Film is a Battlefield

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Enjoyed very much the TV play We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, in which the origins of the beloved sitcom Dad’s Army are explored. John Sessions absolutely CHANNELS the spirit of the late Arthur Lowe, with sterling lookalike and soundalike work from Ralph Riach as dour Scotsman John Laurie, a Shadowplay favourite, Shane Ritchie as Bill Pertwee, and Roy Hudd as Ray Flanagan, the thirties comedy star who sang the theme tune.

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NOT so successful, though fascinating as a piece of casting, is Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier. Le Mez was almost a special effect as much as an actor, a persona so unique and indefinable as to possibly defy impersonation. Sands’ best work in my view was THE KILLING FIELDS, where the man he was playing stuck around on set out of sheer vanity to see himself played by an actor, providing a handy reference point for the star into the bargain. Here, he doesn’t have the real man to refer to, and who among us can imagine Le Mez NOT acting? I’d like to think he was exactly the same in civilian life, but I have no idea.

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Another Dad’s Army star is Arnold Ridley, author of The Ghost Train, the theatrical comedy warhorse filmed multiple times, as silent, talkie, British, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Japanese. “I’d like to have your royalties,” someone says to him in We’re All Doomed! “So would I,” says Arnold, ruefully.

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This led me to look at THE WAY AHEAD, Carol Reed’s celebrated propaganda flick, written by Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov (who also appears, along with most of British equity). The movie formed the basis for satirical treatments in HOW I WON THE WAR, CARRY ON SERGEANT and Dad’s Army itself, and in fact William Hartnell plays the sergeant-major in this and in the CARRY ON, with Laurie as a dour Scotsman in this and Dad’s Army. The Dad’s Army end credits, showing the aged cast trooping across a battlefield in a series of tracking shots, seems to deliberately reprise the climax of Reed’s film.

When Powell & Pressburger made propaganda, their essential eccentricity always led them madly off-message and resulted in art rather than message-mongering. Reed’s film is more disciplined, therefore less artistic, and even though Ustinov hated the idiocy he was surrounded with in the armed forces, his script does an excellent job of celebrating the way the bickering, petty civilian raw material is shaped into a disciplined fighting unit by loveable David Niven and gruff-but-also-loveable Hartnell.

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Sudden Trevor Howard!

There are only a few actual SHOTS in the first half, with a good deal of effective but perfunctory coverage, but at sea there’s a dramatic sequence, all staged full-scale, in which Reed finds that a sinking ship provides the ideal justification for his patented Deutsch tilts.

Raymond Durgnat, our most imaginative critic, proposed that the true meaning of the climax, in which the heroes advance through concealing swathes of smoke, was this: “It can be read as saying, They’re all dead. Reed’s brief was to warn us, This is going to be worse than we can imagine.” The final shot, showing the old guard smiling at news in the papers, seems to quash this gloomy notion and compel us to presume the attack was a success, but those moments in the billowing whiteness do have an eerie uncertainty to them which defies the triumphal music.

 

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5 Responses to “Film is a Battlefield”

  1. Roy Kinnear’s bits in HIWTW definitely owe a lot to The Way Forward — his officer offering sympathetic advice on personal matters. Of coure, in Lester’s film the advice is terrible (“Cancel the life insurance! Least of your worries!”) and the men never coalesce into a fighting unit.

  2. henryholland666 Says:

    dour Scotsman

    Isn’t that redundant? :-)

    I loved my one viewing of The Way Ahead, it’s my favorite Carol Reed effort along with Our Man in Havana. The ship burning scene especially is masterful film making. I also like how the conscripts don’t immediately turn in to “Yeah, we get to kill the Jerry’s!!!” gung-ho types, it’s handled a bit more realistically. William Alwyn’s score is terrific too.

    Deutsch tilts

    I think you meant “Dutch tilts”, people in the Netherlands might take offense at that!

  3. charles W. Callahanb Says:

    I was under the impression Mr. Le Measurier was very much like the characters he played. I’m always tickled pink when he pops up in a role. He has a sad life in many ways. By the by –
    He and Fred Astaire became friendly when they made the MIDAS RUN in 1968. They would frequent pubs and the races together.

  4. Fiona reminds me that Le Mez had the greatest of all last words: “It’s all been rather lovely.” But you’re right, he had a tough life, personally. As a producer says in the TV play, “He suffers so beautifully!”

    Apparently Dutch tilts were originally Deutsch tilts, because of the whole expressionism thing. The Netherlands are notoriously flat so it doesn’t make sense they’d originate there.

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