mills and his family fighting alongside the clipped vowels of the officer class. I didn’t catch on to this symbiosis when I watched it at first; as a young boy I wanted to see the fighting, the explosions, but in later years the issues became much clearer. Worth watching a few times, I think.
In the 50s we had a spate of POW camp films, escape films, perhaps coming to a climax in the 60s with The Great Escape. Personally, I prefer the earlier British films such as The Wooden Horse and Colditz. The Great Escape was, after all, an American film, and very much catering for the American audience, though one cannot but admire Steve McQueen’s role. He is America: Gutsy, arrogant, the young and powerful new boy on the block flexing his muscles. A bit like China now? The British are good at escape films. One only has to look at British comedy. The best British comedy series are usually about little people trying to escape from their social and class prisons in order to become what they ‘know’ they can really be: Steptoe and Son, Hancock, Basil Fawlty. Even the pompous Captain Mainwaring, the greatest of Little Englanders is the grammar school educated bank manager eager to break free from the bonds of his stuffy job, his little England, his class, so that he may prove himself as heroic. His war is a good war; it is his opportunity. Is it still in our genes, our DNA? We men must go out, armed with the jawbone of an ass, confront the woolly mammoth and return to our caves and our women with a sense of having done the job well. And The British films are about the ‘stiff upper-lip’, that gentle quietness, guile and perseverance. There is much of the ‘public school’ about these films. These are ‘chaps’ who play up, play up and play the game. We mock this attitude a great deal now, viewing these public school chaps as more the ‘Tim, nice but dim’ than the square-jawed heroic type. This is something I touch on, actually a major theme, in Before the Unpleasantness. (For another article, along with a look at the true relationship between Britain and the USA). What I like about these earlier escape films is the Homeric touch, the Greek hero Odysseus uses guile and cunning, wins not so much by brute force, but by his wits, his faux modesty. And of course, the humour, the self-mockery, the quips in the face of danger.
American movies are about brute force, muscle and manpower. America is Achilleus. You know John Wayne will always win; with your British hero you are never sure because the odds against him are too great. Britain could never have a Superman. Take Star trek, the USS Enterprise, bristling with guns, lasers and fighting men. In Britain we have Dr Who, the academic sort who gets sand kicked in his face on a regular basis, in a police telephone kiosk! Now we have Harry Potter: the weedy, four-eyes, bookish boy won in the end. Victor Mature he ain’t! British war films are about the little man surviving by thinking on his feet.
When you have a chance, take a look at propaganda posters from WWII and from the Cold War. Soviet, Chinese Communist and German WWII posters always showed their men and women as strong, muscular, something of the testosterone-pumped Schwarzenegger, while British posters show little Tommy Atkins nearly swallowed up, dwarfed by the giant shadow of evil against which he must pit himself. It is, after all, the meek that shall inherit the earth. Real power is quiet, softly-spoken. Those officers wearing the brown boots need never shout because they know who they are, know where they are, know they belong, know they have right and God on their side; the mouthy stuff is left to the Sergeant-Major.
The Dambusters, a great film from 1955 with Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd, and of course that stirring music by Eric Coates. It is very much in the news at the moment, so I shall spend little time discussing it. But who does not get a stirring in the heart, some watering of the eyes when that music begins. It is fantastic ‘boy’s own’ stuff, but there is poignancy to the film when at the end we see Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson speaking together. The triumph of the audacious plot is subdued as Wallis considers how many of 617 squadron had died on the mission. We see Gibson taking a long, lonely walk back to his barracks where he must write those letters.
All the best,