While there are more romantic films in Ealing’s back catalogue, this one – with its love letters flying back and forth between British prisoners-of-war held in a German camp and the British women patiently waiting for news on the homefront – felt apt for Valentine’s Day, and offers a nice (if not overly challenging) mix of drama, comedy, unrequited love and hopelessly unbelievable characterisation. But we’ll come back to that last point later...
At first, this appears to be a traditional Ealing / British war movie. The captured soldiers from Dunkirk and elsewhere are marched across Europe to a POW camp. If there was a British war film bingo card, this film would sweep the board: Welsh, Scottish, cockney, working class, posh, crook, and extra points for the Czech soldier who’s taken on another man’s identity. As they march, we get brief flashbacks to their lives pre-war, and the women they were involved with: Ted Horsfall (Jack Warner) and Evans (Mervyn Johns) run a decorating business and are happily married, although Evans and wife Dilys (Rachel Thomas) are struggling to have a child; Stephen Harley (Derek Bond) is in love with Caroline (Jane Barrett), who leaves her current boyfriend Robert Marsden (Robert Wyndham) for him; Lennox (Gordon Jackson) says goodbye to Elspeth (Margot Fitzsimons) as his train pulls away... At one point, it feels like this could be the whole film – an elaborate portmanteau of flashbacks and wartime love affairs like Dead of Night (1945) or Train of Events (1949) – but then the men arrive at the POW camp, and that becomes the focus of the narrative. Interspersed through, however, is the story of the women who were left behind – they aren’t just a series of flashbacks, we see a parallel narrative about their lives, worries and interests during wartime.
While the film has a broad cross-section of British soldiers, it is most interested in Geoffrey Mitchell (Michael Redgrave) – or, rather, Captain Karel Hasek, the Czech soldier on the run who takes Mitchell’s identity from his dead body. The film toys briefly with the mystery of who Mitchell really is – the men are suspicious when he speaks German and appears interested in their escape plans – but that isn’t the heart of the film. Instead, it is the arrival of the first letters and packages from home and the men’s interactions with their wives and girlfriends that reveals the film’s main interest: Hasek’s need to pretend to be Mitchell for Mitchell’s wife Celia (Rachel Kempson) and to avoid the suspicion of Gestapo officer Forster (Karel Stepanek), who recognises Hasek from a Czech concentration camp. It is a shame then that Redgrave is a blank slate throughout: he has the good looks but his performance is largely one-note, controlled and emotionless. While this is suitable for the initial set-up, the character necessarily has to become more open and emotional, particularly for the (unsatisfying) final scenes (which, again, more of in a moment).
The drama and camaraderie of the POW camp is well-played, but by 1946 Ealing was an old hand at this kind of consensus-building wartime bonding structure. There are minor dramas – Lennox loses his sight and calls off his engagement, Evans learns of the death of his wife during childbirth, the men attempt to get Hasek back to Britain – which are ably supported by more comic turns from reliable stalwarts like Basil Radford (as the wonderfully named Major Ossy Dalrymple), who cheerfully describes himself as ‘a social parasite... the sort we’re fighting to get rid of’ (there are echoes of Sir George Gedney (A.E. Matthews) here, the landed gentry character in They Came to a City; although Dalrymple doesn’t hate his fellow man, actively joins in with camp activities, and is self-aware about his nature, it is also clear he would prefer to be alone with his horses). The women of the film aren’t quite as varied as the POWs, and we spend less time with them. The bulk of that time is given to the middle/upper class Celia and Caroline, with only brief scenes with Dilys and Elspeth. Caroline is the most interesting here, if only because she takes the initiative with both the men in her life (she drops Robert, chooses Stephen, and then announces they have to get married – with the overt subtext, particularly for an Ealing film, of wanting to have sex before he is called up).
Given my usual preference to look beyond narrative and received wisdom on these films, I once again found myself drawn to the cinematography: and once again, I find director of photography Douglas Slocombe’s name in the credits. It’s not that the film is obviously showy or spectacular, but there are some strong visual choices made throughout: most noticeably, the decision for landscape shots to be dominated by the sky. From the first images, where lines of POWs walk horizontally across the image, the sky takes up eighty per cent of the screen, often reducing the men to a mass of interchangeable bodies, but also mocking their captivity. The sky is wide, open, and free: all things the characters cannot be. This emphasis on the scale of the natural world continues in longer shots in the camp itself, including shots where Mervyn Johns and Michael Redgrave walk away from the camera, almost shrinking in the image, dominated by their surroundings. The film also features subtle camerawork that often moves around the room and characters, calling in at the different stories and emotions: one of the strongest examples comes when Mitchell/Hasek reads Celia’s letter aloud, and the camera circles round to catch each man’s face, as they react to a description of life back home. It is a subtle moment, but it plays to the power of silent performance from all the actors.
It is also a moment that, I think, Charles Barr would claim supports the film’s celebration of the camps as ‘little England.’ Yet I am unsure the film is that clear-cut: the moments where Jack Warner leads everyone in ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ to drown out a German anthem stresses this, but there are other times where the unease and uncertainties of these men come to the fore, and they become individual pieces of England as much as a celebration of a cohesive little England. The camps are described as ‘a little piece of England’ but the film is equally interested in being able to ‘pass’ for English – not just the ‘fake’ Mitchell, but also the camp Kommandant, who is practising his English with Dalrymple. The sense here is that English-ness is something that can be learned, it isn’t intrinsic or natural – perhaps most clearly stated in Hasek’s ability to ‘become’ Mitchell and win Celia, an event that is celebrated with a fireworks display at the end of the film.
But, that ending... it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, and one the film fails to sell to the audience (or to this audience at least). Celia starts as an interesting character – coming out of an unhappy marriage, accepting her husband has left her, bringing up their children on her own – but the demands of the plot mean that her actions become increasingly unlikely. The arrival of letters from her husband – actually written by another man (the difference in handwriting explained away by Hasek using his left hand) and presenting a completely different character and opinion on life – cause her to fall in love with him again. When she hears her husband is to be repatriated, she rushes to the docks (and rushes past Hasek: Redgrave’s stoic performance serves him well here, showing Hasek’s realisation that Celia doesn’t know him); when Hasek tells her about his deception, she visibly deflates; yet a few months later, as victory in Europe is celebrated, she’s ecstatic that Hasek has got back in touch, and appears to have fallen in love with him.
While in one sense it is understandable why the narrative ends like this – everyone likes a happy ending, it stresses the inevitable heterosexual pairing-off that happens in many films – but for me it strikes a false note, and one that actually sours the other relationships of the returning POWs (Lennox and Elspeth, Stephen and Caroline, and Ted and his wife are all reunited; while Evans meets his daughter). While all the relationships were tested by miscommunication or crossed lines, Hasek and Celia never felt anything more than an artificial narrative device. It is an unconvincing end that mars an otherwise solid film.
Next time, Dirk Bogarde takes on the long arm of the law in The Blue Lamp (1950)...