1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.
By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.
During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.
Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”
Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”
Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”
Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”
Fiona: “That’s terrible!”
The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.
Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.
What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.
Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.
Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.
The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.
The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.
Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.