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Good wartime propaganda films are as rare as good wars. Noël Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve, which had its premiere in Great Britain in September 1942, when the nation was entering the fourth year of hostilities with the Axis powers, was clearly and unabashedly conceived as a morale booster for a battered, Blitz-weary people. But unlike almost every other movie of its type from the Second World War, In Which We Serve retains a great deal of its aesthetic and moral force even now, seven full decades after the dark days of its making—that terrible time when the outcome of the Allies’ good fight against Nazism and fascism was still in doubt. The film is, as we are informed by its grave-sounding narrator (Leslie Howard, uncredited), “the story of a ship,” and to a surprising degree, it keeps that apparently modest promise: it fulfills its mission, and then some.
In the brilliant opening montage, we see that ship—a destroyer called the HMS Torrin—being built, and within a swift few minutes, we see it sunk, ambushed off Crete by a squadron of Luftwaffe bombers. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks, as the captain, “D” Kinross (Coward), and several members of his crew cling to a life raft and hope to be rescued. (The basic story derives from the experience of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose own ship, the HMS Kelly, was sunk in just that way, and in the same stretch of the Mediterranean; although his name appears nowhere in the credits, “Dickie” Mountbatten suggested the idea for the film to his old friend Coward and served as a consultant throughout.) Some of the flashbacks show the Torrin in action, but a fair number consist of the home-front memories of the captain and his crew, especially those of the stolid chief petty officer, Hardy (Bernard Miles), and an ordinary seaman who goes by the name of Shorty (John Mills). The men’s lives are unexceptional, and that is, of course, the point: In Which We Serve is about what they’re fighting for, not what they’re fighting against.
It’s remarkable for a propaganda film to make so little of the enemy. One of several flashbacks to the tense days before the war finds Hardy, at the breakfast table with his wife, characterizing Hitler pretty succinctly: “World domination,” he says. “That’s what that little rat’s after, you mark my words.” And in one of the Torrin’s early engagements, a couple of sailors speculate on whether they’re under attack by “the Huns” or “the Macaronis,” but that’s about all the wartime trash talk the screenplay—by Coward—allows. This was not, to put it mildly, the propaganda style of the Third Reich’s filmmakers, or even of the great Soviet directors of the twenties: Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin (both 1925) and Pudovkin’s Mother (1926) were hardly shy (or subtle) about demonizing the prerevolutionary ruling class. The English, in the early years of the war, were not above some rather vigorous demonizing themselves; one of the last films Lean edited before In Which We Serve, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941), features many exceptionally skunky Nazis, who get the comeuppance they deserve. The tone of In Which We Serve is less militant than wistful: Coward means to show his countrymen what would be lost if Britain lost the war.
According to Kevin Brownlow’s superb 1997 biography, David Lean was brought on board the film at the suggestion of Carol Reed, who knew both men and who obviously understood that Coward, for all his talents as a writer and an actor, had no experience as a movie director and would need, at the very least, the services of a first-rate editor; Lean was the best in the business at the time. But Lean, who had actually directed a sizable chunk of Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara (1941) and had received only an “assistant in direction” credit for his trouble, was, after some initial hesitation, determined to get a codirector’s credit this time, and Coward reluctantly agreed. His first task, Lean told Brownlow, was to persuade the writer that the rambling screenplay was cumbersome, unfilmable. After Lean, along with the cinematographer, Ronald Neame, and the associate producer, Anthony Havelock-Allan, whipped it into shipshape, filming began, in February 1942.
At the beginning of the shoot, Lean supervised the camera setups and directed Coward’s performance, while Coward directed the rest of the cast, which also included Michael Wilding, Joyce Carey, Kay Walsh (Lean’s wife), an alarmingly young Richard Attenborough, and, in her first feature film, the radiant Celia Johnson, as the captain’s wife. Johnson, then thirty-four years old, had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had appeared onstage in the West End and on Broadway, but her only previous movie role had been in Reed’s wartime short A Letter from Home (1941), in which she played a character known only as “English mother.” In In Which We Serve, she is sensible and sensitive in the best British manner (three years later, in the last of Lean and Coward’s four collaborations, Brief Encounter, her stoic passion broke moviegoers’ hearts all over the world). It wasn’t long before Lean was directing her, and everyone else in the film. As he recalled, “Noël got terribly bored” with his on-set duties and decided that his codirector was “perfectly capable of doing everything.” And Lean, for the first but not the last time in his long career, took command.
This was an orderly handover, not a mutiny; Coward was no Captain Bligh (though Lean may have had a bit of Fletcher Christian in him). Everything about In Which We Serve feels orderly, efficient, correct. Film, like combat, is a matter of teamwork, cooperation, precision, and trust, and the movie’s stirring message about the importance of Britain’s war effort is surely enhanced by the smoothness and apparent ease of the picture’s execution: if the country lost the war, it wouldn’t be because the Royal Navy—or David Lean—had failed to run a tight ship. This is very much an editor’s film, depending as it does on the care and grace with which it shuttles between past and present. Lean, following the convention of the time, cuts in and out of flashbacks with the wavy, watery transitional images called oil dissolves, of which there must be a record number here. In most movies, they look a bit silly, but in In Which We Serve they seem oddly appropriate—the men are, after all, floating in the sea. And all the other techniques of cinematic artifice at which we may be tempted to scoff—the inevitable rear projections, the studio tank work in the life raft scenes—are deployed with comparable aplomb, and everything cuts together seamlessly; even when the characters are stranded, becalmed, the film keeps moving forward like the Torrin at full speed.
Although the official editor’s credit belongs to Thelma Myers, Lean in fact cut the movie himself; Myers was his assistant. The editor he originally hired, Reginald Beck, quit when he discovered that Lean had been sneaking into the editing room and recutting sequences. Lean’s sense of film rhythm was extraordinary. There are sequences in In Which We Serve, like the boat building, that employ a rapid, pointed editing style, almost in the rat-a-tat manner of the Soviet silents. (If Alfred Hitchcock was the best German director in British film, Lean was certainly the best Russian.) At other times, as in Kinross’s amazingly moving farewell to his crew, Lean holds the shots much longer than you’d expect, barely cutting at all and allowing the movements of the people in the frame to speak for themselves.
That more deliberate rhythm became a striking feature of Lean’s later, epic films, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but in this first movie it was just one of many weapons in his arsenal. The beauty of In Which We Serve lies chiefly in the sense of focus and dedication it conveys—the feeling that the entire film crew, like the men of the Torrin, have put the best of themselves in the service of something greater. It is not, as it so often is in propaganda, just words; it’s the way the sailors move, with calm dispatch, when they’re called to battle stations, the way husbands and wives look at each other when it’s time for the men to go to sea. The words, which are Coward’s, are good ones—and he speaks his own part eloquently—but the images and their serene procession before our eyes are Lean’s. It’s the pictures that tell the story of this ship.
In Which We Serve was rapturously reviewed in both Great Britain and the United States; Manny Farber, writing in the New Republic, compared it favorably to American studio films like Wake Island, Casablanca, and Mrs. Miniver. (He called it the movie of the year, while somehow neglecting to mention the name David Lean.) Lean and Coward went on to make three more films together, in quick succession: This Happy Breed (1944), a domestic drama; the ghost comedy Blithe Spirit (1945); and, finally, the classic thwarted-romance drama Brief Encounter (1945), in which a man and a woman, each married to someone else, fall in love and then, agonizingly, decide to do the right thing and return to their spouses. In a strange way, it’s Brief Encounter that seems closest in spirit to In Which We Serve, as a celebration of British pluck and reserve: the native value of going about one’s business and doing one’s duty without complaint, through blood and sweat and—in Brief Encounter, anyway—tears. That film, like In Which We Serve, is splendid propaganda for the way of life the men of the Torrin are fighting to preserve. In their country’s time of need, Coward and Lean made being English seem an awfully good idea.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and DGA Quarterly.