The Road To Victory: The British War Effort On Film
|Wednesday, 8 May 2019 is VE Day – Victory In Europe Day - in the United Kingdom. While the US does not celebrate VE Day annually (their main war effort continuing after that, in the Pacific), Britain does, perhaps more than any other country, as it was the HQ of the Allied war effort once the European mainland was overrun. Below are a dozen films, consisting of one example of each major storyline representing different aspects of the British and Allied war effort.|
Into Soldiers' Storyline
Went The Day Well? (1942)
An English village has a Polish infantry company billeted on it only to discover they are German paratroopers out to capture a key radar installation as a prelude to an airborne invasion. This was a real fear at the time the film was made, and the violence when the villagers fight back is brutal. (The women ironically prove the toughest.)
Based on a short story by Graham Greene, though there were rumours it was inspired by a real-life incident. (Though made in 1942, the film opens postwar, with the local gravedigger describing to camera an incident that was covered up at the time.)
Ice Cold In Alex (1958)
An ambulance escapes the 1942 siege of Tobruk just before it falls to Rommel’s forces, and heads south into the desert to try to get back to the British lines at Alexandria. (This is where the protagonist, an alcoholic officer, looks forward to a cold beer – the meaning of the title.) The author of the source novel, Christopher Landon, was in the Field Ambulance Corps in the desert war, and the film’s prologue claims the story is fact-based.
Operation Amsterdam (1959)
This is a fact-based dramatisation of the May 1940 mission to remove ten million pounds of industrial diamonds from Amsterdam as German-backed 'Quisling' units try to take control of the docks and streets from loyal forces as the German army closes in on the city. A British destroyer takes an Army intelligence major and two Dutch diamond merchants to the port of Amsterdam, to make their way into the city, where they have to negotiate with various parties whose real loyalty is unknown, and who in turn suspect the trio’s motives.
A Bridge Too Far (1975)
Based on the Cornelius Ryan book, this large-scale production reconstructing Operation Market Garden takes the same approach as Ryan's The Longest Day, telling the events from multiple eyewitness persectives. Operation Market Garden was the attempt, in Sep 1944, to end the war by Xmas by driving an armoured column up through Holland to the Rhine at Arnhem. But once the element of surprise was lost, by a mix of bad luck and poor intelligence handling, the plan - driving up a single road blocked by German armoured regiments - was bound to fail. The 4 bridges en route were seized by paratroops (in an air-drop bigger than D-Day’s), but they were soon cut off, especially the final bridgehead at Arnhem.
Command Crisis' Storyline
In 1939, the war comes to a remote British East Africa outpost, whose military and civil heads disagree over various policy issues. This includes deciding the allegiances of individuals of other nationalities who arrive there - an Italian POW, a Dutch mining engineer, and the daughter of an Arab trader whose camel trains may be involved in gun-running to a local tribe funded by Axis agents provocateurs.
'People's Champion' Storyline
Sea Of Sand (1958)
This is a straightforward realist drama about the Long Range Desert Group on a key mission on the eve of the battle of El Alamein. A 'Staff College' type of career-professional Regular Army officer accompanies, as a mines expert, a small LRDG raiding force. With his 'Regimental' outlook, he seems a stiff-necked misfit in a modern guerrilla-style war, but proves himself invaluable, and ultimately more dedicated than the others.
Agent Champion' Storyline
Based on a 1949 biography, this is the factual story of the Special Operations Executive’s most decorated agent. Born in Amiens, she married an Englishman in 1931 and was recruited by SOE in 1942. Assigned to a Resistance network in the South of France, she and her superior Captain Peter Churchill fell victim to a German counterintelligance ruse. She survived a sentence of death due to a ruse of her own, claiming Peter Churchill was the Prime Minister's nephew and she was his wife. (In fact, they married in 1947.) She survived Ravensbrück concentration camp, testified at the commandant’s war crimes trial, and acted as technical advisor to the 1958 film about her fellow Ravensbrück inmate SOE agent Violette Szabo, Carve Her Name With Pride.
Above Us The Waves (1955)
During the Battle Of The Atlantic, the Royal Navy’s ability to provide anti U-Boat escorts for the Arctic convoys was hampered by the presence of Tirpitz, based strategically in a Norwegian fjord, as she could emerge and sink every ship in a convoy. The first attempt, n 1942, using human chariots, proves abortive. Most of the running time focuses on the 2nd mission in 1943, using 3 of the new X-Craft midget submarines, which carry a side-cargo of 4 tons of amatol apiece. This proves successful but costly - none of the crews escape, all being killed or captured. (One of the 2 surviving COs, who won the VC for the mission, became the film's technical advisor.)
|The 'War Is Hell' Storyline
The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
This multi award-winning epic shot on location in the Sri Lankan jungle needs little introduction here. The English colonel in charge of the men assigned as labour on Burma’s ‘Death Railway’ engages in a battle of wills with the Japanese camp commandant, while a British commando team treks through the jungle to blow up the railway bridge the POWs have been working on.
In this adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, converging plot lines result in the various protagonists’ plans ending in disaster as they each fight the war in their own terms, at cross purposes with one another.
|The 'War-Torn Romance' Storyline
The Purple Plain (1954)
A Canadian pilot flying for the RAF in Burma is a decorated hero, but his colleagues realise he is simply suicidal. (His bride was killed in the London Blitz on their honeymoon.) He begins to recover when he meets a young Burmese woman, and his new-found will to live gives him the strength to survive a forced landing on the Burmese plateau. Scripted by Eric Ambler, this was based on a 1947 novel by English author HE Bates, the byproduct of an officially-backed 1945 visit to Burma to bring the little-known Burmese Campaign to US readers. Although this was a modestly-budgeted British production, it was aimed at the US market - filmed in Technicolor on location in Sri Lanka, with a US star (as usual playing a Canadian).
The war’s first major turning point, in May 1940, becomes a you-are-there experience for the IMAX age. With no exposition scenes beyond the initial scene-setting titles, and almost no dialogue, it opts for visceral experience. It intercuts events happening in three different timescales, indicated by an onscreen title: an hour, a day, and a week. A pair of soldiers spend a week stranded on the beach awaiting rescue; a small-boat owner spends the day sailing across the channel to pick up soldiers, and a Spitfire flight patrols overhead to provide air cover, with only an hour’s worth of fuel and flying time.
[c] Storylines In Review 2019