Real WWII Heroes of the Silver Screen
While writing ‘Magna Carta Memorandum’, the second in the Pelham Hardimann adventures, I was doing a good deal of research on that Old Etonian and wartime
Commander, RNVR Ian Fleming, he of Mr Bond and one of my favourite arch-enemies, Mr Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
A great hero must have a great enemy and Donald Pleasance’s ‘Blofeld’ is as good as you can get. While looking into Mr Fleming’s very exciting wartime record I found myself – writers are so easily distracted – looking into the biographies of other famous writers, and actors, who played their part in WWII.
You see, history throws up oddities, throws up opportunities, and WWII was no exception. I’ll get back to Mr Fleming, Mr Bond, and the spider’s web of connections in that area later.
If you, like me, spent your Sunday afternoons in the late 60s and early 70s watching British war movies in B&W, names such as Alec Guinness, David Niven, Richard Todd, Anthony Steele, Anthony Quayle and others will trip off the tongue and bring some warmth to the cockles.
And what makes these names so special? For me, these names are special because they were real-life heroes before they became my heroes of the screen, whether that screen be huge, shiny, and silver or flickering B&W in the bay window with a rubber plant atop it.
Let me begin with Dirk Bogarde, very much a matinee idol, and perhaps known mostly for his Doctor films, alongside Shirley Eaton, yes, she of Goldfinger. He also shot Bernard Lee in The Blue Lamp, yes, Bernard Lee, who for me will always be M. The Blue Lamp was a dark, realistic film about gangs and guns, and quite prophetic to think only three years later there was the infamous Derek Bentley affair. Although Derek Bentley did not fire the gun that killed the policeman, we all remember that famous line ‘let him have it.’ I always think of that line in Thunderball when Bond says to Felix Leiter ‘Let him have it…the gun, I mean’: a reference to the Derek Bentley affair, who knows?
Dirk Bogarde was a commissioned officer in The Queen’s Regiment and went through the horror of the D-Day landings, as well as serving in the Pacific.
He was one of the first officers to stumble across the evils of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. And to think, in 1974 he was playing a former SS Officer in Night Porter – how bizarre that must have been. But, before that he was playing the frustrated and forceful hero alongside the troubled, more philosophical hero, Denholm Elliot in They Who Dare 1954. That ‘….who dare’ rings a bell, doesn’t it? Yes, He who Dares, Wins. What of Denholm Elliot? I have always thought his George Smiley was as good as Alec Guinness’s. Different – but as good as.
Denholm Elliot was a great gentleman actor of the old school, and perhaps now most famous for playing the slightly bumbling and rather nervous Dr Marcus Brody alongside Indiana Jones. But, make no mistake, Denholm Elliot was a hero. He was a radio operator and a gunner in No. 76 RAF Squadron. His Halifax was hit by enemy fire and he ended up in the North Sea after a bombing raid on the U-Boat pens at Flensburg in Germany. His acting career began when he killed time by doing amateur dramatics as a POW in Silesia.
And then, of course, we see Denholm Elliot again, this time playing a meteorologist officer, with Dirk Bogarde playing an officer, in a film directed by Richard Attenborough: A Bridge Too Far in 1977. ABTF, with countless cameos for all the best known actors of the day, even Hardy Kruger who had been drafted into the 38th SS Division Nibelungen after finishing in the Hitler Youth before being captured by Americans, was a vehicle for one of my favourite actors, Anthony Hopkins. If Peter O’Toole had been in it as well, it would for me be one of the greatest WWII movies ever made, perhaps second only to The Longest Day.
As for Hardy Kruger, he went on to play the lead in an excellent film about the only German soldier to escape an allied POW camp and make his way back to Germany: The One that Got Away.1957. Terence Alexander, now best known as Charlie Hungerford from Bergerac played an intelligence officer in The One that Got Away. Terence Alexander, a lieutenant in the 27th Lancers was injured in Italy by artillery fire.
David Niven, suave, sophisticated, witty, a true English gentleman, (for me, the better portion of Pelham’s complex character) was very much a hero, and it always niggles me a little when I see the character he plays in The Guns of Navarone, but it was an American film and the heroic lead was played by Gregory Peck. Before starting on his acting career, David Niven went to Sandhurst then joined the Highland Light Infantry and was posted to Malta. He was also imprisoned for a while for insubordination; David Niven was not cut out for following orders and had a healthy British disregard and contempt for all forms of authority. Well into his acting career, David Niven came back to Britain in 1939, joined the Rifle Brigade and was then transferred into the Commandos. A few days after the Normandy landing, David Niven was in the Phantom Signals Unit sending reports back to headquarters of the ever shifting battle lines. David Niven played heroes – and should perhaps be forgiven for playing James Bond in what I personally deem to be one of the worst movies ever made, Casino Royale. He played in two films during WWII. One, The First of the Few 1942, and the excellent film about the training of men before being sent off to North Africa, The Way Ahead 1944. After the war he went back to playing dashing, heroic, and at time whimsical roles. The opening scene of that conversation between the pilot about to die in his diving Lancaster and the pretty American radio operator (Kim Hunter) in A matter of Life and Death (In USA released as Stairway to Heaven) is a wonderful opening to a ‘war film’ an ‘anti-war film’.
And what about a real hero being an actor playing a hero while another actor plays his actual heroic wartime role? The Longest Day. This brings us to the Dublin born, Sandhurst trained, military man turned actor, Richard Todd, he of The Dambusters. As a member of the Parachute Regiment, Richard Todd was part of the 6th British Airborne Division, one of the first to set foot on French soul during Operation Overlord then parachuted in for the assault on Pegasus Bridge to capture Caen.
Richard Attenborough, director of, and an actor in A Bridge Too Far, should, in my book, be best remembered for the daring part he played in that marvellous 1942 film by Noel Coward, In Which We Serve. Why daring? In this story of a ship we see something new; we see cowardice, although I feel I should not be using ‘cowardice’. This is wartime, and we see much more than the regularly portrayed gun-ho, over-the-top heroism of fighting men. Alongside the home front view we get the real sense of fear as Attenborough’s character freezes with terror, loses it, and in a sense asks us, you, the viewer, what would you do in this situation?
Putting yourself into the shoes of a fearless hero is one thing; Noel Coward forces us to think much deeper. And here’s some irony for you; Attenborough, and the character he played, does not appear in the credits. Richard Attenborough, perhaps because of his role in In Which We Serve spent the next decade or so playing nasty characters such as the psychopathic gangster in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and a wartime spiv and coward in London Belongs to Me. So what about Richard Attenborough; was he a real hero? I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered for his position, as an RAF cameraman stuffed into the rear-gunner’s post on bombing raids over Europe in order to record the results of British bombing from 1942. Eventually we do see Attenborough as a hero as he plays the leader of the escape committee in The Great Escape 1963.
And who else do we see in The Great Escape? Yes, Donald Pleasance. Donald Pleasance was in 166 Squadron, Bomber Command, and was shot down in 1944, finishing the war as a POW in Stalag Luft1. In The Great Escape Donald Pleasance plays the forger, Colin Blythe who is going blind but still escapes, only to be shot down. Donald Pleasance also played Germans, a really nasty one, Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle has Landed 1976, and a rather decent chap who is part of the plot to assassinate Hitler, The Night of the Generals 1967.
And now we get to the really complicated stuff. Donald Pleasance played the great Bond villain Blofeld, with every baddies natural appendages, a great scar, and a white cat.
Another Bond villain was the sharpshooter Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, played by Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee really was a sharpshooter and man of action. He saw action in North Africa with The Long Range Desert Group who were really commandos and SAS. Then onto Sicily and part of SOE before being attached to the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, charged with hunting down German war criminals.
Now don’t take it as read here that our true heroes only played villains.
Patrick MacNee, the heroic English gentleman John Steed in The Avengers, plays a decent toff in A View to a Kill. It is said that his choice of weapons, bowler and umbrella, was because he had done enough firing of guns during the war. Old Etonian, Patrick MacNee was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and awarded the Atlantic Star.
Bernard Lee, born in County Cork, Ireland, was in the Royal Sussex Regiment during the war. The royal Sussex regiment fought in France and Burma. Bernard Lee also played a great role in The Battle of the River Plate. But, Bernard Lee will forever be M.
Now we come to Q (Quartermaster). Q may have come across as the bumbling, tweedy, nutty-professor type, but Desmond LLewelyn was a true hero. Yes, a Welshman, he was a member of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, captured in France in 1940, and spent five years in Colditz.
Two men, not actors, but key figures in the creation of screen Bond, are Guy Hamilton and Terence Young.
Born of English parents living in Paris, Guy Hamilton (producer/director) spent WWII in German occupied France working for the SOE and the resistance.
Born in Shanghai, Terence Young (screenwriter/editor) was a tank commander at Arnhem, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far.
Well, I have touched upon a few great actors, and you’ll berate me for missing out on so many who should be in this list. I look forward to you adding your own favourites, or at least those you deem worthy of note here.
Apologies for keeping this article very British. Of course, there are many Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders who should be here, and I look forward to you adding to this list. Please do.
I must mention here that my favourite ever American gentleman Private Eye, Jim Rockford was played by James Garner (also in The Great Escape) was a true American hero, having joined the Merchant Marine near the end of WWII, but left because of seasickness, only to go on and earn the Purple Heart twice during the Korean War.
To finish my part here before you add your names, let me just say this: There’s one thing I always notice about these true heroes who became heroes of the silver-screen; they carry with them that quiet strength of real-life heroes who have actually been there, actually seen it, and really done it.
Carl, copyright 2014