Monday, September 19, 2011


This episodic look at the history of one English village was intended to be a morale-boosting propaganda piece in the early dark days of WWII. It begins with an American reporter (Constance Cummings) arriving at the village of Claverly collecting information for a morale-boosting propaganda piece of her own. She doesn’t think she’ll find much—she asks if one of the "yokels" can show her around—but when farm owner John Rookby (John Clements) agrees to share the village’s history, she gets a story of the resilience of the English in the face of invasion and hard times. She and Rookby and his farmhand Appleyard (Emyln Williams) make it through a bombing raid in a tavern, and later as they look out over Beacon Hill, we're told four episodes from the past, all involving Rookbys and Appleyards, all with the same actors (including Cummings) from the modern segment. In 1086, the villagers rouse themselves against an occupying Norman invader who has threatened to disturb their livelihood by forcing all the village men to stop their own work in order to build him a road. In 1588, during the attack of the Spanish Armada, a beautiful shipwreck survivor is accused of witchcraft and treachery by Appleyard. In 1804, the Industrial Revolution upsets things, with older folks lamenting that young people won’t stay on the farm anymore. Rookby becomes rich and loses touch with the villagers, and is blamed when Appleyard’s infant son dies of malnutrition. The final sequence is set during WWI with Armistice Day celebrated as the last of its kind since the World War must clearly be the war to end all wars. A final shot in the present day confirms the heartiness of the English people and the continuity of their way of life.

Like most movies in which propaganda concerns are placed first, or even most anthology movies, this is not totally successful as art. The first segment is the most interesting, partly due to the coherent story, and partly because it features 13-year-old Roddy McDowell in his last film in Great Britain before he came to Hollywood (pictured above with Cummings and Williams). The 1588 episode lost me along the way; I wasn't sure how the hounding of a woman to suicide tied in to the overall theme of overcoming adversity, though it does end with news of the Spanish retreat. The WWI story is the shortest and least compelling—though the print I saw was almost 10 minutes shorter than the length that IMDb reports for the film, so some material may have been missing. The acting is OK, with Emlyn Williams (at left), also a well-known playwright (he wrote dialogue for this movie), stealing all his scenes, except from McDowell. Williams was also quite good in MAJOR BARBARA the same year. [Streaming]

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