In Which We Serve

Director: Noel Coward & David Lean
Screenplay: Noel Coward
Stars: Noel Coward (Captain “D” Kinross), John Mills (Shorty Blake), Bernard Miles (Walter Hardy), Celia Johnson (Alix), Kay Walsh (Frida), Joyce Carey (Kath), Derek Elphinstone (Number 1), Richard Attenborough (Young stoker)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1942
Country: U.K.
In Which We Serve Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
In Which We ServeBuilt 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.

In Which We Serve Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
David Lean Directs Noel CowardIn Which We Serve is available exclusively as part of the four-disc “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Brief Encounter (1945). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    SupplementsIn Which We Serve
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre
  • Original theatrical trailer

    This Happy Breed

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Re-release trailer

    Blithe Spirit

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
  • Original theatrical trailer

    Brief Encounter

  • Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait 1971 television documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer

  • Insert booklet featuring essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateMarch 27, 2012

    The transfers for all four films in The Criterion Collection’s “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” boxset were made from elements obtained from the major restoration of Lean’s first 10 films, which was carried out between 2006 and 2008 by the BFI National Archive, Granada International, and the David Lean Foundation under the direction of the BFI’s senior curator Nigel Algar. The restoration work involved both traditional photochemical and digital processes. The 4K transfer of In Which We Serve was made from the original nitrate negative and parts of the nitrate fine-grain master, while the soundtrack was restored from a sound print made from the original negative. The high-definitional scan of both This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit were made from the restoration internegatives, which were produced from the original YCM negatives, while the soundtracks were transferred from sound prints. Brief Encounter’s 4K transfer was made from a duplicate safety negative, while the soundtrack was transferred from a sound print made from the original nitrate track negative. Simply put, the restoration work has resulted in a four stunning presentations, bringing these films as close to their original theatrical presentations as they are likely to look (Lean, ever the perfectionist craftsman, would be pleased). The black-and-white imagery in In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter is sharp and beautifully delineated, with a fine presence of grain and excellent contrast. The transfers of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit boast first-rate representations of three-strip Technicolor, although they make for a fascinating contrast, with the purposely tamped down palette of the former looking quite different from the more traditionally saturated look of the latter. Digital restoration has removed virtually all signs of wear and tear on the films (including the removal of a great deal of mold on This Happy Breed) without overly scrubbing them and losing their filmlike appearance, and the soundtracks are all acceptably clean, with a minimum of ambient hiss and little in the way of aural pops and clicks.
    The supplements are spread fairly evenly across all four discs in the box. Each disc features a new video interview with scholar Barry Day, author and editor of numerous books on Noel Coward, including Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noel Coward (2004) and The Noel Coward Reader (2011). In each of these interviews, which tend to run around 15 minutes in length, Day discusses the specifics of the particular film with a particular focus on Coward’s role in it. On the discs for In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter there are also short retrospective documentaries about the film’s production made for British television in 2000. In Which We Serve includes a lengthy audio recording of a conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre in 1969 and the original theatrical trailer. The disc for This Happy Breed includes both the original and a later re-release trailer for the film along with a 45-minute video interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame, which was recorded in 2010 when he was 99 years old. The Blithe Spirit disc includes the film’s trailer and an episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward, while the Brief Encounter disc includes David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary. Brief Encounter also includes a well-written and informative audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, which appeared on the previous Criterion DVD and was originally recorded in 1995 for the Criterion laser disc. Eder offers a large amount of detail about every aspect of the film, from Lean’s use of sound, to comparisons of the film with Noel Coward’s original play, to discussions of the historical contexts in which the film has been received.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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