Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves…
It’s no secret that early in the Second World War the United Kingdom was among the few free nations fighting against the Nazis. By 1944 people were exhausted and pep talks were in order, one of which came in the form of the Carol Reed film, The Way Ahead. Released in the UK on June 6, 1944, the film was a huge hit. Starring mostly actors who would have been more well-known to the British public, it’s a rat-a-tat tale of an Army company who come from all different classes and backgrounds, but who become a cohesive fighting unit.
The movie starts out just before the war, and everyone’s debating on whether or not there will be an armed conflict. Some people say no. Others say yes, but not yet. Still others think there’s not only going to be a war, but that it’s already here.
Most vocal of all are the old timers from the Boer War. These gentlemen are not in the least bit impressed by new-fangled tanks and planes and guns. It won’t make any difference because the new lads don’t know how to fight. These young whippersnappers are soft and clueless about hardship. They might train, but they stop for tea every five minutes. They don’t know what it’s like to endlessly march in wet, muddy boots. Or face down angry tribesmen bearing spears. If and when war comes, it will be an absolute disaster.
War does come, of course, and men all over the country get their call-ups. It doesn’t matter if one’s collar is blue or white–every able-bodied man at or below a certain age must serve somewhere (For that matter, every woman, too, since there were women who got drafted as well.).
The only group we care about in this case is the fictional Duke of Glendon’s light infantry battalion, or “Dogs,” for short. The commanding officer is Second Lieutenant Jim Perry (David Niven), a veteran of Dunkirk and an all-around nice guy. However, Perry is no milquetoast–he expects his men to toe the line.
Perry’s men do a lot of grousing at the beginning of basic training. One of them, Davenport (Raymond Huntley) is especially particular about the length of his trousers and the arch support in his shoes because he has long legs and a high instep. His former clerk, Parsons (Hugh Burden) runs interference for him at first, but then Davenport seems to calm down.
The mens’ main complaint is the top sergeant, Fletcher (William Hartnell), who seems tough on them but who tells Perry at the officer’s club that he’s very optimistic about the mens’ chances of forming an effective unit. Perry trusts Fletcher and lets him keep doing what he’s doing, and soon everyone becomes friends.
Basic training isn’t all marching and calesthenics, though. Perry gets up a talent show to entertain the men and doesn’t have many takers because no one wants to ruin their street cred. Actually, almost no one–one of Perry’s men, Beck (Leslie Dwyer) steps up to recite “The Lynching of Black McGuire.”
The night of the talent show arrives, and all the men smile when they find out the first act is a band called the Pollocks. However, instead of the dance band they were hoping for, it’s a bunch of middle-aged women playing Strauss. To Beck’s chagrin, the guy who goes on before him tries to recite the “Lynching” poem. On the plus side, he can’t remember all of it, so Beck feeds it to him from backstage.
Eventually basic training ends, and the men are deployed to Tunisia, where they make the Cafe Rispoli their headquarters. The owner, also called Rispoli (Peter Ustinov) speaks nothing but French and is a firm pacifist. The last thing he wants is for the Germans to come to their quiet village. He may not have a choice, though. The men make friends with Rispoli over a dart game and regale him with a rendition of “Lily of Laguna.” Yeah, the movie’s a wee bit dated.
Inevitably, the Germans show up and the men have to put their training to use. As Winston Churchill famously said, “This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.”
Except for David Niven, Stanley Holloway, and a microscopic appearance by a very young Trevor Howard, The Way Ahead doesn’t boast many familiar faces, at least not to American audiences. Well, with one exception: Peter Ustinov not only plays Rispoli, the cafe owner, but he co-wrote the film with Eric Ambler. Ustinov had a great way with dialogue and it makes the film a pleasure–it’s punctuated with nice dry British humor.
It’s also very thoughtful and direct as far as what was at stake for the British people at this stage of the war, piling on both messages of encouragement and reminders to keep fighting the good fight. The pensioners talking about how the new generation is too soft is heard over shots of soldiers training, getting muddy, working themselves to the point of exhaustion, and the obvious takeaway is, “They said we can’t hack it, and now look at us.”
Another one of the film’s messages is that the Army has the back of every soldier. Parsons tries to desert one night because he’s worried about his wife, who’s pregnant and being hounded by debt collectors. Perry kindly assures him that the problem will be taken care of.
Mostly, the movie’s overall message is to stay focused. None of the men are carousers and are very conscious of who they’re fighting for. All the married ones make a beeline for their wives when they get a leave, and if they’re not married they go see their relatives. In Rispoli’s cafe, they’d rather play darts than find local women.
Even more importantly, the movie leaves the outcome of the Dogs’ time in Africa open-ended. It’s not a spoiler to say that the last shots of the movie show the men walking into thick fog, searching for the enemy, all with determined, willful expressions on their faces. They don’t know where they’re going or how long it’ll take to get home, but they’ll come out winners by hook or by crook.
The Way Ahead was originally an Army-produced short called The New Lot, but was expanded into a feature film after test audiences complained that the characters did nothing but gripe. David Niven agreed to produce and star in the film with the proviso that The Way Ahead have “first-class entertainment value.”
Seventy-odd years on, the film holds up. As Niven hoped, it’s definitely entertaining, it’s a simple story, and ultimately satisfying, as it’s become a tribute to the intestinal fortitude that was the British Army during World War Two, particularly when everything seemed to be against them.
Variety said it best: “At last somebody has dared to blow his own horn.”
For more of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon, please visit Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts. Thanks for hosting, Terence–it was a pleasure as always. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you on Wednesday with another review…
The Way Ahead is available on DVD from Amazon.