In Which We Serve (Noël Coward & David Lean / United Kingdom, 1942):

The driving subtext is the entertainer during wartime (cp. Berkeley's For Me and My Gal), and there's the repartee-meister in gallant uniform before a weary naval crew: "Today, I'm afraid I've run out of jokes..." From its inception in molten metal and champagne christening to its sinking in the Battle of Crete, the destroyer carrying a trim cross-section of England, "a well-found ship." Survivors of the Jerry bombardment cling to a rubber raft and slip in and out of flashbacks, undulating dissolves introduce backstories from patrician captain (Noël Coward) to working-class seaman (John Mills). Between singalongs in cramped trains and smoky halls, a voice cameo from the Prime Minister on the bitter blow of declaring war. "It ain't exactly a bank holiday for us!" Coward wears every hat (leading man, writer, producer, composer) except the one of cinema, that falls to David Lean with his extended tracking shots and editor's sense of punchy montage. (Ronald Neame's cinematography is but one facet in this nexus of British filmmaking, which also includes early parts for Guy Green and Michael Anderson.) "Sort of pent-up and emotional" is the register, it's all in the way Celia Johnson's voice sidesteps a crack and a sob while offering a toast to the vessel that is her rival. The pregnant lass (Kay Walsh) beneath the bombed-out staircase, the stubborn wife (Joyce Carey) who goes down with her house during the Blitz—her husband (Bernard Miles) gets the tragic news and gazes out the windy deck, just a crumpled letter and a clenched jaw. (Amid all these stiff upper lips, the trembling Richard Attenborough eyes in an indelible crack-up.) Reed's The Way Ahead and The Archers' The Battle of the River Plate lend contrasting views, Coward here sums it up with one single exhausted bow of the head as the ship pulls into port to great fanfare, "where art parts company with reality." With Michael Wilding, Leslie Dwyer, James Donald, Philip Friend, Frederick Piper, Kathleen Harrison, Dora Gregory, and Daniel Massey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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