In Which We Serve was broadcast on BBC2 for the umpteenth time Saturday just gone and, regardless of my familiarity with the film, I just knew I'd want to watch it again and so pressed record on my Sky+. Then the news came in that one of its stars and one of my favourite actors Lord Richard Attenborough had passed away. So it was with some poignancy that I watched this durable classic today.
I can vividly remember watching In Which We Serve as a war film loving child and, having been used to more straightforward actioneers with beginnings, middles and ends, being really confused by the film's non linear, episodic narrative and propaganda tone. It was all rather lost on me on my first viewing but it is one that became clearer and clearer and much loved as I grew older.
In Which We Serve is undoubtedly a propaganda movie. Made in the very heart of the war, the call went up at Two Cities Films for an ode to the Royal Navy (following the sinking of Lord Mountbatten's HMS Kelly in the Battle of Crete) from a well known scriptwriter and it was Noel Coward who answered the call and took on both directing (alongside a young David Lean who handled the action scenes) and lead acting honours as well. Yes it's rather ludicrous to believe the dressing gown and cigarette holder, clipped bon mot utterer could really be the character of Captain Kinross, the tough and experienced naval officer of the HMS Torrin (even the studio believed his performance to be ''always interesting, if not quite convincing") but there's something rather wonderful, quaint and stirring about this Henry V/Churchill/kindly patrician amalgamation that his character ultimately is. He may not convince as a professional man of war, but his performance is spot on for the film's timely and important message of unity and faith in one another.
Class is an issue that cannot help but be raised in such a production, especially when we see such a cross section; from Coward and Celia Johnson's extremely posh couple sinking copious amounts of gin before going up to tuck the children into bed (!) to John Mills' amiably chipper working class hero Shorty Blake (that line of his, after an act of extreme valour; "Someone had to do it" still gets me) looking for love on leave and finding it in the shape of Kay Walsh, but the joy of In Which We Serve is we see its structure working seamlessly and hand in hand from officer down to ordinary seaman and stokers. Coward's message really is 'we're in this together' and it's really meant too. He doesn't expect or ask any of his subordinates to do something he would not do himself and, as such, you really feel you get the spirit of the war.
And then there's Richard Attenborough's turn as the young stoker who, when it comes to the crunch, finds his character doesn't cut the mustard. It's amazing to think he was just eighteen years old here and that, in a career spanning some truly great and diverse performances (though he would often return to the more nervy, cowardly roles too), it is this one - his film debut - that can still be so fondly remembered and held up with the affection and admiration it deserves. That impassioned scene in the pub, where he tries desperately to get drunk enough to drown his sorrows, and its subsequent pay off on the Torrin's raft, "Oh play another tune for God's sake!") is wonderfully credible.
The co-direction of Coward and Lean make for a film that transcends the war movie genre. Partly that's because of its propaganda tone and the message that is inspiring enough to still mean something to this day, despite a more selfish individualistic tone creeping into our society as a whole, but also it's because of a certain element of artiness that both men shared. It makes for an unusual and distinctive quality production that raises itself above the more generic trappings. That David Lean would go on to direct another film, ostensibly a war movie, that is in fact about a whole lot more and is much more unusual, ambivalent and complicated than a mere genre movie could ever be is perhaps not unexpected. That film is of course Bridge on the River Kwai.
RIP Lord Attenborough.