This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.
As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later, in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.
The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Warner), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.
The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.
The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.
Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.
Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.
I remember seeing the film in the early 1950s. I was impressed then. Two aspects in particular struck me. One was Jack Warner playing against the type he became in the 1950s. And the final shot of John Slater as Emile; a shot that remained with me.
The European actors certainly brought a sense of authenticity to the film.
Good film. Good review,
Small quibble: Max was played by Jack Warner, not Jack Hawkins.
Oh dear! That’s the second time I’ve done that and I have no idea why since I’ve been watching both of them for more than 50 years. Many thanks for flagging it up and I’ve corrected the error.
I saw this film long after going on a school trip to Belgium in 1967. I immediately recognised the car chase location as the same place we stayed. It was Bouillon in the Ardennes.
Part of the car chase went up a hill out of the village which is where we stayed in The Panorama Hotel. It was used by the Germans in the Second World War as the headquarters for panzer division stationed there.
Thanks Brian. What an excellent memory you have and I’m glad the film could take you back to your school trip.