In tribute to those who fought and died for freedom throughout the world…
On this day in 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in a slumped, defeated voice that Britain was at war with Germany. It was a supreme comedown for the man who blithely waved a copy of the Munich Pact in the air and declared “peace in our time” just the year before. It didn’t come as a great shock to a lot of Brits, particularly those serving in the Armed Forces, but it was a let-down just the same. Admirably, the Brits stoically went into fighting mode, despite the odds seeming to be against them, and the multi-talented Noel Coward paid homage to some of them in his 1942 film, In Which We Serve. Coward wrote, starred in, produced, and directed In Which We Serve, but soon split the directing duties with one David Lean. It was the first of many films Lean would direct.
While the film sports an ensemble cast, the real main character is the destroyer, the HMS Torrin. The film opens with shots of the ship being built, launched and sent into active service. In fact, the ship is so much of a main character that for the first twenty minutes of the film we don’t know the other characters’ names. However, when the Torrin is sunk off the coast of Crete, we begin to see them.
Seniority matters, and as he’s plummeted into the water, Captain E.V. Kinross (Noel Coward), affectionately known as “D.” remembers when he and his crew first boarded the Torrin. It’s love at first sight; the ship handles well and everyone likes it right off the bat. Kinross’s wife, Alix (Celia Johnson), as a seasoned Navy wife, has given the ship her blessing and love, not to mention she’s helped the Captain fix up his office. All of this is going through Kinross’s mind as he kicks for the surface, where his surviving men are holding on for dear life to a waterlogged raft.
There’s a definite, unique culture among Navy personnel and their families, both on and off their ships. Kinross is like a father-figure or older brother to his men, and the lot of them are a family, with inside jokes and ways of doing things.
Alix sums it up at a Christmas party when Kinross asks her to give a toast. Being a Navy wife means living in rented rooms and houses, never really settling down, and always wondering what’s happening out at sea. However, she adds, there is happiness there, especially when one comes to love one’s rival as much as he does. In other words, as a Navy wife, she loves her husband’s ship.
This attitude carried over to how the Torrin crew relates to the stranded soldiers they picked up at Dunkirk. Shorty is all over the place with a big pot of hot chocolate and Kinross tells the company’s top sergeant the ship’s recipe for a hot toddy. The secret? Lots of sherry.
Another crew member clinging to the raft is Walter (Bernard Miles), the Chief Petty Officer. He’s a simple soul who lives with his wife, Katharine (Joyce Carey) and his mother-in-law, and the biggest concern he has is that Kath will take care of his garden while he’s away.
Also sharing the raft is Ordinary Seaman “Shorty” Blake (John Mills) who just got married to Freda (Kay Walsh), whom he met during his Christmas leave. She just so happens to be Walter’s niece, so she and Shorty have an instant rapport. The courtship is the proverbial whirlwind–no sooner are Freda and Shorty off the train than Shorty asks Freda to a dance, and they’re together every free moment after that.
Once they’re married, Freda gets pregnant fairly quickly and goes to live with Kath and her mother. Kath stubbornly refuses to leave her house for the country even though they’re getting frequently shelled, because Walter won’t know where they are if they leave. Kath’s mom isn’t too jazzed about this, since her nerves are worn to a frazzle.
So they just stay home and try to carry on. None of the ladies like the basement shelter because they hate being trapped, so when bombs start falling, they stick Freda under the stairs with her knitting and make plans to have a cup of tea.
Yet another crew member is a young stoker, played by an uncredited Richard Attenborough in his first film role. The stoker made the mistake of leaving his post during a battle, a serious offense, but Kinross lets the kid off with the warning. He’s new to the Navy, and needs to learn from his mistakes. This response is almost worse than being court-martialed, because it means this guy will either learn from his mistakes or be done in by them, and he’s scared to death. The stoker gets silly drunk at a pub before firing up a song on the player piano and lurching out into the night.
Not long after the Torrin sinks, our remaining cast members are picked up by a passing ship and taken home. Like everyone who fought during the war, they don’t know what they’ll find when they get home…if they get home. However, the movie emphasizes the gritted teeth, we-can-take-it attitude of the British public during the initial years of the war, when it was only the tiny island against what seemed to be the leviathan that was Nazi Germany.
In Which We Serve is unabashed propaganda, but it was sorely needed. According to TCM, was made in response to the 1941 sinking of the HMS Kelly. Coward’s friend, Lord Mountbatten, was the captain of the Kelly, and Coward wanted to honor he and his men. Coward’s Kinross is a dead-on impression of Mountbatten.
The film opened to great success in both Britain and America, and is widely considered to be a very accurate portrayal of life in the British Royal Navy. It’s unfailingly British, with the crystal-clear message that everyone had to do their duty without giving up. My only criticism is that non-Brits may need to tune their ears to the accents (no offense to my British friends). Many of the characters talk rapidly, as if they have to get all their lines out before the next bomb falls or the next leave is cancelled. It’s taken me several times of watching the film to be able to catch all the lines. Other than that, In Which We Serve is a compelling picture of wartime Britain early on in the war.
In Which We Serve is available on DVD from Amazon.