Friday, March 16, 2012

In Which We Serve

In Which We Serve is one of those famous British movies with a reputation that transcends the actual movie.  It was made in the middle of the 2nd World War, and includes many of the top British actors of the day.  All the officers have posh accents; the lower classes talk in a variety of dialects.  Noel Coward did practically everything on the movie: wrote the script, produced it, co-directed it with David Lean, and wrote the music.  I've only just caught up with it for the first time.

Ronald Neame was the cinematographer, and the only shots that don't stand out are those drawn from stock footage of battles.  Otherwise, each shot is wonderfully clear and clean, beautifully lit and framed.  The opening, with its documentary style of the building of the ship that is the feature of the story, has taken lessons from Eisenstein, perhaps.

It's a little difficult now to feel so emotional about the ship, but the actors - in particular, Coward - give us every reason to do so.   Coward is a very upper middle-class Captain, humane and generous: the very model of a proper Naval Captain.  Celia Johnson plays his wife and they have some warm scenes together in the various flashbacks that fill up most of the film's centre (Daniel Massey, aged nine, appears as Coward's young son.  He would later play Coward himself in Star).  Bernard Miles is the Chief Petty Officer, and we get to see some of his home life too; Joyce Carey plays his wife and Kathleen Harrison his mother-in-law.

Production shot from the movie
Coward has given all his characters some decent scenes to play; some of the 'moments' might seem unoriginal to us now, but it's mostly because they've been copied over and again by later writers and directors.   A fairly young John Mills is the lowest ranking seaman; he falls in love quickly with a young girl on a train (Kay Walsh) and marries her (their baby is played by Mills' own daughter, Juliet).  Their brief time together is sharply drawn without excessive sentimentality.  Michael Wilding also gets a girl, but his scenes are very short and not built up in the same way as the other three.

There are many other familiar names: Richard Attenborough (as a young seaman who deserts his post), Derek Elphinstone, Philip Friend, Hubert Gregg, James Donald, Lionel Grose, Lesley Dwyer, to name just a few.

The film's shape is a little odd: it begins with a superb sea battle, moves to the loss of the ship that's so important to the film, and to the drifting of a dozen or so seamen on a raft.  From this point, we shift back and forth between the raft and the characters' back stories: these are developed to a degree, but they don't contribute to a unified whole.  Nor does the ship itself really make us feel it's the centre of the story, which means there's a kind of lack in the structure.  For all that, the film moves along at a good pace, and the direction and acting keep us from noticing too much about how it's all put together.

It's also perhaps difficult in hindsight to feel comfortable with Coward in such an authoritarian role, but when the film was first shown there would have been little difficultiy for the audiences in accepting him as shown.   We've long since moved past the point when Coward was such a star in both the theatre and the movies.

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