As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.
Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.
Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.
The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.
The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.
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.
This is another gem from Talking Pictures TV that I’d never heard of before. It’s an intriguing film given the year of its release and its narrative that covers the period from a few days before D-Day in 1944 to the time of the film’s release in 1948. It’s therefore a ‘Home Front’ film covering both the last years of the war and the first three years of peace – and austerity. The continuous theme is about dealing with rationing and attempts to run a home. Not surprising then, the central character is Martha Crane, a middle-class woman in her 40s, widowed and living in her large family house on the south coast near Portsmouth with her two grown-up daughters, both Wrens. Their young brother is in the Navy, serving in the same ship as his older sister’s husband. The spare rooms in the house are occupied by a shore-based naval commander and a young army sergeant (who has quickly developed a relationship with the younger sister). The film opens with the arrival of an agency ‘Mrs Mopp’ hired to relieve Martha of some of the housework. As this character list suggests, the story is based on a stage play by Esther McCracken with the title No Medals.
I’m surprised that this film does not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention. (It’s not mentioned in Robert Murphy’s book about British films and the Second World War.) The film’s title is clearly ironic and in that sense is a nod towards The Gentle Sex (1943), the comedy drama about young women coming forward for various kinds of military service. It also sits alongside Millions Like Us (1943) and This Happy Breed (1944) with its focus on families moving from peace-time into war – though it is the only film of its kind, that I know of, moving from wartime into peace. The film, like the original play before it, seems to have been popular at the box office and given the interest of feminist film scholars in the woman’s picture and home front melodramas of the 1940s, I can only conclude that the film has been unavailable. Now it is free to watch on Bfi Player (only in the UK). The film is also interesting in terms of British film history. It is a ‘Two Cities’ production made at D&P studios (Pinewood). Two Cities was one of the production companies operating under the Rank funding umbrella. It was one of the companies generally expected to provide the ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ productions with the genre films left to Gainsborough and, t0 lesser extent, Ealing. But this function of Two Cities was usually covered by Filippo Del Giudice, the company’s founder. The Weaker Sex is produced by Paul Soskin, a Russian-born producer. It doesn’t appear to have had a particularly large budget, but the cast is strong with Ursula Jeans as Martha Crane and Cecil Parker as the naval commander. Thora Hird is the Mrs Mopp character, Mrs Gaye (‘Mrs Mopp’ was a character in the radio comedy programme ITMA and soon became a popular way to refer to ‘cleaning ladies’). Lana Morris, who would go on to become a familiar face in British films of the 1950s is the younger daughter. Rank contract players such as Bill Owen and Gladys Henson also appear and I spotted Eleanor Summerfield as a bus conductor. The film was the second directed by Roy Baker and it was photographed by Erwin Hillier, already with a high reputation after his work with Powell and Pressburger on A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).
Cecil Parker is excellent as the Commander, offering that seemingly bumbling exterior beneath which a sharp mind and a calm authority can ‘get on with the job’. Ursula Jeans was married to Roger Livesey and the couple appeared together in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). In The Weaker Sex she plays a role that Celia Johnson might have played if the film had been directed by David Lean. The film’s title is ironic and Martha has real strength that no doubt added to the appeal of the film at the UK box office. The focus on Martha (and her daughters) is also important in pointing towards the pressure they feel to contribute to the war effort. Martha feels she hasn’t done enough but the film’s narrative demonstrates the importance of her wartime role on the ‘Home Front’. Whether the audience felt the same about her struggles with rationing after the war was over is another question. I must try to find other films like this.
Based on an important novel by Väinö Linna published in 1954, this ‘national popular’ film is the most expensive production (at a modest €7 million) in Finnish film history. It is the third film based on the novel to explore the ‘Continuation War’ of 1941-44. Four of the film’s actors were present in Glasgow and told us that the shoot of 81 days was mainly based in the forests of military training areas and that the use of CGI was limited. The UK SFX explosive specialists on the shoot reportedly used more dynamite than on any other production.
The ‘Continuation War’ was the second conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union in swift succession. Finland ceded the Karelian isthmus to the USSR after the Winter War of 1939-40. A year later, the German attack on the USSR persuaded the Finns to ally with them and attempt to retrieve the territory they had lost. At first all went well and the Finns entered Soviet territory beyond Karelia. But as the Nazi advance stalled, the Russian defence against the Finns turned towards the offensive and eventually the Finns were forced to cede Karelia again in late 1944. At the end of The Unknown Soldier, on-screen titles inform us that of all the continental European combatants in the Second World War, Finland was the only one not to be occupied – the USSR did not ask for unconditional surrender, but it did require the Finns to round-up and expel the remaining German forces.
So, did we need a third film on the same topic and what does it tell us about Finish national identity and/or ideas about war combat? I went back to look at the previous Finnish war film discussed on this blog, The Winter War (Finland 1989) and discovered that the same observations might be applicable to both films despite the fact that the wars were not the same and that they are based on different novels. The previous film was also heavily cut for international distribution with the Finnish version running to nearly three hours (the 1989 film was also the ‘most expensive Finnish film production at the time).
The print of The Unknown Soldier in Glasgow was missing nearly an hour from the Finnish version. I’m not sure I would have wanted another hour of action that was sometimes gruelling to watch but I’m guessing that much of what was cut was deemed to be too detailed to have universal appeal. I did feel that the two-hour version came to a fairly abrupt halt when the armistice was signed. I’m sure there must be more to learn about the Home Front and the aftermath of war. How difficult was it, I wonder to expel the Germans?
The film focuses on a specific ‘heavy machine gun’ unit and follows the unit through the whole campaign. The most important characters are a couple of very different young lieutenants and a group of enlisted men. Soon they are joined by a pair of Winter War veterans and in particular Rokka (Eero Aho), a grizzled corporal who is by far the most experienced soldier in the unit. He is from Karelia and has already lost his farm once. He makes clear that he is fighting for his land and his family, not for ‘Finland’ and that he intends “to kill, but not be killed”. He is also oblivious to military discipline. The film is certainly about the soldiers rather than the politicians. The most interesting sequences for me were the short Home Front episodes and the Finnish occupation of the isthmus (Eastern Karelia) where the population is mixed Finnish and Russian. It reminded me of Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in which the same region experienced occupation by Soviet, then Nazi and then Soviet again. (See Trial on the Road (1971/85).
I’m not sure that this would be described as an ‘anti-war’ film, but given that it is in the ‘National Popular’ mode, the version we saw was not particularly jingoistic. The ‘Russians’ we meet are either sympathetic families in Karelia or captured soldiers. Otherwise they are faceless in the scenes of battle. There is no glory in the battles – though Rokka gets the reward of going home on leave after his effective demolition of the enemy. The Unknown Soldier has been acquired for UK distribution by Arrow Films. I presume the cut version will appear on a UK DVD. In Finland a five-part TV series is planned.
I find films of this kind interesting if only to act as a counterbalance to the common US/UK views of the Second World War. The Unknown Soldier, directed by Aku Louhimies is well worth watching. I should add, however, that there has been plenty of criticism of the film in Finland (see this review). The director is seen to have ‘glamourised’ the soldiers and the excitement of the action (the combat scenes in the forests are beautifully photographed) and to have changed the representation of well-known characters from the novel. So, in the end it does seem to have created a Saving Private Ryan sort of situation – one in which a film is seen in cinemas by a large home audience (20% of all Finns according to the actors) but also criticised for misrepresenting the combat.
Why did I go to see Darkest Hour? I’m not sure, but I should make clear that I have resisted the fetishisation of Winston Churchill for at least fifty years. Possibly it was because I have time for Joe Wright’s approach to historical subjects and I was interested in seeing how his take on May 1940 differed from Christopher Nolan’s in Dunkirk (and indeed, Wright’s own take in Atonement). I’m not really interested in the Oscar nominations this week in which Darkest Hour features in several categories.
Two immediate responses: Darkest Hour is an anti-realist film full of Wright’s theatrical ideas (i.e. about staging the drama) and no matter how repugnant the politics, skilled direction can still invoke emotional responses. I found myself weeping at scenes, even though I rejected the ideological force of the arguments from a man I despise apart from two aspects of his long career – his mastery of the English language (as commented on in the narrative) and his peculiar ability to manage the moment of crisis in 1940. I’m old enough to remember Churchill’s funeral 53 years ago when we were given time off school to watch the state funeral. I knew even as a teenager that he had not always been a heroic figure. It was only later that I learned about his racism, rabid anti-communism, attacks on working people and complete disregard for the victims of imperial aggression.
The film’s script by Anthony McCarten is actually quite even-handed in the sense that it mentions Churchill’s previous failures (although this seems to be a strategy to ‘humanise’ the character and to demonstrate how he was able to put his failures behind him). The film interests itself in the drama of the moment and indulges itself in Gary Oldman’s playing. So many critics have picked out the sequence in which Churchill takes an Underground trip to meet ‘the British people’. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s only one of the anti-realist scenes/sequences in the film. Ditto, the night-time meeting with the king. The simple point is – don’t look to Darkest Hour for historical analysis. Simply enjoy the dramaturgy. I know that the film has done well in North America and for overseas audiences I should just point out that ‘tube’ trains, like the one shown in the film, didn’t get anywhere near Westminster in 1940 – only District and Circle Line trains which were larger and less cramped as they ran on the ‘cut and cover’ tracks just below street level. The filmmakers must have known this, so it was a deliberate decision to use the confined space of the tube for the scene in which Churchill canvasses public opinion immediately before speaking in the House of Commons. The time between station stops would also be much shorter than the time taken for the discussions with ‘ordinary people’ on the tube. The real provocation is Churchill’s warm appreciation of the contribution of a young West Indian man in the carriage. (The character himself is believable, but it’s a stretch to imagine Churchill being so appreciative.)
The film has been tagged as pro-Brexit propaganda in various quarters – a kind of Daily Mail tribute to ‘Little England’. I don’t think that is justified. I note that it is photographed by a Frenchman and scored by an Italian. The narrative shows the French leaders thinking that Churchill is ‘delusional’ – which doesn’t seem too outlandish as an analysis of attitudes at the time. Most of the films criticised in this way were already in production before the Brexit referendum.
What is more interesting is to consider why so many films set in this period have emerged over the last few years, not just in the UK but across Europe. Partly it’s because we are now reaching the point where even the young people who experienced the 1939-45 war are coming to the end of their lives and there is a struggle over representations of the period for the generations who only know the war through secondary sources. But why the fascination with Churchill? I think that, whatever we may think of him, he represents a ‘conviction’ politician (contrasted in the film with Viscount Halifax, the vampiric, cold Foreign Secretary, well played by Stephen Dillane) and there aren’t many of those around anymore. We were spoiled in the 1960s-1980s to have the benefit of politicians in the UK who had themselves fought in the war – or at least experienced it and understood what it meant. The sorry lot we have now, especially the Tories, push us into looking back. The other question is why the film is succeeding in overseas markets. Box Office Mojo suggests it has taken over $5 million in China, $3.5 million in France and over $1 million in several other territories such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. Only some of these countries are interested in Brexit, so audiences must be attracted by something else.
Darkest Hour is a Focus Features-Working Title film. Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner represent the most successful producing partnership in the UK film industry, sustained since the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Working Title has had a relationship with Universal. Darkest Hour is a co-production with Perfect World Pictures, a Chinese partner for Universal and this perhaps explains the Chinese box office. The same production partners also combined on the rather less successful The Snowman in 2017. Gary Oldman certainly gives a bravura performance. Lily James is also very good as Churchill’s new secretary/typist, playing a crucial role in the narrative which enables the audience to get closer to Churchill as a man rather than a ‘politician’. The performances generally are very good. I can’t resist comparing the film as a production with The King’s Speech (2010), a film I didn’t like much which was extremely successful despite some strange performances. Darkest Hour is in my view a more coherent and aesthetically interesting film which uses atmospheric and expressionist images as well as authentic period detail – though its liberties with historical fact are probably more disturbing. Darkest Hour didn’t offend me as much as Nolan’s Dunkirk but it did make the final mistake of implying that all the Dunkirk evacuations were carried out by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. I guess the other point to make is that the film opens with Clem Attlee destroying Chamberlain in the House and forcing his resignation. Despite the fact that Churchill then leads a ‘National Coalition’ with Attlee in the Cabinet, we never hear from Clem again. A few years ago I did see a savage and very interesting documentary reconstruction on BBC2 about what happened to Churchill in the last few months of the war and during the election won by Labour in July 1945. Churchill: When Britain Said No, (2015) is not on iPlayer and has not been repeated as far as I know. You can watch it for a small fee on YouTube or search for it online and it makes an interesting companion piece to Darkest Hour.
This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.
As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.
The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by the Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.
I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police plays out like a silent cinema comedy.
What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)
The mystery is, why has this film, first seen at London Film Festival in October 2015 and Denmark’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, not been released in the UK until now? The answer may be something to do with the current spate of Second World War films on UK cinema screens. I haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk yet, but I would be surprised if Land of Mine wasn’t my pick of the summer. It arrives on our screens when not only Dunkirk, but the ideological quagmire that is Brexit is being widely discussed.
The film’s title is either brilliant or risible depending on your love of puns. The Danish title simply refers to the land mines planted by the German occupiers ‘beneath the sand’ of Western Jutland beaches during 1942-44, whereas the English title includes the crucial other element of the narrative concerned with national identity at a time of crisis. Like most UK viewers, I suspect, my knowledge of the experience of Danes under German occupation from 1940-45 is sketchy at best and mostly derived from Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008). I had to look up what happened in 1945 when British and Canadian troops advanced from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, and arrived in Denmark at more or less the same time as the German surrender to Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath on 4th May. The British Parachute Regiment arrived in Denmark to take control. This is the starting point of Land of Mine.
Presumably concerned about Denmark’s western beaches as a possible target for an Allied invasion force, the German occupiers had set over a million mines of various kinds on the beaches – more per cubic metre than in any other territory in Europe. Clearing them was going to be a major undertaking and someone decided it should be German POWs who would have to risk their lives. Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Dane wearing the uniform of British Army Parachute Regiment, gets the job of ‘looking after’ a group of POWs and supervising them clearing the mines. Unfortunately these soldiers are very young, mostly teenagers aged 15-18, and they soon realise that they won’t get home until all the mines are cleared in their sector. The job is extremely dangerous and many will die (at the end of the film, on-screen text reveals just how deadly the task proved to be).
At the preview screening I attended, my colleague suggested that this was basically a suspense genre film – who is going to die next? I agree that the narrative structure does imply a certain kind of genre film that combines war movie, horror and suspense. It’s also an extremely fine genre movie in that the genre conventions are explored very carefully and with intelligence. Land of Mine would score well if it was simply a genre movie – but it’s much more than that. At heart it’s also a humanist film harking back to the classic humanist dramas of the 1950s. The young men, boys really, are not Nazis, though they may well be patriotic and homesick. The war movie genre leads us to expect that they will be differentiated in various ways and this happens. The horror movie suggests that they will be ‘picked off’ – killed by mines in different ways. The stereotype of the ‘British’ sergeant (though I think that sergeants are the same in most armies) gives us a man who is hard and experienced, gruff and prone to shouting, even bellowing at his ‘men’. But a good sergeant also cares for his men. He understands them, they are his children. He mediates for them with the officer class. In this case, Sgt Rasmussen (an excellent performance by Møller) begins by attempting to be cold and brutal towards the PoWs, trying to keep his distance. Eventually he will make relationships with them. He has to do this to make the operation work, but it isn’t easy for him.
The film moves beyond genre because of its interest in the Denmark of 1945. This is the point at which for viewers outside Denmark it gets tricky. I don’t know what the Danes knew in 1945 or how they felt, but in the film, the Danish officers (and the British) seem to treat the POWs extremely badly. This also seems to be the case with some of the local people on the coast, at least initially, and the film’s real strength is its exploration of guilt, compassion, justice and all those other difficult emotions that this unique situation sets up. Someone has to clear the mines. How should it be done? I won’t spoil the narrative any more. The film is ‘based upon real events’ but my attempts to clarify the historical facts suggest that this is still a contested issue (which may be shaming for Danes – and Brits). The numbers of POWs injured or killed is disputed – but not the danger. Under the Geneva Conventions the clearance depicted in the film shouldn’t have happened but the British and French seemingly encouraged the authorities in liberated countries to use German POWs in activities like this after 1945. They changed the wording to imply that the surrendering troops were ‘volunteers’. There are accounts of German soldiers supervised by their own NCOs (but controlled by Danes) operating as Minenkommando units and claims that these were ‘volunteers’. When I watched the film, I didn’t notice armbands to this effect but now I see them in some of the stills material. I found other web material, more clearly political in nature, which disputed some of these facts. I think it is safest to say that Land of Mine simplifies a story which is based on real events – but that it does expose one of the many stories about the immediate aftermath of war that make for uncomfortable viewing.
Land of Mine was written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across him before since he has won several awards for earlier films (Land of Mine has won many prizes). The cinematographer Camilla Knudsen has captured the strange atmosphere and beauty of the dunes and beaches in ‘Scope format. The young German actors playing the POWs are very good and Land of Mine is riveting to watch. Because of the suspense genre conventions, you will fear that something terrible is about to happen but the suspense will work – and you will be intrigued by the relationships. Don’t miss an opportunity to see it. Although it is released by Thunderbird (ex Soda), your best chance of seeing it in the UK seems to be at Curzon Cinemas and online until it gets to smaller arthouse/specialised cinemas. It is on at HOME in Manchester
For Those in Peril is perhaps the best example of the Ealing Studios wartime propaganda film. It’s a very short feature at 64 mins, just long enough to appear in a double bill as a B feature and, although featuring serving armed forces personnel, it does have two well-known professional actors in the lead roles so the film mixes documentary and feature film elements. The main purpose of the film is seemingly to introduce audiences to a little-known role for the RAF, working in collaboration with the Royal Navy. The outcome of the fictional narrative is, however, more problematic and not an obvious choice for a propaganda film.
The film’s title immediately refers to the possibility of lives lost a sea, but in this case of aircrew rather than sailors. The RAF in wartime was supplied with high speed launches (HSL) designed to find aircrew forced to ditch their planes over water. (The film’s opening sequence carefully explains why this was necessary.) The establishment of these units led to friendly rivalry with RN units who had bigger boats with more firepower but slower speeds. The film’s location seems to be Shoreham – although for obvious reasons this isn’t signified. David Farrar plays the F/Lt Murray, RAF officer in command of three launches and the fictional narrative involves the arrival of Pilot Officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael – an established actor and serving airman) who sees his posting as possibly ‘beneath’ him since he insists he should be flying. Murray is an experienced master of small boats since before the war and he tries to gently turn Rawlings’ truculence into something more positive – and gives the junior officer some harsher words when necessary. After a few exercises involving the launches joining naval craft, the film’s action sequences begin with an RAF Boston bomber being shot down over the channel. The three crew manage to launch their inflatable dinghy and their position is notified to air-sea rescue. Murray takes two launches and the larger (and slower) naval vessel follows. A Walrus seaplane is also launched. Three problems face the rescuers – thick fog, the presence of an armed German trawler and the minefield which the aircrew and their dinghy have entered.
The intriguing aspect of the narrative is its potential propaganda. The central narrative involves Rawlings and his development in a moment of crisis so that he can take command when needed with the support of his crew (who are capable and have been well led by Murray). The other propaganda message is that aircrew are not abandoned and all possible effort is expended to save them. But more problematic is the action in the film which sees an eventual ‘victory’ for British forces, but at significant cost in terms of lives lost alongside a valuable ship and aircraft. More lives are lost than saved. This is the dilemma for propaganda filmmakers in their attempt to use realism in their appeal to audiences. Men are brave and they die in the service of their country. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence of what audiences made of a film like Those in Peril (or any details of its distribution and how many people saw it).
For me, the film works because of three factors – the documentary footage, David Farrar’s central performance and the script by Richard Hillary and Harry Watt, J.c. Orton and T. E. B. Clarke. The documentary photography is by Douglas Slocombe. This was his first credited role as cinematographer and he would go on to be one of the most celebrated figures behind the camera in British cinema history. The interiors were shot by Ernest Palmer, an experienced Ealing man. David Farrar would go on to become a leading man in three classic Powell and Pressburger films as well as two more for Ealing. For Those in Peril was perhaps his breakthrough as a leading man, but his popularity (he later claimed several hundred fan letters each week) was mainly a result of his two Sexton Blake films in 1945. Also making his first solo outing for Ealing was director Charles Crichton as director. Crichton would go on to become one of Ealing’s most important directors and was probably best known for The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titchfield Thunderbolt (1953).
Richard Hillary, who wrote the original story, was a young RAF officer who first fought in the Battle of Britain aged 21. He was credited with 5 definite ‘kills’ but was then shot down and rescued by the Margate lifeboat, having suffered severe burns. During his lengthy hospital treatment he wrote one of the best books about wartime flying, The Last Enemy, which I remember reading as a child. He returned to flying but only a few months later he was killed in a nightfighter crash. His story for Those in Peril was presumably based on his own experience.
The contributions of key personnel such as Farrar, Slocombe and Crichton make this a must-see film for anyone interested in Ealing Studios. I recommend it as worth 64 minutes of anyone’s time.
I couldn’t find a trailer for the film, but this is a Pathé News report with the same title, showing the Air Sea Rescue crews at work: