“It is these men, in peace or war, to whom we owe so much. Above all victories, beyond all loss, in spite of changing values and a changing world they give to us, their countrymen, eternal and indominitable pride.”
I am ploughing through the David Lean collection I have mentioned many times before – this is the first collaboration between Noel Coward and David Lean – and the success, no doubt, determined the future. Based on the destroyer HMS Kelly, In Which We Serve is a British Propaganda film detailing the exploits of HMS ‘Torrin’ led by Captain Kinross – played with all the British-delivery-of-dialogue that could be offered by Noel Coward himself. Coward, additionally, composed the music. He was already a very strong figure in the theatre scene – having only recently released Blithe Spirit on the West End.
The Story in Reverse
Akin to many modern period films, In Which We Serve utilised the advatage of non-linear story-telling, something that would be hard to produce on stage. The beginning sets us amongst the Navy on boar5d the HMS ‘Torrin’ as it begins attacking another ship – the ship send bombs and torpedoes and, shortly into the the sequence, Noel Coward is ordering everyone to abandon ship. As the remaining few sailors hold onto a
small dinghy, the film flashes back to the backgrounds of each character. Primarily, Noel Coward himself and his family – and wife played by Celia Johnson, John Mills – who has recently got married and we see his days of courting leading to his marriage and set-up at home and Bernard Miles – whose very clear Northern accent provides a lot of comedy. These flashbacks continue …
It goes without stating that, as propaganda, this is very pro-Navy/pro-Military/pro-War… but the film attempts to show the struggles and strain that inevitably affect others. In one situation we see how, during the blitz, a house is bombed killing a primary characters wife and Mother. The character has no children, but this man valiantly continues – for Queen and Country. In another instance, we see briefly one character – played by Richard Attenborough – as he decides to hide rather than assist during an attack. Noel Cowards ‘Kinross’ makes a very proper example of him – showing how his lack of duty puts the safety of his fellow sailors and the ship at risk. But alas, Kinross states that if it happens again – or if anyone else commits the same ‘crime’ – they will be taken away.
The actors are flawless – John Mills is clearly the character who we would all hope to be. Smart, sensible and considerate of others – in one touching sequence he personally feeds another sailor as the sailor has damaged his arms. Celia Johnson is incredible – again, this was her first appearance in a a David Lean film, prior to Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed. Opposite Noel Coward, she is clearly such an emotional prescence – the ying to his yang – as she balances the warmth of emotion to his cold and strict demenour.
Family and Relationships
Unlike many war films, rather than focussing on the action and fast-paced sequences (though there are plenty) this is clearly an attempt at accuracy (attempt being the operative word…). Many women are cast as the wives to the sea men and they are much more than attachments to a character – you see in Joyce Carey how her chatty attitude balances Bernard Miles very slow-talking, yorkshire attitude. Everything is rooted in their home lives – the support and love of the family at home is what gets them through. Again, you see absolute fear and hope as Celia Johnson picks up the letter containing news about her husband…
Though incredibly patriotic, it has a strong emphasis on home life and the different factors of war placing this film in a unique place. I can’t say I loved it – because it was clearly out dated and Coward’s stiff-British Captain was problematic but, as I read elsewhere, the non-linear story and seamless shift in tone between each situation shows a clear understanding of narrative and, most importantly, detail. The complex procedures in place on a ship or on the battlefield is an integral part of the military – especially during war – and a film that implies that war is a simple concept grossly misrepresents a very complex and complicated situation.