Classic Film Talk: ‘In Which We Serve’ (1942)

Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk

Today we reminisce about David Lean’s

In Which We Serve (1942)

Directed by Noël Coward and David Lean

Starring: Noël Coward, Bernard Miles, John Mills, Celia Johnson

Synopsis

“This is a movie about a ship.”

They are the first words spoken by the film’s narrator. While this statement is very true, it must be added that this is also a movie about the ship’s serviceman and their families. We initially see the ship, named H.M.S. Torrin, in its final moments of battle. After being badly hit by a German destroyer, it starts to sink and all aboard must abandon ship. Some of the surviving crew gather on an inflatable raft waiting – and desperately hoping – to be rescued and, all the while, we revisit the past of their lives and of the ship’s existence through a series of flashbacks.

The Kincross family – Captain, Alix & children

Holding on for dear life

The Torrin was hand-built in a lengthy and laborious process ahead of the Second World War. Captain E.V. Kincross (Coward), a tough-as-nails Navy man who runs a tight ship, is placed in charge of the vessel, which has been rapidly commissioned because there are suggestions of imminent war on the horizon. Kincross is married to Alix (Johnson) and they have two children. While he is holding onto the raft, he remembers moments with his family, in particular when his wife expresses worry over the changing political climate. Alix is a loving, nurturing wife and mother who goes to the extreme lengths to be courageous for her husband’s sake though she fears losing him every minute he is gone. Also notably aboard the ship are Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy (Miles) and Seaman “Shorty” Blake (Mills). Hardy is married to Kath and they live with Kath’s mother, later also welcoming Shorty’s pregnant wife, Freda, into the household at the outbreak of war.

Through the flashbacks, we witness the evolution of these people and other Navy men aboard the ship as the war progresses. There are times of celebration, challenge, and tragedy. We see wonderful displays of resilience from everyone and understand how the Torrin becomes not just a part of their lives but also an important influence in the war itself.

Observations

A captain and his men

This film was released at the height of the war and was initially developed as a sort of propaganda vehicle towards the nationalistic war effort. It was only after Coward and Lean polished the script and shooting was underway that the studio saw how important the film’s message was going to be. Apparently, many in the world of British Film underestimated Coward’s talents on the big screen despite him being a prominent writer and theatre man since the 1920s. In fact, Coward’s first filming experience occurred in 1918, appearing with the Gish sisters in the silent picture Hearts of the World. Perhaps the studio’s doubts were linked to Coward’s flamboyant personality, which made them question whether or not he could pull off such a serious, straight-laced role. (Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a good friend of Coward, also did not initially think he could handle such an undertaking.) Any doubts about his lack of director skills were lightened with the addition of David Lean, then an established editor who was given co-directorial credit by his own request.

A young, barely recognisable Sir Richard Attenborough

The idea behind the Torrin was inspired by a real-life Navy ship called H.M.S. Kelly that was sunk during the Battle of Crete on 23 May 1941. The story of the Kelly had been fondly recollected by the public due to her extraordinary service, surviving several battles with minimal damage and being manned by an impeccably reactive crew. The Torrin is portrayed in very much the same fashion in the film and it is during the Battle of Crete that you see her in action: shooting down incoming planes from the sky and blowing up enemy destroyers with torpedoes. You get the impression that the ship is equipped to handle any situation and, moreover, that she is somewhat a superhero vessel after she single-handily takes down nearly a dozen planes. It almost feels as if the ship cannot sink, so it is rather surprising when she finally goes down.

Behind-the-Scenes

From a cinematographic stand point, In Which We Serve is brilliantly filmed with very realistic sets and fantastic shots. Lean has become renowned for his famous transitions and there are quite a few nice ones here. For example, Shorty’s and Hardy’s families are celebrating Christmas together and from a shot focused on the table, we are transported to the Kincross’s party. Also, there is a striking transition before and after a blitz. Before the bombing, we see people in their home knitting and putting things way while conversing. A bomb falls from the sky onto the house and the next frame shoes everything in ruins. Everything happened in the blink of an eye and is filmed in such a way that it feels incredibly real. Some footage of the battles and the ship’s time out to sea was from existing stocks while other footage was original. Apparently, much of the scenes depicting sailors in the water were achieved in a large pool on a soundstage but it looks so convincingly real that I still have a hard time grasping this. It certainly shows that the sets built and used were the most elaborate then to-date in the whole of Britain.

Officer Hardy & Shorty

I found all of the characters to have a lot of substance and that each and every role was beautifully played. Coward was extremely convincing as a Naval Captain through perhaps less so as a family man. It would have been nice to see a slight bit more emotion from him towards his wife, just as the other leads had shown with their respective spouses. I was the most surprised by Mills who gives a heart-warming performance without outright stealing the show. As Shorty, he demonstrated bravery, diligence, and much-needed humour to break the almost nightmarish moments. I was most touched by the film’s portrayal of the “common” servicemen, who took care of one another despite a harsh and stressful way of life. It is a moving tribute that …

This Film Is Dedicated To The Royal Navy.

I am not usually one to voluntarily watch war films but I will be the first to say how much this picture impressed me. It is a touching memorial to all the Allied servicemen, no matter the rank or the branch of service, which will live on forever. Do not pass up the opportunity to see this gem of a movie if you get the chance.

Trivia

  • No extras were used on the ship. All non-professional actors were real sailors on leave from active duty.
  • The “bombs” were actually made from condoms, at the time called “French letters” in British slang.
  • Though this was David Lean’s first directorial job, he had previous been offered work directing shorts. However, Lean held out for a chance to be able to make films “the way they should be made”.

David Lean (left) and Noël Coward in between takes

David Lean giving directions to an actor from the soundstage