| Built around a complex flashback structure partially inspired by Citizen Kane (1941), In Which We Serve is a particularly memorable World War II British propaganda film, having successfully outlived its initial propagandistic value and solidified into a timelessly moving drama of human determination and tenacity. The film marked the directorial debut of two great talents—Noel Coward and David Lean—neither of whom had intended to be directors. Coward was, at the time, the most well-known playwright in the western world, although his mind-boggling breadth of talent also extended to acting, songwriting, and painting. He was an internationally famous figure, the very epitome of upper-class British wit (although he grew up working class), which made him a particularly unlikely propagator of a serious war film. David Lean, on the other hand, was the most celebrated editor in British cinema, but had largely resisted stepping into the director’s chair although he proved to be a natural.|
In Which We Serve originated in Coward’s desire to contribute to the war effort, partially driven by the lingering guilt he felt at having been spared duty in World War I. His script was inspired by the real-life exploits of his friend, British naval officer and statesman Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose ship, the HMS Kelly, was sunk during the Battle of Crete. From that initial event, Coward developed a complex narrative that used the sinking of a fictionalized version of the HMS Kelly (renamed the HMS Turrin) and himself playing a Mountbatten-esque captain named “D” Kinross to explore the effects of the war not just on fighting men of different social classes, but also on their families back home. Thus, In Which We Serve encompasses the entire war effort, both the battlefield and the home front, stitching them together into one visceral experience whose singular message is the importance of British victory lest the very notion of the British way of life be extinguished forever.
The film opens with a tightly edited montage of the HMS Turrin being constructed, after which we cut to her in the middle of the Battle of Crete (although he was not credited, Lean edited much of the film himself, in addition to handling the majority of the directing). We are quickly introduced to a number of major characters before the ship is struck with bombs and begins to sink. Surviving crewmembers jump overboard, and a dozen of them wind up clinging to a life raft in the middle of the ocean, exhausted, wounded, covered with diesel fuel, and still at the mercy of German aircraft above.
At this point, the film shifts into various flashbacks to show us the lives of the men on the raft, particularly “D” Kinross, chief petty officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles), and a sailor named Shorty Blake (John Mills). Each of the men comes from a different walk of life, although the tie that binds them all together is the family they have left behind, all of whom are in constant danger from the German blitzes. Kinross’s wife, Alix (Celia Johnson), is as upstanding and dignified as he is, yet they are humanized by both their tenderness toward each other and their desire to forget the war whenever they’re together (at one point Alix says she likes to pretend that the planes dogfighting in the skies above their picnic are just toys). Shorty has just gotten married, and while he is at sea his pregnant wife (Kay Walsh) lives with Hardy’s wife (Joyce Carey) and mother-in-law (Dora Gregory).
Although there are elements of the film that feel a bit stiff by modern standards, the film’s emotional currents persist with raw power, never more so than when one of the men must break the news to someone that a loved one has been killed in the blitz. The sharply etched cinematography by Ronald Neame (who would go on to work with Lean and Coward on three more films and eventually became a director himself) puts a heavy emphasis on the characters’ emotions while also giving the film a sense of scope beyond the stock footage and miniatures used to depict naval battles. And, although many critics and journalists snickered at the idea of the effete and worldly Noel Coward playing a seasoned naval captain, Coward acquits himself admirably, investing Kinross with an air of dignity and determination that, while certainly idealized, never feels false. Like the other men with whom he serves, Kinross is driven by a necessary duty, and while that may have played a perfectly sensible role in the film’s patriotic intentions, outside the wartime context it becomes universal. If anything, In Which We Serve has actually expanded since the World War II era; no longer shackled by the need to encourage shell-shocked Londoners to keep a “stiff upper lip” amidst all the falling German bombs, it can now be seen as a hearty paean to the general notions of collaboration and sacrifice.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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