Director: Noël Coward, David Lean
Writer: Noël Coward
Composer: Noël Coward, Clifton Parker
AFI Rank: -
BFI Rank: 92
Produced specifically as a World War II propaganda film, In Which We Serve earns its place on the BFI list not only for its accurate portrayal of the Royal Navy but also for its stellar cast, wonderful script and superb direction. Coward’s script, originally hours long before trimming, is based mainly on his close friend Mountbatten’s command of the HMS Kelly that was sunk during the Battle of Crete. Not only did he write but he also directed, composed the music and took the starring role of Captain Kinross. It was a contingency of his involvement that he got that role and it is not too hard to understand why that was baffling and concerning to many inside and outside of the industry at the time. His performance is a joy to watch but is unquestionably at times hard to believe. He was very concerned about his ability to direct and John Mills suggested he bring in the greatest editor he knew, David Lean. This would be Lean’s first time directing and we all know how it went from there. Coward got disinterested with the mechanics of directing and eventually left it to Lean, not even coming to set when he was not acting. The script non-sequential narrative would make Tarrantino proud and with it Coward manages to weave a far more emotional story, moving from home and family to ship and back again.
Richard Attenborough is astounding in his first ever role which is unfortunately uncredited, and of course John Mills is superb. My favorite role of all though has to be Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy. I had not heard of him before but his performance is outstanding and the most memorable of the picture.
More interesting perhaps than who was cast is who was not. Coward blocked the casting of James Mason because of his position on the war and he fired William Hartnell (Dr Who was another 20 years away) for turning up late on his first day of filming.
Due to the wonders of the internet you can read the original New York Times review from the US premier in 1942 which helps put the impact of this movie into the context of the time. Watching today many younger viewers will be hard pressed to understand what all the fuss is about.
Some may find it hard going initially as you acclimatize yourself to the classic acting style of forties British films, something Coward is an accomplished expert in. A lot of stiff upper lips and not too many quivering lower ones there are a lot more truly emotional performances than you would expect. But once you are immersed in it the picture carries you along for the ride and what a ride it is.
In Which We Serve is unquestionably Crucial Cinema and one of those rare films that gives you a real glimpse into the past while remaining highly watchable.