The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.
The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.
The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).
I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.
The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.
The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.
The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.
I read about this film many years ago but could never find it. I think it has now been restored in France, but the print I watched was OK (I don’t know its provenance). On its release in 1946, René Clément’s film was compared to the earliest works of Italian neo-realism, especially Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Like that film it offers a narrative about the final years of occupation, this time in France. The neo-realist tag refers to both the number of non-professional actors, the location shooting and the use of long shot to encompass the contribution of many characters to the overall story. Once the euphoria of liberation and the promotion of the ‘myth’ of résistance had subsided, the film was then subject to a revisionist view and Clément found himself in the late 1950s/early 1960s subject to attacks from Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, despite his high reputation for films such as Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952). See, in particular, the discussion by critics in Cahiers 71, May 1957, included in Jim Hillier’s edited collection of Cahiers excerpts Vol 1: 1950s (BFI/Harvard UP 1985). They accuse Clément of taking a turn away from neo-realism and indulging in ‘academicism’ – going for expensive international films. Jacques Rivette is especially rude claiming that Clément (along with Henri Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara) is a “coward . . . corrupted by money”.
When I first saw Plein de soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) I realised just how misguided Truffaut and co. were. The general revisionist view of French résistance and collaboration is a more complex issue. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, especially in our discussion of Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996), the common myth circulated within French culture in the 1950s and up to the 1980s/90s was that most French people were actively engaged as résistance fighters or Nazi collaborators. Historians think now that most French people just tried to live their lives during the Occupation (or the closed world of collaborationist Vichy). Only a minority were actively resisting or collaborating. How individuals fared after 1940 was much more nuanced than the myth allowed.
Clément was unlucky in that one of the ‘godfathers’ of La nouvelle vague was Jean-Pierre Melville who had been active in the resistance and who went on to make important films set during the occupation including Le Silence de la mer (1949) and L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Clément himself had previously made short films, including short documentaries from the mid 1930s onwards (he was born in 1913). One of these shorts, Ceux de rail (1942) depicted a rail journey from Nice to Marseille and appears to have prompted the ‘National Résistance’ organisation to encourage Clément to make La Bataille du rail.
The ‘Battle’ depicts the efforts by French railway workers to sabotage train movements and to hinder by any means possible the contribution of the railway system to the German war effort. In the early part of the film, Clément offers a montage of incidents showing how resistance fighters could be smuggled past German checkpoints inside a locomotive tender or in compartments used to transport animals, how bombs could be planted on locomotives and brakes cut or fuel drained away. In these scenes it is difficult to identify any significant characters or a specific narrative. Instead, this part of the film functions almost as a documentary – a manual on how to subvert the railway system. It’s worth noting that Clément begins the film with a warning posted by the Germans forbidding Jews to cross the ‘demarcation line’ between Vichy and the Occupied Zone. We see a woman and child be led away from a train at the border checkpoint.
In the second part of the film there is a strong narrative and some individualised characters. The narrative is a form of the classic ‘locomotive chase’ (i.e. like the Buster Keaton film The General). It is June 1944 and the Allies have landed in Normandy. The Germans need to re-inforce their Atlantic defences. Various troop trains and trains carrying tanks and field artillery are marshalled to be sent to Normandy. The résistance charges the railway workers to stop the trains at all costs. Some are derailed or bridges are blown-up. Eventually the narrative focuses on one branch line and one small town and Clément revels in the details of the workers’ methods and then an attack on an armoured train by the maquis. This is a very accomplished technical achievement by Clément and his cinematographer Henri Alekan. The production had the full support of SNCF and I’ve rarely seen shots of freight yards and engine sheds/turntables etc. as extensive as these in a fiction film. Clément doesn’t get lost in technicalities. There are key scenes involving railway workers (cheminots) taken by the Germans as hostages and executed in an attempt to deter sabotage. The German armoured train was preceded by a flat car carrying forced labour. When sabotaged track was spotted, the forced labour would be required to re-lay the track under German guns. The presence of the forced labour was also a problem for the maquis, who needed to avoid killing the innocent. We do in this second narrative recognise the regional track controller who organises the sabotage and any other methods to thwart the Germans. We also see his ‘fixer’ who is sent out by motor bike to relay instructions.
Although there are these individuated characters, La Bataille du rail does differ from the films of Rossellini (i.e. Rome, Open City and Paisa) in the way that it avoids ‘personal, emotional stories’ and therefore melodrama. Instead, it appears that everyone is allied in the attempt to defeat the Germans – not something that was necessarily the case but certainly something that would be supported by the film’s producers and sponsors, the National Résistance Council and SNCF.
I hope to find more examples of René Clément’s work in the 1940s and 1950s in order to see if the Cahiers criticism is valid. Susan Hayward in French National Cinema (Routledge 1993) calls La Bataille du rail, the French résistance film, though she also makes the point that it can be misread as creating the myth of résistance. Clément went on to make several other films set during the war. The late 1940s was a key period for films like this.
There is a useful essay on the film by Adrian Danks on Senses of Cinema.
Here’s an extract from the film in which, having already derailed a train, a railway worker sets out to sabotage the crane which is being used to clear wagons from the track (the sequence is largely dialogue free):
It’s a moment to celebrate when a major South Korean film gets a UK release and from this weekend in the UK you have the opportunity to see it – as long as you live in one of a handful of major cities. When films from the revived South Korean film industry arrived in the UK from the late 1990s onwards it quickly became apparent that most of them were beautifully produced with a high level of technical skill and aesthetic understanding and that there are plenty of accomplished actors as well as skilled directors. It then quickly emerged that there were certain directors who were interested in marrying genre ideas from other cinemas with forms of Korean story-telling and aspects of Korean history and culture. Kim Jee-woon is one such director, first introduced to UK audiences with the immaculate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) and the slick gangster/crime film A Bittersweet Life (2005). Since then we’ve had releases for his ‘kimchi Western’, The Good the Bad and the Weird (2008), the hunt for a serial killer, I Saw the Devil (2011) and Kim’s American outing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (2013). There are other titles that I don’t think have made it to UK cinemas.
The Age of Shadows is at heart a ‘resistance movie’, although technically it isn’t set in wartime. Ignore all the taglines that say it is a ‘spy movie’. I watched the film on a plane, poorly screened and cut by several minutes I think (it is listed as a 140 minutes in cinemas) and I missed the credit that all the press reviewers picked up. Consequently, I struggled to place the time period. The story is based on real events – a plot by an underground resistance group to explode bombs inside a government building in Seoul during the 1920s. The Japanese had been in direct control of Korea since 1910 (and indirectly since 1876). Kim’s film goes beyond a tense thriller to embrace two major action sequences and the soul-searching drama of a central character torn between personal survival and complicated feelings of patriotism. This is Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean who has become a Captain in the Japanese Police – and who is played by the great Song Kang-ho. He must report to his Japanese commander and attempt to infiltrate the resistance group represented by two star actors, Kim Woo-jin (recently in Train to Busan (South Korea 2016) and Lee Byung-hun (seen briefly in The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)) with Han Ji-min as the female lead. Han is not really given enough to do and this, for me, seemed to be the weakest aspect of the film.
The action scenes are terrific with wonderful set design and well integrated CGI. The action ranges from Shanghai (where the resistance collect explosives) to Seoul with the excitement of the train confrontation in between. Song is very good and the narrative and his playing mean that we are never quite sure how he is going to act, torn between pragmatism and idealism. In his Sight and Sound (April 2017) review, Roger Clarke suggests that the film’s title is a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic World War Two resistance film Army of Shadows (1969). That certainly fits in the sense that Kim would surely know the film (and I’m sure he knows the Hitchcock films that might inform his train confrontation). It’s also an interesting reference to cultural exchanges after Melville’s adoption of East Asian film culture in Le samouraï (1967). It’s almost as if Kim is retrieving Melville’s borrowing. Melville is also borrowed by various Hong Kong filmmakers for gangster films (see Vengeance (HK-France 2009). But Kim may also be borrowing from Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (China/Taiwan/US 2007). I think the real force of the Melville allusion is in the torture scenes when the resistance members are captured by the Japanese. The film suddenly got serious for me at that point.
I’d love to watch the film again on a big screen where I’m sure it will look wonderful. Unfortunately the distributor Soda’s engagements seem to miss out Leeds/Bradford completely. Outside London the film is screening at the major independent arthouses such as Watershed, HOME and Showroom and various Cineworlds and Odeons. Bizarrely, however, if you live in Manchester or Sheffield, you can choose an arthouse or a multiplex but if you live in Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester or several other big cities, you are denied an opportunity. See the full list of screenings on the Soda website.
There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime, Robert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.
The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).
Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.
There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.
At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.
Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.
So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.
One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.
The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.
My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.
One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay
I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.