Judge Mike Pinsky has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Oh, and this set of British war movies, which is decidedly less sticky than the other stuff.
"It looks clever enough on paper. That goes for all these wheezy ideas. When you try to make them work, they fall down flat."—Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur T. "Bomber" Harris (Basil Sydney), The Dam Busters
Nobody relishes war quite like the British. Few cultures tell war stories with as much variation as they do. Consider the five films in Anchor Bay's British War Collection. Some are upbeat, where manly men prove successful against the forces of evil. Some are sadder, tinged with individual defeat and loss. A chronicle of shipboard ennui, a shady story of moral decay, a tense thriller, a droll prison adventure, and a steady tale of men on a mission. What do these films tell us about the British at war?
Four of the five films in the British War Collection were produced in the 1950s. This is an important point for understanding the British attitude toward World War II. In his epilogue to his crucial text, The Second World War, military historian John Keegan (an Englishman, no less), spends considerable time outlining the post-colonial fallout, the recovery of Germany, and the expansion of Soviet power that all followed 1945. But he devotes only three sentences to the United Kingdom, noting that Britain survived "relatively unscathed in terms of human if not material loss."
Perhaps Keegan has in the back of his mind a comparison to the traumatic aftermath of World War I, which had a profound impact on English culture. Or perhaps he is merely adding up costs on paper. But even Keegan tacitly acknowledges that the British emerged from the war with a faltering empire and a sense that its greatest glories were in the past. As early as the 1950s, as the players in the Cold War were beginning to move their pieces on the grand political chessboard, the British may have sensed that they were overshadowed.
As Shakespeare celebrated the chivalry of a bygone era in plays like Henry V (and remember that Olivier turned the play into a flag-waver in 1944), the post-war British cinema seemed more about soothing the conscience of a nation while the sun set upon its triumphant past. British war movies have an edge of sadness not present in the gung-ho efforts of American filmmakers at the time. Later, Vietnam made war movies more rueful. In the 1950s, we were too busy worrying about those pesky commies to have regrets.
Anchor Bay packages five tales of Englishman and their trials in combat in The British War Collection, the latest in their line of extras-free boxed sets. There are no supplemental materials or subtitles. The prints, all in their original full frame states with mono audio, are generally in acceptable shape, with some scratches here and there. But generalizations can only get us so far. Let us consider each film in its own right.
• The Cruel Sea (1953): "The only villain is the sea," intones world-weary Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins). In this precursor to the dour Das Boot, we follow the dry and methodical missions of a British escort ship, its inexperienced crew, and its world-weary captain. The technical realism of life about the Compass Rose (courtesy of a script by novelist Eric Ambler) makes the crew's paranoid hunt for U-boats suspenseful without needing to add melodrama. Compare the melancholy tone and relative lack of action (they only battle two subs in five years) with what Americans were watching on television in the combat-heavy Victory at Sea documentary series.
• The Ship That Died of Shame (1955): If you thought the last film sounded grim, this unsentimental look at the downward slide of a group of shipmates at the end of the war will really depress you. Hell, just look at the title. The Ship That Died of Shame follows the shadowy adventures of the crew of a patrol boat (led by George Baker and Richard Attenborough) who take up smuggling. Call it "maritime noir." Oddly, most of the film takes place after World War II, but you can think of their sense of cynicism and burn-out almost as an aftereffect of the sorts of experiences shared by the crew of the Compass Rose in The Cruel Sea. Without the shared goals of a war to give these men motivation, they turn to seedier enterprises just to keep their little world together and relive the old days. The film's relentlessly dark tone gets a little exhausting and lacks the dry humor usually associated with other Ealing Studios efforts.
• Went the Day Well? (1942): Ealing's dry humor does mark the first act of this notorious wartime effort—the only film in the Anchor Bay set made during the war. But this tale of a failed German invasion of a coastal English town gets dark and suspenseful quickly, as the locals must figure out how to defeat their Nazi captors and the double-agent (Leslie Banks) in their midst. Credit the original short story by Graham Greene and screenwriters John Dighton (Kind Hearts and Coronets), Diana Morgan, and Angus McPhail (Hitchcock's Spellbound and The Wrong Man) for the film's surprising edge.
The film gained a reputation for its brutality, which given the time it was made (was this meant as a scare film or a morale booster in 1942?), is actually pretty rough. Ordinary townsfolk prove their mettle against cruel villainy here. But the film works by shrewdly cranking up the tension steadily until its explosive and violent finale. Went the Day Well? is probably the film that translates most effectively to modern audiences. Expect the inevitable Hollywood remake.
• The Colditz Story (1955): Future James Bond director Guy Hamilton turns this prison camp tale based on the experiences of a British officer who masterminded a breakout from a supposedly impenetrable German castle. Of course, what did the Germans expect? Colditz Castle was intended as a holding pen for prisoners-of-war of several nationalities whose common trait was escaping from other prisons. Put them all together, and, well, you know where this is going.
John Mills plays Captain Pat Reid, the "escape officer" (and author of the book the film is based on) who coordinates breakouts attempts in this brisk caper film that punctuates the grim violence of prison life with the droll camaraderie of men at war. The story works so well that the British have made several television remakes. Perhaps it's not as acid as Stalag 17 or as showy as The Great Escape, but the film is fairly solid, if perhaps the most traditional of the war films in this collection.
• The Dam Busters (1954): Neither The Colditz Story nor The Dam Busters celebrate the glorious heroism of war, but they both tend, in the long run, to offer a more upbeat view of war than the other three films in this Anchor Bay set. The Dam Busters tries to balance its dependence on its handsome pilot hero (Richard Todd) by spending an awful lot of screen time on the efforts of the middle-aged civilian engineer (Michael Redgrave) who comes up with the wild idea to flood German factories by risky low-altitude bombing. And I am certainly not the first to note how closely George Lucas studied this film for the Death Star trench run two decades later.
Director Michael Anderson (who later turned to overblown epics like Around the World in 80 Days and Logan's Run) works the story like a procedural, focusing on the technical hurdles rather than character development. Can we design a bomb that will skip on the water but still have enough power to crack a dam? Can we figure out how to fly low enough without getting shot down? You do not see many war films in which engineering is the real hero of the story.
Although the film's realism is appealing (try not to cringe at some of the dated special effects in the last act though), most modern discussion of The Dam Busters centers around its sentimental "boy and his dog" subplot given to Wing Commander Guy Gibson (conveniently author of the book the film is based on), and the…well, unfortunate name of his dog. Yes, it is racist. Yes, the characters repeat it over and over, clearly oblivious to the racial and class politics of the whole business.
Of course, what The Dam Busters really celebrates is a lost world in which the mettle of men could be proven in war, and people did not care what you called your dog. In most war films, men are stalwart, women stay in the background, and the insidious enemy lifts his head just long enough to get shot. What makes the films in the British War Collection interesting is that they do not always play by those rules. Heroism is always tinged with pain and desperation. The real enemy might be nature, or boredom, or betrayal. War only simplifies the world temporarily. Where do you go when the fighting stops?
Perhaps you go and tell war stories. That may be the ultimate lesson of this DVD collection. When we are not at war, we ask ourselves about war and our role in it. The best moments in The British War Collection really address how we behave in war. Are we heroic? Are we steadfast? What does it mean to be brave? From men at sea to townsfolk just trying to survive to engineers applying their science to combat, these films show how we get the job done, even when it is the most unpleasant job of all.
Anchor Bay is given an honorable discharge. However, because of the lack of supplemental features, no medals are awarded for exceptional service.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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