Archive for The Way Ahead

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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Film is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by dcairns

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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.