Pour yourself a small gin or a nice cup a tea, stiffen your upper lip, turn off the wireless (radio, that is) and watch one of the best films ever released in a time of war: 1942’s In Which We Serve. Made almost single-handed by Noël Coward (with some directorial assistance from the legendary David Lean), this is an unabashedly patriotic tribute to the Royal Navy, told as “the story of a ship”, the HMS Torrin. The primary purpose of the film is to encourage a nation facing annihilation, and it clearly succeeds in that respect. But it’s also — even today — moving, exciting and worthy of admiration as a piece of cinema.
The story telling style is reminiscent of Coward’s magnificent Cavalcade. Rather than following a strictly linear narrative, the film instead presents a series of recollections by different characters, all of whom are literally clinging to life after their ship has been torpedoed. In flashback scenes, they recall their families, their friends, and most of all their experiences on the H.M.S. Torrin. It’s stirring stuff. The Dunkirk rescue operation and the battles near Crete are brought vividly to life, using a well-edited mix of documentary footage and scenes shot for the film.
Noël Coward’s Mountbatten-esque performance (the two remarkable men were good friends) as Captain Kinross is probably a bit too mannered to be completely accessible to most viewers. The heart of the film is much more Bernard Miles as CPO Hardy and John Mills as his nephew by marriage, ordinary seaman Blake (Following this movie, Mills became a David Lean favorite, and won a best supporting actor Oscar under Lean’s Direction almost 30 years later). They and the other perfomers playing junior officers, ordinary seaman and family members back home are more vulnerable and therefore particularly sympathetic for the audience. We admire the formidable Kinross from an emotional distance but the “average” fighting men and their loved ones on the home front have more common humanity, particularly as we witness their courage, their fears and their loves.
The film does not skimp on the horrors of war, including the terror of combat and the grief at losing loved ones. If you can’t shed a tear during the scene in which Blake tells CPO Hardy the latest news from home, call a cardiologist immediately because you are missing a vital organ from your chest.
The Brits and indeed the world were up against it when this film was made, so don’t expect cynicism, unhappy families or emotional breakdown by the characters (Even Richard Attenborough, as a coward, mans up in the end). A more realistic take on the war was possible after it was all over and people had the security to look back with a more gelid eye (see for example my recommendation of 1953’s The Cruel Sea). But none of that takes away from the power of this straight-faced tonic for the people of Britain at a time of unimaginable peril. It’s a triumph for Coward and the whole cast, who received a special and much deserved Academy Award for their efforts.
In Which We Serve is in the public domain and you can watch a high-quality copy for free by clicking here.