Few wartime movies are as unabashedly patriotic, or as sentimentally moving as Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942); a glowing testament to those gallant fighters in Britain's merchant marine. Yet, the story is not at all about these brave men per say, but rather, the tale of a ship - the H.M.S. Torrin - and her faithful crew. Co-directed by David Lean and Coward (who also wrote the screenplay and the score, produced, and, starred in the film), In Which We Serve is an extraordinarily understated cinema classic. It is the film that brought Noel Coward out of his self-imposed exile from the motion picture business (that the playwright always regarded as an inferior medium to live theater), and cemented an enduring friendship with his collaborators Lean, screenwriters Ronald Neame and Anthony Haverlock-Allen.
Reportedly, Noel Coward was enticed into making the film after he approached Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a close personal friend), offering to do his part in the war effort. Coward had eluded active duty in the First World War due to tuberculosis, and this had left him feeling rather disloyal to England. Churchill, however, was not moved by Coward's impassioned plea to partake in WWII as an enlisted man. In the meantime, Capt. Lord Louis Mountbatten (another personal friend of Coward's) had just returned on leave from duty after his ship, the H.M.S. Kelly had been sunk by Nazi torpedoes during the battle of Crete. Regaling Coward with this fateful tale gave the playwright his inspiration, as well as the impetus to write In Which We Serve (the only work Coward expressly wrote for the screen).
But it was a screenplay for a six and a half hour movie. Owing to Coward's immense stature and formidable reputation in the entertainment world, Haverstock-Allen tread lightly when suggesting that his masterwork would have to be re-written (or, at the very least, pruned down to a manageable size). Apart from being a genius and a wit, Coward was also one of the most congenial and compassionate writers of his generation. He wholeheartedly agreed, allowing Haverstock-Allen and Neame to edit his prose.
David Lean's contributions on the film were an entirely different matter. Although Lean was only a 'cutter' (the term for a film editor in those days) before filming began, Coward had admired his clever and intuitive pacing. He also knew that Lean desperately wanted to direct. But Lean was shrewder about his future than that. Asked by Coward to 'assist' on the film, Lean politely inquired first about the credits, agreeing to do the film only if his title card read 'Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean'. Coward, happily agreed and thereafter afforded Lean every professional courtesy on the set, choosing to 'work' with the actors on their performances while Lean concerned himself with the actual staging and execution of the scenes; a mutually rewarding and beneficial alliance that would ultimately yield three more screen collaborations.
The film opens with an odd declaration by Leslie Howard; "This is the story of a ship!" and for the next several minutes we are, indeed, privy to an extensive montage of clips depicting the construction, launch and battle man oeuvres of the H.M.S. Torrin; a destroyer stationed off the coast of Crete in 1941 and captained by E.V. Kinross (Noel Coward). The men under his command are embroiled in a merciless sea battle that ends tragically when the Torrin is mortally wounded in an aerial attack by a fleet of German bombers.
Forced to abandon ship, some of the officers and crew take refuge on a Carley float where they endure constant strafing from overhead. The rest of the story is told in flashback - at first clumsily so - as each survivor reflects on both his home life back in England, and his home away from home - the Torrin - now resting at the bottom of the sea. We see the Captain comfortably in his middle class cottage before the war, with dotting wife, Alix (Celia Johnson) and his two children nestled at his side. We meet Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) and his wife, Kath (Joyce Carey) and her mother-in-law Mrs. Lemmon (Dora Gregory) who lives in a London flat under constant fear of the blitz. And we are introduced to ordinary seaman, Shorty Blake (John Mills) who falls in love, and is eventually married to Freda Lewis (Kay Walsh). Freda is related to Hardy. After she becomes pregnant she moves in Kath and Mrs. Lemmon while the men are away at sea.
The Torrin is engaged in a naval battle off the coast of Norway and narrowly escapes sinking. During this skirmish a young powder handler (Richard Attenborough) cracks under the pressure and abandons his post. While Capt. Kinross is a stern commander, he also believes that a happy ship makes for a constructive crew. He lets the handler off with a warning, accepting part of his shame as his own for not having more time to properly train him before sailing into battle. As fate would have it, not all the casualties of war are to be found on the front lines. As Freda nears the due date of her pregnancy, a bomb strikes the Hardy home, killing Kath and Mrs. Lemmon. After Freda gives birth in an Army Hospital she writes Shorty of the news and he stoically relays it to a disbelieving Hardy, who suddenly realizes he has lost everything he holds dear.
We return to the survivors of the Torrin still clinging to their raft. These few men are rescued by another ship and Capt. Kinross comforts the wounded and dying below decks. He also learns that more than half of the Torrin's crew was lost at sea. Telegrams are sent home, and both Alix and Freda learn that their husbands are safe. Kinross and the survivors are taken to Alexandria Egypt to regroup and recuperate. After being informed that his crew is to be broken up and sent to other ships to continue their valiant fight, Kinross offers a rousing speech to his men that is as inspirational as it is heartrending. An epilogue declares that bigger ships will come to avenge the fate of the H.M.S. Torrin.
In Which We Serve is undeniably rousing entertainment. Yet, its opening act rather inelegantly sets up each flashback with overwrought melodrama and somewhat disjointed vignettes. The first thirty minutes of the film seem quite uninspired - bordering on dull - with Coward somewhat out of place wearing Mountbatten's actual naval cap as he commands the crew of the Torrin. Coward, it should be noted, did not come from a cultured upper class background. But throughout the 1920s he had cultivated an adroit wit and effete charm that seemed to belie his lower middle class upbringing. This became problematic when Coward cast himself as the star of In Which We Serve - and, in truth, during these opening scenes he remains a little hard to swallow as the modest everyman.
But about midway through the story, Coward sheds this carefully crafted public persona. He reveals to us an uncharacteristic humbleness and great humanity that is most sincere and quite devoid of his usual droll mannerisms, so much that when - as the Captain - he arrives at the last act of the film, proudly embracing the camaraderie of his surviving crew, we believe Coward in his every nuance and syllable. The fate of these heroic men has become quite personal, not only to the Captain, but also to Coward and his performance makes their plight (as well as that of the real fighting men) even more intimate and enduring for the audience.
In Which We Serve was hailed as a masterpiece upon its premiere and earned Noel Coward a special Oscar. Today, it remains an engrossing WWII 'propaganda' film with few equals. The collaboration between David Lean and Coward gave Lean his true start in films and yielded three more emblematic of the best in British cinema. It also allowed Coward to re-assess his initial opinion of the movies as an inferior entertainment. Although Coward would always regard live theater as his first love, the movies he made with Lean elevated the stature of that medium for him. Despite changing times and cinematic tastes, the emotional center of In Which We Serve remains as poignant and relevant as ever. This is a great film.
Criterion's Blu-ray, in conjunction with a meticulous 2008 restoration effort by the BFI, has resulted in a beautiful 1080p transfer with a few minor anomalies. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered. The finely detailed image is solid with a modicum of naturally occurring film grain. Even matte shots and rear projection look natural. What is regrettable is the hint of edge enhancement that continues to occur - however briefly - during a few key sequences. Because the rest of the film is razor sharp and solid, this intermittent anomaly is all the more apparent when it occurs. The audio is mono but has been very nicely restored for a smooth sonic representation that will surely not disappoint.
Extras include Barry Day's reflections on the making of the film, a profile featurette that covers a lot of the same ground with snippets from the film and interviews with Haverstock-Allen and John Mills, and an extensive 'audio only' 1969 Q&A that Richard Attenborough hosts with Noel Coward in front of a live audience. At present In Which We Serve is only available as part of Criterion's David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set that also includes Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)