Entry from June 20, 2013

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of Why We Fight: War Movies and War, Then and Now. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson  websites for details or to register to attend. The series opened on Wednesday, June 19th with a screening of In Which We Serve (1942) by Noel Coward and David Lean, starring Coward himself, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh and Michael Wilding. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

The four-word title, In Which We Serve, consists of a subject and verb preceded by an adverbial phrase: the preposition “in” and what we grammarians call a relative pronoun, “which” — which is a token standing in for an absent noun, its antecedent. Except that, standing at the head of what is to come, this one has no antecedent, no noun which has gone before to tell us what “which” refers to. Which means that it calls our attention to an absence. We learn in the course of the movie that the phrase comes from a prayer and the antecedent there is the fleet, but the first words we hear on the sound-track, delivered in voiceover narration by Leslie Howard — also known as Ashley Wilkes to you Gone With the Wind fans — fill the absence by telling us that “This is the story of a ship.” And it is this ship, a destroyer named HMS Torrin whose construction we watch in the film’s opening, documentary like passages, “in which we serve.”

The Torrin, however, is missing not only from the title, but from most of the movie as well. Or at least it is from the movie’s present, which jumps from the Torrin’s construction and launch in 1939, on the eve of war, to the action off Crete two years later in which she is sunk by a German bomber. Most of In Which We Serve thereafter consists of extended flashbacks — between ten and fifteen of them, depending on how you count — to events of the previous two years both on shipboard and in the households ashore of three of the ship’s crew: the Captain, E.V. Kinross, known as “D,” played by Noel Coward (who also directed, wrote the screenplay and composed the music), chief petty officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Ordinary Seaman “Shorty” Blake (John Mills). The flashbacks are punctuated by five or six very brief episodes back in the present as we see the oil-covered survivors of the Torrin’s loss clinging to a Carley float in the Mediterranean and dodging bullets from German planes that continue to strafe them from the sky. The transitions from present to past are marked by what are called “oil dissolves” — those watery images that are most often used to suggest dream sequences.

This may sound a hopelessly complex structure, but it is in fact it is quite easy to follow. Partly that is because of the limited focus on only a few people, and the fact that the flashbacks follow one another in chronological order, and partly because Coward and his co-director David Lean, who in fact did most of the direction and all of the editing, provide clever links between the flashbacks and between the flashbacks and the present-time shots of the men on the raft to add coherence. To illustrate what I mean, I would like to take you, very briefly, through the most complex of the flashbacks, the fifth one by my count — which, as it is in four parts, could be considered four separate flashbacks. But since they all take place at Christmas time, 1939 — on the ship and at dinner in the three separate households I mentioned earlier — the four parts also have a unity of their own.

In the first part, we hear the voiceover of the launch of the Torrin: “God bless this ship and all who sail in her” to the strains of the Navy hymn: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (also known as “For those in Peril on the Sea”) — sometimes said to be the only hymn used in the then-routine shipboard religious services to which sailors never supplied a bawdy alternative verse. We then cut to the men singing it at such a religious service on the Torrin. When the hymn concludes, the Captain offers a prayer and then they sing a Christmas carol: “Good King Wenceslaus.” As we cut to part two, children are singing the same carol in a street outside the Blake home in a working-class neighborhood of London. “Shorty” Blake’s family is sitting down to Christmas dinner and there is a good-natured argument between Seaman Blake and his brother-in-law Albert Fosdick (Mickey Anderson), a Royal Marine, as to which service is the more important to the war effort. The argument ends in the Christmas spirit as Shorty offers a toast to the Royal Marines and “Bert” returns the toast: to all the navy’s destroyers and the Torrin in particular.

The family sitting down to Christmas dinner is then repeated in both the third and fourth parts of this flashback, but with the other two families we have been following in reverse order of rank: first that of Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy in the Navy town of Plymouth. Walter is trying, as usual, to keep the peace between his wife, Kath (Joyce Carey) and her mother (Dora Gregory), who lives with them. Kath reproves Walter for using the swear word “bloody” — a reminder that sailors were known for their salty language, back in the days before pretty much everyone became known for salty language — and Walter speaks, perhaps unconsciously, of his devotion, “with every fibre of my being,” to the ship as if he were speaking of a woman. The implication of a female rival to his wife is then taken up explicitly in part four, as we cut to Christmas dinner in the Kinross household. There we meet “Flags” (Michael Wilding), another officer of the Torrin and his new fiancée, Maureen, whom the Captain’s wife — played by Celia Johnson whom you may remember from Brief Encounter five years ago in this series — warns of the lot of the naval wife: “Wherever she goes in her life, there is always a permanent and undefeated rival, her husband’s ship.” Like Shorty, however, she then proposes a toast to “my rival,” the Torrin, and wonders how “anyone could be so fond and so proud of someone who is her implacable enemy.”

With that we return to the men in and around the float as they look at the upturned screws of the Torrin nearby.”The best ship I ever served in, Sir.” says one of them to the Captain before the German plane comes back to strafe them again. Shorty Blake is wounded in the arm and, as they strip his sleeve we see the tattoo on his arm reading: “Freda” — whereupon we cut to the next flashback in which Shorty, on a train going home on leave, meets Freda (Kay Walsh), who turns out to be the niece by marriage of Walter Hardy and whom Shorty will marry in the following flashback. These things happen quickly in wartime. And, of course, that’s the point. The “story of a ship” is told as a series of rapidly unfolding memories of those who serve in her — memories of the most significant moments of their lives which happen both on and off the ship. As these memories begin while the men are still in the water and in imminent danger of being killed, they and the oil dissolves that seem to produce them may suggest a life “flashing before the eyes” that is said to precede death.

The effect of all this, to my mind anyway, is to stress again and again and again the concentric circles of community surrounding the Torrin. First, the community of the ship itself — a happy ship as the Captain stresses he means to make her on the first of four occasions when he addresses the officers and men of the Torrin as a body — then that of the community of mothers and fathers and children and wives and sweethearts ashore who also stick together and, beyond that, the community of the nation as a whole, brought together by a common existential purpose. But that national community is hardly mentioned until the very end of the film. There was a widespread sense in Britain — as, to a lesser extent, in America at the time — that the language of patriotism and honor had been overused in the First World War, which was still a fresh memory to all the older people in the film. The young ones on more than one occasion respectfully tell their elders to shut up about the last war. This war was different, they believed. And if people still needed to feel inspired by a sense of what they were fighting for, it couldn’t be just with glib words about love of country. Something subtler was required, and something subtler, more local and recognizable, is what Coward’s film supplied.

One indication in the movie itself of how many among the young felt a sense of grievance and even betrayal by the older generation who, as they supposed, had bungled the peace after the last war, is the shot near the beginning of a newspaper rising to the surface after a British ship has been sunk. It is The Daily Express, and the headline reads: “No War This Year.” Now the proprietor of The Daily Express was the Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook, lampooned by Evelyn Waugh as Lord Copper in Scoop and Lord Monomark in Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags. He had been a supporter of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies before the war, but Churchill brought him into the War Cabinet as Minister of Aircraft Production and, later, Minister of War Production. Beaverbrook was so enraged by this scene that he and his newspapers blacklisted — he preferred the term “boycotted” — Noel Coward thereafter.

The other main point of contact with the real war that was still going on, its issue still in doubt, at the time the movie was made, was Lord Louis Mountbatten, later to be known as Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the uncle of Lt. Philip Mountbatten of the Royal Navy, later to be known as Prince Philip and Duke of Edinburgh. Mountbatten was instrumental in bringing his nephew together with Princess Elizabeth, whom of course he was to marry before she became Britain’s queen. Mountbatten was also close to Churchill, or at least he was until, after the war, he helped arrange the partition of India and the transition to independence as the last Viceroy. At this time, however, he was Captain of a destroyer called H.M.S. Kelly which went down off Crete in just the way that the Torrin does in the movie. Coward, who was a close friend of Mountbatten’s, based his character in the film on him, or on a slightly idealized version of him, and the four speeches to the officers and men of the Torrin that I mentioned earlier are said to have been based on similar speeches on similar occasions made by Mountbatten.

They come across, as do all Captain Kinross’s dealings with other ranks, as affectionate and fatherly, and it is hard not to think that the propaganda purposes of In Which We Serve included not only portrayals of men and events that were pro-British but also pro- the British class system as it still existed before the war. Captain Kinross assumes a position of superiority to the men of the Torrin that goes well beyond that accruing to his naval rank, and the men in turn seem to acknowledge this superiority without resenting it, which is presumably the most idealized feature of the movie’s portrayal of British life. That said, however, the fatherly affection for them on the Captain’s part and its filial return by the men do not look false, not to my eye anyway, though they may look slightly out of date. Kinross knows by name all the men who have served with him before, and when the survivors of the Torrin are returned to Alexandria and sent on their various ways as replacements for men who have been killed on other ships, he says good-bye and good luck to each of them individually.

This final scene of the film contrasts with the complex cutting involved in so much of the rest of it by being done in a few long takes. As it consists of nothing but the faces the Captain and of the men, some of them badly wounded, as they say good-bye to him, it may seem intolerably slow by the standards of today. This is just one of a number of things that fortuitously remind us of how different both the people and the movies of today are from those of the time and place of In Which We Serve. Another, as will be increasingly apparent to those who follow this summer’s series of movies to the end, is the central place given here to another absence even more noticeable to us, perhaps, than the absence of the ship, since it is a central presence in virtually every war movie made during the last half century. I refer, of course, to the absence of overt emotion in response to the horrors and bereavements of war. More even than it is a paean to the British upper classes, the movie is a paean to the British stiff upper lip which must have evolved through the democratic turmoil of the preceding century as part of, if not the whole of, the reason why the upper classes felt themselves entitled to their position of social pre-eminence, as well as being a marker of their Britishness.

Certainly in the movie we see the impressive emotional continence of the Captain and his family, dressed up as it is with a sense of irony and a dry wit, and this is spread among the other ranks as a natural concomitant of their devotion to duty. The only person allowed to show more than the hint of emotion is the nameless sailor, played by a very young Richard Attenborough, who leaves his post in the heat of battle and who is remorse-stricken about it afterwards — perhaps less on his own account than on that of the Captain, whose forgiveness and willingness to take the blame on himself have presumably heaped coals of burning fire upon the young man’s head. He has let down not just his superior officer but someone who is assumed by everyone and not just himself to occupy something more like the place of a parent to the men under him. All military organizations are of necessity hierarchical, but what sets this one apart from those we shall see in the weeks to come is a sense of continuity between the military hierarchy and that which still exists in the society at large. The one may therefore be supposed to be as natural and necessary as the other.

This, is one reason why In Which We Serve is so successful in conveying that sense of community which is finally what earns it the right to a little, a very little, patriotic tub-thumping at the end as Leslie Howard returns, less than a year before his plane was to be shot down over the Bay of Biscay, to say:

Here ends the story of a ship. But there will always be other ships. We are an island race. Through all our centuries the sea has ruled our destiny. There will always be other ships and men to sail in them. 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 indomitable pride.

There follows a sequence of ships launching and the white ensign of the Royal Navy waving proudly that suggest a return to the documentary feel of the beginning. There is an understated patriotism here, but the tribute is more from the country to the Royal Navy than it is to the country itself. That’s why, I think, in that final scene I mentioned a minute ago, the Captain can get away with saying he has come to say good-bye to those few who are left of his crew and then, of the dead, “if they had to die, what a grand way to go.” Some of you may think he doesn’t get away with it. As Holden Caulfield was to point out less than a decade later, the word “grand,” always sounds phony to anyone born after 1930. So, for that matter, does patriotism itself to many people born only a few years later. But it may be worth our while to make the imaginative effort necessary to feel again what the people of wartime Britain must have felt about why they fought. You never know when we ourselves might need that kind of patriotism again.

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