Saturday, 7 February 2015

In Which We Serve - a favourite scene

I thought I'd use the 50th anniversary of Churchill's death as an excuse to post one of my favourite moments in film. It's from In Which We Serve, a propaganda film (though an excellent one, and it cheers on the good guys) released in 1942 while the war still raged. The particular scene comes as HMS Torrin, the ship and crew at the centre of the film, disembarks the soldiers it has just evacuated from Dunkirk.

I defy even the toughest cynic not to be a little bit stirred by this:

The soldiers are tired, beaten, and dejected, and the country as a whole is looking pretty knackered too. When the sergeant major gives the order to move out from the dock, however, they straighten themselves and march away in perfect, disciplined order. They will fight on.

What I like about the scene is how it is so burstingly pregnant – it says so much, yet so quietly. The soldiers' resilience and doggedness seem to represent that entire strain of rhetoric and that national mood that define summer 1940 in our imagination – 'Very well, alone', 'All behind you, Winston', 'we shall never surrender' – but it does so almost wordlessly.

It is an intensely patriotic scene, but I don't think it has to be – in its taciturn avoidance of the obviousness and loudness of political rhetoric, it leaves us free to enjoy it simply as a celebration of righteous determination, of the bravery of doing the right and necessary deed. One of the film's themes is the unity between social classes during wartime emergency (and, by extension, this as a human decency worth defending against fascism) and the quiet, unshowy determination of the fighting men to maintain their discipline and not give in feels like a counterpart to the political elite's rhetorical exhortations of 'never surrender'. This is the common soldier's message of defiance and encouragement, and it works – 'if I wasn't so tired I'd give them a cheer' says John Mills when he sees it.

There might seem to be something antagonistic about this – the working men of the army encourage with their actions, as opposed to the mere words of the politicians – but given the rather conservative class politics of the film, this seems unlikely. One strikingly outdated aspect of the film is its emphasis on duty – it exhorts the British to 'do their duty' and fight, rather than asking them to find within their own individual conscience the moral reasons why the war was good and worth fighting. As we tend now to assume the latter was the crucial motivation of those who fought Nazism, this emphasis is doubly striking. As I remember it, there is only one, passing mention of Nazi atrocities.

And it's great as film-making because it says everything indirectly through exemplification, without having to state the baldly obvious or harangue the viewer. In Which We Serve is a great film. Noel Coward directed as well as starred, though I read somewhere that the film-making process soon bored him, leading him to hand over most of his duties to his co-director, maestro-to-be David Lean. I like to think this scene is one of Lean's.

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