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Top Five British WWII films made during WWII

I'm a bit of a cineaste, albeit one that doesn't get to see many films these days. As a child, I grew up with depictions of World War Two on television every public holiday: Easters and Christmases were filled with Where Eagles Dare, The Battle of the Bulge, A Bridge Too Far and the like. While I still have a bit of a soft spot for these, their depictions of WWII are often close to revisionist in the way that they play fast and loose with the facts. I've come to appreciate the very specific genre of British-made films, and the way that they portray the British experience in WWII. Moreover, I have a specific interest in those films that were made during WWII, when an Allied victory was by no means a certainty. These films are propaganda - I can't deny that - but they speak volumes about contemporary British society through the way that they try to engage with and exhort the British viewing public.

There are number of films about the British experience that have failed to make it onto this list for one reason or another. To my undying shame, I've failed to watch all of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and I haven't seen any of A Canterbury Tale. Rest assured, both are on my to-see list.

Mrs. Miniver was excluded from the list as a US production, while the marvellous A Matter of Life and Death was released in 1946, one year too late (The Way to the Stars fails by an even narrower margin, being released a scant month after VE Day).

5. Night Train to Munich (1940)

This is a bit of a cheat; it isn't strictly speaking a film about the war in Europe (or the war at home, for that matter), but a thriller set against the backdrop of the German invasion of Prague. A Czech scientist and his daughter flee the Nazis, with Rex Harrison playing the hero, Paul Henreid playing the villain (though he makes a better hero than villain, as in Casablanca (1942) for example), and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprising their roles as the cricket-mad English duffers Charters and Caldicott (previously seen in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes).

I have to admit, Charters and Caldicott are my main reasons for choosing this film. They appeared in two other wartime films: Crook's Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). I've not seen the latter, unfortunately; by all accounts, it sounds a little like The Gentle Sex (1943) without the (unintentionally) patronising voiceover.

4. The First of the Few (1942)

This is a film with local appeal for me. The First of the Few follows the development of the Spitfire by R.J Mitchell; I live on the northern edge of Southampton, a brisk ten minute walk from the airport from which the Spitfire took its maiden flight. Few also has the distinction of being Leslie Howard's last film; he died in 1943 on the way back from Lisbon when his plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay

For a film about the Spitfire, it has remarkably few flying scenes (unsurprising, given that the Spitfires were in greater demand in the theatre of war than in the studio). If I wanted something more spectacular in that line, I'd choose the 1969 film Battle of Britain, but not for this top five.

3. The Way Ahead (1944)

A fairly standard training tale, directed by Carol Reed and script-written by Peter Ustinov. David Niven as the commander of a unit of new recruits, with William Hartnell as the sergeant trying to turn a mismatched group of civvies into soldiers. Excellent realistic cinematography, with pleasingly unstereotyped performances from the ensemble cast.

2. In Which We Serve (1942)

Noel Coward's contribution to wartime morale, supposedly based on the exploits of Lord Louis Mountbatten. Notable for the screen debut of a very young Dickie Attenborough, and a nicely measured role by John Mills (I almost put 1943's We Dive at Dawn in this slot, on the strength of Mills' role there, but Attenborough's presence meant this won out).

1. Went the Day Well? (1942)

Went the Day Well? is a film by the redoubtable Ealing Studio. Based on a story by Graham Greene, it follows the inhabitants of the sleepy village of Bramley End when they are invaded by German paratroopers disguised as British soldiers. It's a genuinely shocking film to those raised on the easy certainties of WWII films of the 1960s and later, and a very effective piece of propaganda; characters are killed without warning, and there are a couple of false starts before the situation is resolved.

In the running, but not placing, were the Powell and Pressburger collaborations One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and The Silver Fleet (1943) - embarrassingly, no Powell and Pressburger films have made my list, though A Matter of Life and Death only missed out due to its release date.

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Excellent short list. Millions Like Us is worth watching, there are others that cover the home front (This Happy Breed).

There are also the comedy ones, not worthy of being in the top five but fun, and a sub-genre in themselves - The Foreman Went to France with Tommy Trinder, Will Hay's The Goose Steps Out.

I like the early films, like Mrs Miniver, that were designed to portray plucky little Britain standing alone, especially to get the Americans on side. Pimpernel Smith is a good example.

I don't think that I've ever seen Millions Like Us in the TV schedules; it took me quite some time before I saw Night Train. I shall keep an eye out.

As an aside, did you realise that Carol Reed had originally wanted Radford and Wayne to play Charters and Caldicott in The Third Man, in the cultural attache role eventually played by Wilfred Hyde-White? (the characters were unavailable for contractual reasons)

Millions is on FilmFour sometimes, in the afternoons.

Much as I like Wilfred Hyde-White, that would have been something.

The opening to Went the Day Well? is a heck of a lot like the opening to Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Thanks for the link and list.

I hadn't noticed the parallel before - you're quite right.

I would recommend both A Canterbury Tale and Colonel Blimp to you - the latter is a particularly powerful piece that infuriated Churchill and has two superb central performances.

Went the day well is wonderful. I first saw it a couple of years ago on MOre 4 one afternoon. I was instantly hooked. To think that it was made at the height of the war. The killings. The casting of the traitor is inspired. NO wonder it was ripped off years later for the Eagle has landed.

Why did Colonel Blimp infuriate Churchill ?

Too sympathetic a portayal of the Germans

Oh, yes. But I think that it shines as an example of being able to distinguish human relations from seeing a whole nation as an enemy.

I rather like the film, for all its shortcomings.

But I think that it shines as an example of being able to distinguish human relations from seeing a whole nation as an enemy.


Churchill, however, was not keen on that view and wanted pure propaganda.

Churchill is said to have confronted Anton Walbrook who was appearing in the West End.. He asked Walbrook what Blimp meant and whether he thought it was good propaganda. Walbrook replied,

"No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage in the midst of war to tell the people such unvarnished truth." (from AL Kennedy's BFI Film Classic book on the film)

I've some embarrassing gaps when it comes to classic British film (and indeed to classic film in general - I've not watched Citizen Kane in a single sitting). I think that I'll be dropping gentle hints to ias that I might like the DVDs and the time to watch them...

And yes, my introduction to Went the Day Well? was on afternoon television while I was off sick. I just wish that I had such good films every time I was on sick leave. The most recent time I was off, I saw The Silver Fleet and Very Important Person (with James Justice Robertson, Stanley Baxter, Eric Sykes, John le Mesurier, Leslie Philips and Jeremy Lloyd - worth seeing), so it wasn't a complete loss.

Edited at 2007-12-01 07:20 pm (UTC)

I've seen the final 15 minutes or so of Very Important person as JRJ walks out of the POW camp speaking German. It looked like the sort of thing I'd have enjoyed.

By the way JRJ was outed as a Londoner in a recent edition of the Scotsman. His Scottishness was an affectation.

VIP is a lot of fun. Leslie Philips is excellent. There's a bio of JRJ due out early next year, really looking forward to it.

At last someone else who has heard of "A Matter of Life and Death", one of my favourites :).
I would posit that we were still at war after VE day, there was still fighting out in the east and only until VJ day did hostilities cease. So if "The Way to the Stars" came out before 15th August then I would think that its a viable contender. Even if its just for this.
For Johnny by John Pudney

For Johnny
by John Pudney

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

Nuff said I think

But surely they'd at least started photography during European phase of the war?

I'm surprised I didn't say this at the time, but I've argued in the past that Went the Day Well, or at least the genre of invasion literature of which it is an exemplar, is tremendously influential on British sf. Both Wyndham and Kneale are influenced by that genre, and thorugh them, the influence is passed on to Pertwee era Doctor Who.

Yes, I can see that. I'd also argue that the generation of British sf writers who were active in the two decades following WWII would have had direct experience of the threat of invasion, so there isn't necessarily a literary influence at play.

Having finally seen Night Train to Munich, it isn't a cheat at all. The German occupation of Czechoslovakia is the background to the early part of the film, but the latter half takes place in September 1939. Charters and Caldicott are told by the station-mistress that, contrary to what they believed, war was declared by France that afternoon, and Britain that morning.

I think that the distinction that I was trying to make was between a film *about* WWII (either the experience of the armed forces, or that on the home front), and a film which is *set during* WWII and uses it as a backdrop for some other story. I'd use Casablanca as the prime example of this second category of films.

Ah, that makes sense. Yes, Casablanca isn't the normal sort of war movie, though it's more of a war movie (for instance, being virulently anti-Vichy propaganda) than It's A Wonderful Life, which is probably a better example of what you're talking about.

Edited at 2009-02-03 04:22 pm (UTC)

Yes, it's a spectrum rather than a straight dichotomy.

(and I'd completely forgotten that the flashbacks in It's A Wonderful Life take you through the war years)

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