by Luke Pennington
Directors: Noel Coward & David Lean
Screenplay: Noel Coward
Cinematographer: Ronald Neame
Editor: Thelma Myers [David Lean]
Producer: Noel Coward & Anthony Havelock-Allan [Associate]
Art Director: David Rawnsley
Musical Score: Noel Coward
Conducted by: Muir Mathieson & The London Symphony Orchestra
“This is the story of a ship:” so says an uncredited narrator, Leslie Howard, at the top of the picture. That ship, the HMS Torrin, serves as proxy for its inspiration the HMS Kelly which was sunk in a stretch of the Mediterranean after having been ambushed, strafed, and torpedoed by Luftwaffe bombers and Nazi naval destroyers off Crete. The ‘story of the ship’ is told through the various wartime struggles of the its captain, his crew and their loved ones back home – all representing the oft realized English reticence towards showing emotion or devolution into histrionics despite what cause. It is partially due to Coward & Lean’s interpretation of the decidedly British ‘stiff upper lip‘ which results in the film’s retention of immediacy and moral strength some 70 years after its theatrical release (Great Britain; September 1942).
Initially a war propaganda film, In Which We Serve was intended as a morale booster for a British people who were entering into their fourth year of war with the Axis powers. The war’s outcome was far from certain and her majesty’s subjects were in desperate need of anything that would prove able to sustain their particular brand of stoicism. It would be an unlikely pair who would do well in this suspension. Coward, playwright-performer, and editor-film doctor David Lean would jointly develop and direct their first picture together going on to two Academy nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (1943).
The film begins with a bit of necessary wartime action resulting in the disabling of the HMS Torrin – the captain and crew having been thrown overboard find themselves clinging to a life raft that shall bob in the ink black studio sea which is to represent the Mediterranean for the much of the picture. As the crew waits for rescue, strafed by passing aircraft, the audience is whisked into their past via ‘oil dissolves’ which were common – a device to represent a temporal shift – yet seem wholly appropriate for the castaway drama. As promised, the story of the ship is told via the lives of the crew and their families whose loyalty to it is par excellence. The picture drifts through the experiences of the ship’s expedited commissioning through an earlier torpedo attack which gives the men a welcomed Christmas-time leave and the eventual hardship and loss faced by their families back home as Hitler’s bombers Blitz the English cityscape and countryside.
What is so intrinsically special about the picture is in its careful navigation between sentimentality and adept storytelling. In Which We Serve is decidedly an ‘editor’s-picture.’ Lean’s years as a ‘backroom boy’ and film doctor serves the story well in that it never lingers until it absolutely must. If cinema is a dialogue between storyteller and audience using image and silence it is the adroit utilization of pacing which can bring a story to its various artistic peaks and valleys. Lean’s filmmaking sensibilities developed as an editor made him keen to the idea of showing his audience what it wanted to see – what it needed to know – and when they wanted it given them.
In Which We Serve an interesting mix of story and propaganda coming from a film which had the full backing of the Ministry of Information. If there is a propagandist message (and there is), it’s not a call to arms as is evident in something like a Battleship Potemkin (though the pacing of wartime immediacy is evident especially in the action sequences), it is found in its homage to British resilience and the remembrance of the individual’s role in furthering the cause of national fortitude. This message has retained its power due to Coward’s insistence, through scripting, of not focusing on what was being fought against, but instead on what was being fought for in World War II. Accompanying Coward’s words, Lean’s choices, on set and in the lab (it is rumored that Lean in fact cut the picture himself), allow the audience to see those who would stand up to great evil as unexemplary. The heros were men and women who did not wish for peace because it was right (despite how right it was or how it was seen by Coward & Lean themselves), but because they wanted to live – simply and without cause beyond their patently de-particularized joie de vivre.
The excision of moral correctness allowed In Which We Serve to transcend genre from a war propaganda picture – of which it had been originally conceived – to a human-idealist drama. In their first cinematic excursion, Coward & Lean crafted a story which disregarded its temporal causation without extricating its theme; a difficult bit of deconstruction which accounts for the film’s ultimate singularity. The theme became not about defeating the Axis – for which everyone was already properly on board – but about the transnational transgenerational purpose for ‘the good war’ – the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness – a pursuit which has proven itself as world-worthy given direct cause for defense or no.
CC RATING: ****/5