Sunday, December 29, 2002


The quintessential WWII narrative propaganda film, made by playwright Noel Coward (with some directorial help from a young David Lean) during what I assume were some of England's darkest days. Right off, the film boldly proclaims itself to be "the story of a ship," and it is indeed based on a real ship, helmed by Lord Mountbatten. In the movie, we follow the HMS Torrin from its construction through its various wartime adventures, which include surviving an attack, picking up survivors from Dunkirk, and eventually its sinking at sea. The disjointed and episodic story is told in flashback, but not straightforwardly, which causes a bit of confusion in the beginning. We start with the final bombing of the ship and a group of survivors on a small lifeboat. Three men become the focus of the film: the captain (Noel Coward), Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and the youngest, Seaman Blake (John Mills). The story of their experiences on the ship are told in flashback, and their personal stories are flashbacks within flashbacks. Frankly, although all three men are given separate characteristics, they tend to blur together as stolid and admirable sailors who carry on with traditional British reserve. As the opening line suggests, the movie is at its strongest when it is indeed the story of the ship.

The first half is a little rough going, as we get used to the clever but complex narrative structure, but the dramatic events of the second half do build up some steam. Overall, it feels very much like Coward's earlier play and movie CAVALCADE (which won the Oscar for best picture in 1932-33); both are episodic, flag-waving celebrations of England during times of stress and change. The best scenes are all toward the end. When the ship transports the ragged survivors of Dunkirk back home, the shots of dozens of wounded men contain echoes of the famous wounded soldiers scene in GONE WITH THE WIND. In the most powerful scene, one character's wife and mother sit through an air raid, as they've become accustomed to doing, convinced that they can't really be hurt, but the tense scene does have a surprisingly tragic outcome. They get away with using some language that American films could never have used at the time ("damn," "hell," and "bastard"). The whole movie plays out an a much lower emotional pitch than a similar American WWII film would have. Among the homefront women, Celia Johnson is a standout as Coward's stalwart wife. Coward himself is the exact opposite of what you might expect given his racy drawing room comedies and the "sophisticated," effete persona he cultivated. A young Richard Attenborough can be glimpsed as a sailor who deserts his post and is dealt with compassionately by Coward. A little pedantic and slow is spots, but fairly rousing and dramatically engaging by the end.

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