Tagged: Second World War

The Best Years of Our Lives (US 1946)

The sailor, the flyer and the soldier, heading home

It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and  UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?

Outline

Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.

Fred with Al’s daughter Peggy

Commentary

The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.

One of Al’s problems is a propensity to drink too much but Millie is there to hold him up

I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.

Homer struggles to be comfortable with Wilma. In these scene Wilma comes round to find him cleaning his rifle, a potentially clichéd symbol of his masculinity but carried through by the performances. She helps him into his pyjama jacket.

The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!

Fred with his wife Marie

There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract  was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.

Fred’s father reads out the citation for a medal his son has won and Hortense listens . . .

Fred wanders through the graveyard of bombers waiting to be scrapped

One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.

Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus enables photography to create a narrative (see below)

Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel  and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming:

Man in the Middle (UK-US 1964)

This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.

The defence bench in the court martial with Lt Winston (Keenan Wynn) next to Lt-Col Adams. This is a set at Elstree.

The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.

Presumably this is second unit footage in India?

The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.

Lt-Col Adams approaches his jeep driven by Sgt Jackson (Errol John)

As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel  The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?

Adams visits Winston in the military prison

When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.

Major Kensington ((Trevor Howard) probably has the best understanding of what is behind the shooting

Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.

There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.

Addendum

In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.

Emperor (US-Japan 2012)

The poster presents General MacArthur as an ‘Emperor’ figure

An unusual film, Emperor is an independent US-Japanese co-production with an ambiguous title. The narrative focuses on the dilemma presented to the Allied Occupation forces in late August 1945 concerning the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Should he be tried as a war criminal (and possibly executed) or be allowed to remain as Head of State with restricted powers? The ambiguity is that the decision ultimately rested with General Douglas MacArthur who as SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) was the effective ‘Emperor’ of Japan from the moment of Japanese surrender in August 1945 up to the establishment of the new democratic Japan in 1947. In fact he remained the most powerful figure up until 1951 when he was replaced as SCAP by General Matthew Ridgway before the formal end of the Occupation in 1952. The film shows MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as a quasi-imperial figure, very alive to his media presence. I realised, watching the film, that my knowledge of MacArthur’s ideas and actions at this time were limited even though I had studied the Japanese social situation under Occupation. The situation in Japan in 1945 was different to that in Germany because the American had virtually complete control with only a minor role for British and Commonwealth forces. In Germany there were four Allied powers each controlling a different sector of the occupied country.

General Bonner Fellers and his interpreter Takahashi (Haneda Masayoshi)  approach the Imperial palace, still intact in the centre of a devastated Tokyo

The script for Emperor, written by Vera Blasi and David Klass and based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Okamoto Shiro, was directed by the British filmmaker Peter Webber. It builds the action around another historical character, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a ‘psychological warfare/intelligence’ officer who is charged by MacArthur with finding the evidence to either indict or exonerate Hirohito. For the purposes of the narrative, MacArthur gives Fellers a strict 10 day deadline. In reality it took rather several months. This is a film which constructs its narrative around real historical events and real historical characters. It also attempts to present its story against an authentic background of a devastated Tokyo. As such it provided a field day for historians, both amateur and professionals. If you check out the reviews on the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, you will probably get the impression that the film was both a box office and critical flop with little to recommend it. But dig a little deeper and quite a few critics and audiences liked the film. I think it is certainly worth exploring and pointing out some of the misunderstandings by prominent critics and some audiences.

The most impressive aspects of the film for me are the sets and location ‘dressings’. All but two days shooting were carried out in New Zealand and you can find the whole story of the shoot on the New Zealand Film Commission website. The key to this aspect of the production is perhaps the producer role of Narahashi Yôko who was an associate producer on The Last Samurai (US-New Zealand-Japan 2003), which also used New Zealand locations extensively. The most problematic aspect of the script for critics appears to be the ‘tacked on’ romance narrative which sees Fellers attempting to discover what has happened to the young woman he met as an exchange student in the US and who he eventually tracked down in Japan before the Pacific War began. As I understand it, the ‘real’ Fellers did once meet a Japanese exchange student in the US but he married an American and although he did visit Japan in the 1930s, the ‘romance’ element of his time in Autumn 1945 is fictitious. Why then add the romance – is it simply a cliché in a Hollywood film? I think not. Its purpose is to engage Fellers in a ‘human story’, which is arguably also the case for another narrative strand that involves Takahashi, the interpreter assigned to Fellers. Fellers speaks some Japanese fairly fluently but the importance of his mission means that an interpreter is essential. The romance narrative also allows flashbacks to Fellers’ earlier visits to Japan, including a meeting with the young woman’s uncle who is a Japanese General.

Fellers and the Japanese teacher Shimada Aya in Japan before the Pacific War

The young woman is Shimada Aya (Hatsune Eriko) and her function is really to ‘humanise’ Fellers in the context of his mission and to facilitate his contacts with various Japanese civil servants and politicians. This is achieved partly through the meeting with General Kajima who is still in his rural villa in 1945. Kajima also serves to explain to the audience (Fellers should know this already) why and how Japanese culture means that the conduct of the war and the attitudes towards Hirohito are so different to how most Americans understand them.

It occurs to me that Emperor has something in common with Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (UK-India-Sweden-US 2017) in which the historical figure is Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy who must deliver the Partition of India and which features a romance between two young lovers from different religions in the Punjab, one of the territories subject to most anguish in the Partition. I think there is no easy answer to the question of how to make a commercial, popular, film about such momentous events without in some way fictionalising the narrative. If it helps wider audiences to engage with the general narrative and to understand something about the history, I think it can serve a useful purpose. Such films don’t necessarily ‘distort’ history since the important factual elements are included.

What disappointed me in this film was that it presents two American characters who each deserve more screen time. General Douglas MacArthur is an important and controversial figure in modern American history who took his role in Japan very seriously and believed it would lead him to a potential nomination for  the US Presidency. Both President Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor in 1952 feared MacArthur’s growing power base and he was sacked as SCAP during the Korean War. There are American films about MacArthur that tell his story in more detail. The best known of these is the biopic MacArthur starring Gregory Peck in 1977. Tommy Lee Jones is matched against this portrayal and marked down by several critics and audience members. I haven’t seen the 1977 film so I can’t comment, but MacArthur isn’t the real subject of the Emperor narrative. It is aspects of Fellers’ character that are more relevant.

General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito ( Kataoka Takatarô) pose for a photograph

It is hinted at, but not really developed in the film, that one of the factors influencing both Fellers and MacArthur is fear that any unrest in Japan could provoke a Soviet invasion. In fact Soviet troops did invade the Kiril Islands off the North East tip of Hokkaido, following re-possession of the whole of Sakhalin Island. MacArthur seems to have taken a fairly pragmatic view of how to handle the Japanese Communist Party but Fellers was very much part of the anti-communist right that was growing in power in the US and who saw support for Hirohito as part of the defence against Soviet expansionism. This would later inform American military activity in Korea and then Vietnam. I don’t think this side of Fellers is given sufficient weight in the film. When he returned to the US and retired from the military in 1946 Fellers became active in politics supporting the conservative wing of the Republican Party and later joined the right-wing John Birch Society.

For some background on this period I used John Dower’s magisterial 1999 study Embracing Death: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin Books). This gives the full text of some of Fellers’ reports to MacArthur and it generally concurs with the view that Fellers’ ‘beliefs’ about Hirohito were accepted even though no actual evidence of Hirohito’s behaviour during the prosecution the war could be discovered. On the plus side this meant that for the rest of his life (he died in 1989), Hirohito’s presence helped to keep Japan as a stable ally within the American sphere. On the other hand, it has meant that today Japan still struggles to come to terms with what happened after the military takeover of the country in the early 1930s and the subsequent conduct of the Chinese and then the Pacific War. All of this is beyond the scope of Emperor but the Fellers narrative is certainly an important element in the wider story. The film made only $3.34 million at the US Box Office and most of its cinema audience was in Japan where it made $11 million. Its UK release was on only a handful of screens, making little or no impact.

Emperor is available on various streaming services and I think it is worth watching for its presentation of events in late 1945.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing (UK 1942)

It was a dangerous job piloting bombers . . . (many of the stills here are grabs posted by DVD Beaver)

This film belongs to one of the most successful sequences of continuous film production ever achieved by a team of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P) made more than a dozen films together between 1939 to 1949. All of them have stood up well and some of them have come to be seen as the best of British cinema. Having been united by Alexander Korda for The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger stayed together in the UK when Korda went to Hollywood to lead the UK propaganda effort in the US. P&P made the highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel in 1941. They were surprised that after the commercial success of their Canadian-based film (which was also an American hit, winning an Oscar for Pressburger’s script) they were unable to get funding from Rank to make their next picture when their outline was deemed ‘non-commercial’. Instead they turned to Lady Yule at British National who agreed to fund another propaganda picture (the filmmakers were committed to films that supported the war effort directly). They also decided to pool their talents and form their own production company ‘The Archers’, taking equal credits as ‘Producer, Writer and Director’. Their first Archers title was based on the phrase that Powell heard on nightly radio broadcasts: “One of our aircraft has failed to return”. In late 1941 and early 1942 the RAF was charged with night-time bombing raids on German targets but these were still part of a limited offensive by twin-engined bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, the bomber built in the largest numbers during wartime. The RAF provided a ‘shell’ of a Wellington to The Archers for the inflight shots and a full scale model of was built at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to shoot scenes of the bomber over Germany and the final crash back in the UK. The interiors were shot at Denham.

Pamela Brown as the schoolteacher Els Meertens, the first resistance leader the crew meet.

The opening of the film is innovative and shows both Pressburger’s ideas about narrative and Powell’s brilliance in presenting moving images. The title on the print I saw was actually ‘. . . One of our aircraft is missing‘ – a snappier title than the original radio announcement. Pressburger begins the narrative with the execution order of Dutch resistance workers shot for aiding British flyers, giving the emphasis to them rather than the RAF crew. Then, having established that the Wellington bomber ‘B for Bertie’ has not returned from a bombing raid, we see that the aircraft is apparently flying itself across the channel, after which it is too low to avoid crashing into an electricity pylon. What has happened? The actual credits roll now with the aircrew presenting themselves and then we flashback to discover what happened to the six man crew who baled out of their aircraft believing it was about to crash. The narrative will then follow their attempts, aided by various Dutch communities, to get back to the UK.

One of the stunning interior scenes, lit and photographed by Ronald Neame as the crew join the congregation, hiding from the Germans.

If you’ve seen 49th Parallel, you’ll realise that One of Our Aircraft is Missing reverses every aspect of the earlier film. Where six Germans from a U-boat attempted to cross Canada to reach the neutral US, we now have six RAF crew attempting to escape from occupied Holland. The Canadians were encouraged to look out for the enemy, the Dutch were to be portrayed as brave and resourceful in resisting the Nazi occupation. The film had the support of the Dutch government in exile in London.

The crew in disguise form part of the crowd for a football match (football was one of Pressburger’s passions). Bernard Miles as the Front Gunner and, in drag, Hugh Williams the Observer/Navigator.

P&P made several important decisions about the film. They declined to use any non-diegetic music and decided that the Dutch and Germans should speak their own languages (which aren’t subtitled). English was used only when it was logical to do so given the events (i.e. when the Dutch townspeople talk to the RAF flyers). This realism factor is heightened by the use of locations in East Anglia to represent Dutch houses, canals, fields/fens etc. The film looks very fine. It was photographed by Ronald Neame and edited by David Lean, both of whom would later become directors in their own right. The casting of the RAF crew included well-known actors of the time with Eric Portman and Bernard Miles as the names which are perhaps best remembered from the period. (Eric Portman played the leading Nazi in 49th Parallel.) Smaller roles include Peter Ustinov as a priest, but for fans of Powell & Pressburger perhaps the two most significant roles are taken by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers. Pamela Brown was a successful theatre actor but this was her first film role. She would become one of Powell’s lovers and the two remained close throughout the rest of her life. Googie Withers had worked with Powell in the 1930s when she was still a bit player or a lead in ‘quota quickies’ and comedies. She could speak Dutch as her mother had a Dutch background. The Archers used her again in the second Dutch resistance film they produced but didn’t direct, The Silver Fleet (1943). With these roles she moved up in the British film industry and emerged as a star in Ealing pictures from 1944 onwards.

Googie Withers as Jo de Vries with the co-pilot (Eric Portman) enter her apartment by a secret passage.

The script avoids any direct confrontations between the aircrew and the German forces who are mostly seen in long shot or overheard. It is not until the final acts of the escape that the crew have to fend for themselves. Up until then they are protected by the Dutch resistance. One of the ironies of the film is that there is actually very little ‘flying action’. Instead this is much more a ‘resistance/escape’ narrative with the final section involving an ingenious device which again needed permission from the War Office to use.

The crew in a dinghy hiding beneath a swing bridge as they avoid German sentries in their attempt to reach the North Sea. Godfrey Tearle is the Rear Gunner and in front is Emrys Jones, Radio Operator and Hugh Burden, Pilot

One final point about the script is discussed at some length by Powell in his memoir, A Life in Movies (1986) sheds more light on P&P’s ideas. They had the idea early on to include an ‘over-age’ member of the aircrew based on a widely-reported statement by an eccentric MP who joined up to fight. (Most aircrew were very young.) P&P wanted to include an older man who would be played by Ralph Richardson but he was unavailable (he was working for the Fleet Air Arm, although P&P did get him for The Silver Fleet). They turned instead to a much older actor, the matinee idol from the 1910s and 1920s who was a Great War veteran, Godfrey Tearle. He is tolerated by the younger airman who don’t really understand him and Pressburger wrote a scene in which he tries to explain to the younger men that he was like them in his youth. David Lean persuaded Powell to cut the scene during the edit because it didn’t advance the plot. Lean supposedly said it introduced a theme that could make a whole film. This became the birth of the Colonel Blimp character in the next P&P film. Powell was fond of telling stories and this may be an exaggerated version of events. Nevertheless it points towards P&P’s understanding of wartime Britain and their stunning creativity at this point. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a great propaganda film and a wonderful example of wartime filmmaking.

Here’s the trail on Talking Pictures TV with Pamela Brown as resistance leader very much in control:

The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956)

The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.

The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.

The USS Salem presented as the Admiral Graf Spee

The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun smaller cruisers and destroyers and outrun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships.  Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.

The bridge of HMS Ajax with Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood i/c the British squadron (front left, turning)

I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.

The Graf Spee refuels at sea. These are British ships photographed in the Moray Firth.

Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.

Lionel Murton as the American radio reporter broadcasting the final few hours as crowds waited for the Graf Spee to leave port.

It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.

The final images of the British squadron off Montevideo after the Graf Spee was scuttled.

The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.

I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.

I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:

Charlatan (Czech Republic-Ireland-Slovakia-Poland 2020)

Jan Mikolásek analyses a sample, watched by Frantisek Panko

This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.

Frantisek goes out to the queue of people to make sure they are behaving in an orderly manner

The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the  communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.

The young Mikolásek meets a herbalist who can teach him the ropes

With the family background in horticulture, Mikolásek has a head start

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.

Mikolásek comes across as a severe figure

I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.

Mikolásek passes a diagnostic test set by the occupying Nazis

Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.

The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.