September 15, 2006

War, propaganda and the conservative point of view

The National Film Theatre (an excellent institution and the only cinema that shows films worth seeing) has just had a two-month Carol Reed season.

Sir Carol Reed, known chiefly for “The Third Man” and “The Fallen Idol” was one of this country’s greatest directors, versatile, imaginative and wonderfully skilled in his craft. His earlier films gave the most wonderful picture of middle-class England with all the good points and bad. Firsts for me: the film of Priestley’s “Laburnum Grove”, an unexpectedly tense and humorous send-up of middle-class life in the London suburbs of the early thirties and “Kipps” in which Michael Redgrave portrays H. G. Wells’s draper’s assistant who goes on to greater things.

During the war, Reed, like many others turned his attention to war work, commonly known as propaganda. He made a number of superb films as a civilian, later joining the Army Kinematographic Service, where he made official training films and such classics as “The Way Ahead”. In the immediate aftermath of the war he made some of the finest dark thrillers of which “The Third Man” is the greatest, going on to vast extravaganzas like “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Oliver”.

On Bank Holiday week-end the NFT showed “Night Train to Munich” a spy thriller aimed at the American audiences as much as the British ones (Reed being one of the few British directors whose films were popular in the States), “The Young Mr Pitt” a biopic of the great Prime Minister and a seventeen-minute short, “A Letter from Home”, made under the auspices of the Ministry of Education for foreign consumption.

Let me deal with the short film first. It featured a young and heart-breakingly beautiful Celia Johnson, whose own husband, Peter Fleming, was away for all of the six war years, as a mother whose husband is at sea and children in New York, being looked after by an American family. She sends the little ones a loving letter, describing her day, which is full of the “same old boring things”. The film shows the reality of those boring things, the nightly raids, the casualties, the difficulties of getting even the simplest meal together, sleeping in the shelter, learning to deal with incendiary bombs and, above all, the determined, unvanquishable spirit of Londoners.

Made in 1941, it was intended to convince Americans of the reality of the hardships Britain was suffering from but also of the indomitability of the people. As the other two films, particularly “The Young Mr Pitt”, the short film emphasises the commonality of Britain and America – the war the former is fighting is for the ideas and principles espoused by the latter.

“Night Train to Munich” is often described as almost a continuation of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, which also starred Margaret Lockwood. The Reed film has Rex Harrison instead of Michael Redgrave who had other commitments and revives the cricket-loving Charters and Caldicott as played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

It is, of course, a truism among film critics that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest and few can come up to his standard. Well, in this case, the truism is wrong. “The Lady Vanishes” is a delightful film, full of the usual Hitchcockian touches and also full of the man’s ineffable silliness. Plots? What plots? “The Lady Vanishes” takes place in a country that is vaguely Ruritanian, gives the impression of being Switzerland but is possibly Germany. Or not. This lack of precision or any worry about it diminishes the tension of the story. After all, it is only fairyland and the good will triumph while the bad will come to a no good end.

“Night Train to Munich” is very different. It is timed and positioned precisely, taking place in the last few months before the outbreak of World War II, finishing in the train journey that takes place in the night of September 3, 1939 and a chase through Germany the following day, with a final escape to Switzerland.

Briefly: the British manage to spirit out a Czech scientist, who is working on a development in arms manufacturing that will revolutionize warfare, just ahead of the invading Germans. But the Gestapo arrests his daughter as she is trying to reach the airport and sends her to an internment camp. Immediately, one must note two very precise and realistic aspects. When the Germans talk about Czech steel production being superlative and their need for the armaments manufacturing in Czechoslovakia, the film tells the truth. The Czechoslovakia of the late thirties was one of the best producers of arms in Europe and the Germans were fully aware of this. As they took the factories of Sudetenland over, they transferred some to Austria and used others in situ. Czech tanks and vehicles were invaluable in the invasion of Poland and, later, of the Soviet Union.

Then there is the internment camp. The film was made in 1940 but already there is a depiction of the viciousness of the Nazi regime. Reed was so attentive to detail that he asked the advice of someone who had managed to get out of an internment camp and come to Britain.

The daughter, Lockwood, manages to escape and joins her father but they are both kidnapped by Gestapo agents. The second half of the film consists of the elegant but deadly British agent, Rex Harrison, trying to rescue them and bring them back to Britain. He is motivated largely by patriotism, a desperate desire to improve Britain’s chances in the war that is drawing ever closer, feelings of anger because he had, in his opinion, failed in his duty and, needless to say, growing love for the stunning Margaret Lockwood.

There is, of course, a great deal of hokum but, also, some telling points. The film was released in June 1940 and was, possibly, not as successful as it should have been because of the timing. As Reed himself pointed out, it was a pre-Dunkirk film shown in the post-Dunkirk time. The mood had become darker and victory was no longer seen to be easy or, indeed, probable.

Nevertheless, the propaganda must have been effective in trying to provide both a negative and a positive reason for fighting, that is, trying to explain what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for.

The Nazis are not all spectacularly evil in this film, though there is a good deal of nastiness in the depiction of the internment camp. There are also wryly amusing moments when Nazi officers say things like: “This is very urgent as any day now Poland will provoke us into invading it in self-defence.” (One can hear an echo of this statement in the conversation William Pitt has with the French ambassador Talleyrand in “The Young Mr Pitt” about the French invasion of the Low Countries.) On the other hand, there is no obvious disdain for the Germans either. Some are stupid, dishonest, and even, brutal. But others are intelligent and, in their own way, patriotic. It is the system that has been imposed on their country, the system of lies, hatred and brutality that is shown to be evil.

There is also a reasonable indication that many Germans are dissatisfied with the Nazi regime and hanker after the freedom, which Britain represents. That is the crux of the positive argument: what we are fighting for, the most difficult of all things to define.

When Margaret Lockwood manages to get to England from her internment camp, it is still summer and the war is merely looming. She talks happily of people laughing and feeling relaxed, unafraid. Well, one might say, Britain has not been occupied, unlike her own country, Czechoslovakia. But later, much emphasis is laid on the fact that the Nazis had been brainwashed, taught to repeat slogans; that they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves, unlike the British, who remain free and, therefore, ingenious in their ability to fight the enemy.

The two somewhat bumbling but basically very decent cricket-lovers, Charters and Caldicott, represent England at her best. They are smart, though not too smart; courageous though not foolhardy; decent and honest but capable of all necessary deviousness when faced with the enemy. At one point they find themselves dressed in SS uniforms, marching reasonably well behind Rex Harrison, also in disguise.

The values are conservative with a small ‘c’ – freedom, the right to live your life as you want to, decency, openness, courage and, if necessary, deviousness against the enemy. Above all, there is the determination not to give in (though this is matched by an equal determination on the other side). These are Anglospheric ideas, the link between British and American attitudes emphasised for propaganda purposes.

The theme of what is English or what is important to all the countries, Britain, America and those of the Empire and Commonwealth, understandably, preoccupied many of the film-makers. The ideas are there in straightforward war films like “In Which They Serve” – duty of service but also private affection and love of those close to one with little emotion displayed – or “The Way Forward”, which shows the birth and growth of the new, more democratic army, with even the officer, played by David Niven, being one who had risen from the ranks.

The most successful if somewhat eccentric of the “what we are fighting for” films are those made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (himself a Hungarian), such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, a strongly argued case for ordinary decency that uses the image, created by David Low and so despised by the Left, of the bumbling old-fashioned colonel, out of date in the brave new world. The film makes it clear: being out of date is not the worst thing that can happen to one, if it means adhering to old-fashioned honesty and decency.

Churchill did not like the film and, I think, I can understand why. The trouble with Blimp is that he is not terribly bright, while the only highly intelligent decent man in the film is his German friend, played by Anton Walbrook, who escapes from Nazi Germany and tries, without much success, to warn his British friend of the evil that is brewing in that country. I can imagine that Churchill was not too keen on any film that perpetuated the great British assumption that intelligence is somehow bad and suspect. On the other hand, Churchill, was, predictably, enamoured with the various historical films of those years, his favourite one being “That Hamilton Woman”, which Tory Historian has never seen, despite it stellar cast.

It is normal for countries to produce historical films during a war and even as one looms on the horizon. What the historical theme might be depends largely on the way that country sees itself. Most of the British ones dealt with the previous times when the country faced up to a strong enemy on the Continent, the two favourite topics being the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars.

Another film Churchill was rather fond of was “The Young Mr Pitt”. Film critics, largely a poxy lot, now that we do not have the late lamented Alexander Walker any more, tend to be a bit sniffy about this film. Oh dear, they say, it is so simplistic. We know so little about the reality of the political battle between Fox and Pitt. Not enough is made of the great battles won by Nelson. And, honestly, how … well, really, … how one-sided.

War films do need to be simplistic to a great extent. You can’t afford to let doubts creep in when the country is at risk, as it was when “The Young Mr Pitt” was made in 1941. Unusually for Reed, the shooting and the post-production took a long time and the film was not released till 1942 by which time the United States, part of the targeted audience, was at war. If “Night Train to Munich” was a pre-Dunkirk film, this one is definitely post-Dunkirk. The mood is mostly dark, though, clearly there are a few victories reported, notably that of the Nile and Trafalgar. Pitt, we have to remember, died when the Continental menace still loomed large.

“The Young Mr Pitt” is a remarkably skilful film, with quick episodes following one another to give an impression of the great prime minister’s career rather than a historical dissection of it. It is not inaccurate, merely impressionistic.

There is a clear link to Churchill, Pitt the Younger being the one man on whom the salvation of the country depends, as the scene where his temporary successor Addington is harassed by MPs shows. There is, also, the clearly designated American connection, it being of great importance to show that Britain at all times fights for the principles the United States was founded on and lives by.

At the very beginning of the film we see Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham, speaking in the House of Lords against the war with the Colonists, proclaiming: “You will never conquer America.” He refers the ideas of liberty, the language and religion that the two countries have in common. This is echoed later by the younger Pitt, when he denounces revolutionary and Napoleonic France as being inimicable to English ideas of liberty and wanting to impose its language and its irreligion on this country. That, in a way, is the summary of what Britain is fighting for: her language, her religion, her ideas of liberty.

Unlike other war-time films, this one does not show the people en masse in a good light, taking its cue from Shakespeare and his fears of the mob. Individuals, like the two pugilists who support Pitt through thick and thin, or William Wilberforce (played by John Mills) who longs for peace but has to accept war, come out well. Even Fox offers to serve under Pitt when it becomes clear that nothing but all-out war will serve Napoleon’s purposes. But the people – oh the people are fickle. If there is a victory, they support Pitt. As soon as things go wrong, they throw bricks at his windows and rotten eggs at his carriage. One wonders whether this was a realistic picture of the mood in Britain in 1941 (without the bricks and the rotten eggs).

The film hinges on the great Robert Donat’s performance. Carol Reed had enticed him back to film-making because they both considered this to be important war work. He himself was of English, Polish and German descent, which accounts for the slightly odd surname but, like Leslie Howard, managed to play the quintessential English hero with no difficulty.

In “The Young Mr Pitt” his performance is superb and all the film’s shortcomings are swallowed up in that. He plays the aged Earl of Chatham as well as Pitt the Younger, whom he takes through from his early political years, when the bouncy young man can barely control his elation at being made prime minister at the age of 24 and has pillow chases up and down the stairs with the young siblings of Lady Eleanor Eden with whom he is obviously in love through the hard-working, hard-drinking dark days to the triumph of his post-Trafalgar speech at the Guildhall. The shadow of his early death hangs over that event and Pitt’s defiant toasting of his friends with wine rather than the medication poured out to him by his doctor.

There is one more point of interest: Pitt the Younger is presented as a romantic hero, the man who sacrifices his personal happiness and his life to his country and the idea of liberty, which his country represents. The country’s liberty and that of its individual people, that is what Britain fought for in the Napoleonic Wars and that is what it was fighting for in 1941. A simple, comprehensible, and all-embracing idea.

(Cross-posted, in an edited version from the Conservative History Journal blog. This will appear as an article in the Conservative History Journal.)

Posted by Helen Szamuely at September 15, 2006 10:46 AM

Hi, Im from Melbourne. Please check out this profoundly conservative (but not right wing) response to the Kosovo crisis & Sept 11.

Plus elaborations at:

Posted by: John at October 26, 2006 09:40 PM

The Carol Reed festival sounds like it was great. I watched "The Lady Vanishes" for the first time a month or so ago and enjoyed it so thoroughly I cummoned my daughter and watched it with her. Now I've got to find "Night Train to Munich," thanks to your description. Beautiful Margaret Lockwood plus those cricket fans again -- sounds like a must-see. Those cricket guys and how they react to different situations -- seemingly in such different ways, but actually organic to their English character -- is the best part of the film. Not-my-business becomes "I'm alright Jack" becomes quiet heroism.

All the best, Steve Barton, Dunwoody, Georgia

Posted by: Steve Barton at November 2, 2006 11:12 PM

"summoned" I really should proof before send.

Posted by: Steve Barton at November 2, 2006 11:13 PM
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