Archive for June 2, 2018

Les’s Girls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2018 by dcairns

We’d enjoyed the documentary LESLIE HOWARD: THE MAN WHO GAVE A DAMN on Talking Pictures TV, and this led us to record THE GENTLE SEX, a propaganda film about women in WWII that Howard directed. It’s a little overextended and lacking in plot, but it has some really striking things that make one suspect that, had he lived, Howard could have made some great films.

The pattern of this one is similar to Carol Reed’s THE WAY AHEAD (aka IMMORTAL BATTALION) which did the same thing only with men, and where it differs is where it’s weaker. Rather than showing a disparate group of draftees from all walks of society being shaped into a fighting unit, putting aside their petty differences, it shows a group of volunteers being divided up into different units, performing different tasks and not really overcoming any particular difficulties. One woman is snooty and learns to get over herself, but that’s about it for character arcs. And the tasks performed are things like driving some trucks overnight, which could in theory have been rendered dramatic, but a fair bit of invention would have been required… instead, it’s just a very long sequence of driving.

The film really starts off well, though — Les himself narrates, and is glimpsed from the back as a shadowy figure looking down condescendingly at a bustling railway station, speculating on the movements of the women he sees — “They think they’re helping, I suppose, rushing about. What good can it do, for us? Well let’s swoop down [cue crane shot] and take a closer look at them.”

Les then selects a group for his camera to follow invisibly during the ensuing action. It’s fanciful, almost supernatural, and Howard seems already a kind of ghost of the war. Over the course of the film, his condescension will evaporate as he sees the brave efforts and important accomplishments of the women — HE’S the one with the character arc.

The cast is enjoyable, though most of them are given only one or two characteristics (always a risk in these ensemble pieces the Brits were addicted to) — Rosamund John is (unconvincingly) Scottish and dispenses sweeties; Joan Greenwood is small (but sexy); Barbara Waring is bitchy.

But Lilli Palmer is the whole show — a Polish refugee whose family were killed by the Nazis, she’s motivated by revenge, and has an astonishing speech when her tragic secret finally emerges after much teasing by the script. The scene plays out in the baggage car of an overcrowded train where the women have been forced to camp, and the cattle-car vibe adds a resonance that nobody at the time could have intended.

Even stronger is her reaction when she sees her comrades shoot down an enemy plane. Fiona was wide-eyed at this bit of performance —

           

There’s excitement — anxiety (that the plane might escape) — then a kind of orgasmic ecstasy — a tenderness like she’s looking at a lover — triumph — this is all pretty unsettling, better dissolve to another scene…

Extraordinary. The script is by multiple hands, two men and three women, and something must have been indicated on the page. But kudos to Palmer for coming up with such an extraordinary detailed range of unexpected reactions, and to Howard for recognizing what he had and privileging it in the edit.

 

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