It Happened Here
It Happened Here
1965 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 96 min. / Street Date February 15, 2000 / 29.99
Starring Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky
Restored by Kevin Brownlow
Directed, Written and Produced by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Nazi Jackboots in England? An amazing film that ranks with the best war movies ever made, as
a compelling account of how fascism really works, and how IT COULD HAPPEN ANYWHERE.
Once upon a time, a pair of teenaged English boys decided to make a 16mm war movie with
soldiers and guns and lots of excitement. Seven years later it was finally finished, but
as a theatrical feature released by a major studio. Director Tony Richardson helped
find financing to shoot sequences in 35mm; Stanley Kubrick donated short-ends from
Dr. Strangelove to
provide the 'youngsters' with film stock.
In early 1965 the result, called It Happened Here, made the rounds of a few European
film festivals, where it gained a certain amount of notoriety. The story of an England
defeated by Hitler and functioning under Nazi rule, it confused and incensed many British
critics. They were offended by its notion that the noble Brits who withstood the Battle
of Britain would ever knuckle under to the Nazis and collaborate with them as shown in
the film. And many were made furious by what they perceived was a pro-Nazi, anti-semitic
film. In the film, English Nazis were allowed free rein to spout their ugly anti-Jewish
rhetoric without being shot dead or immediately contradicted by stalwart patriotic voices,
as was standard practice in normal war movies. The movie was disturbing because it was more
convincingly real than any big-budget reconstruction
of the war years. Only Daily Variety pegged the film correctly, reviewing it at the German
Mannheim festival. It was met by booing German viewers. Filmgoers were more accustomed to the
kid-glove handling of the 'Nazi problem' by films like
The Young Lions, where young
German Marlon Brando anguishes over his soul-rending moral dilemma.
Jackboots on Chester Terrace, Regent's Park ... this must
have scared some early risers in London!
Daily Variety called It Happened Here a science-fiction film, which is sort of what
it is -- a story of WW2 in the "negative subjunctive" -- that is, a tale of events which could
have happened but did not happen, but if they did happen they might have happened like this. It's
actually an alternate reality story, a time-splinter concept commonplace in films now but unheard
of then. 1
It Happened Here takes as its springboard the simple idea that Hitler launched an invasion
during the Battle of Britain and quickly subdued England. Everything else
follows with complete credibility.
The story is the occupation of England as seen through
the eyes of Pauline (Pauline Murray), a
country nurse fleeing the fighting that has broken out between German
troops and resistance partisans. Using
Ireland as a base, the Americans are attempting to re-invade from the West
with the help of 'loyalist' English guerillas. Pauline witnesses a
massacre of civilians she feels was committed by the partisans, and like
the majority of her countrymen decides that getting
things 'back to normal' is more important than patriotism. "After all," she
sighs, "We did lose the war."
London is almost completely bombed out and its inhabitants are split into two factions:
a restless mob of unemployed, uncooperative have-nots and those who have
chosen to collaborate with the new order. To work and survive Pauline
must join the National Socialist puppet political party called the Immediate
Action Organization. The clerk who signs her up is hostile and impersonal:
Pauline: "I've decided to join."
Clerk: "We don't accept your decisions. You accept ours."
Pauline soon finds herself worked half to death training as a combat-ready
ambulance nurse. Her despised Immediate Action uniform earns her the hatred
of ordinary people in the street. Germans are everywhere,
fraternizing with girls, reading optimistic war news from
the Nazi publications on the newsstands. The radio alternates between
German marches and propaganda bulletins; as part of her party
duties Pauline must attend indoctrination lectures extolling the glory of fascism,
and torch-lit rallies and funerals where Nazi speakers stir up hatred
and rage with Hitler-like tirades.
British Nazis stage a funeral.
The weird thing is that the radio voices, the lecturers, the rabid Nazi
propagandists are all
English: the conquering Germans have placed English fascists in
positions of authority. This shocked 1966 English audiences used to
'stiff-upper-lip' propaganda. The majority of the populace is shown to have
collaborated immediately and the remainder has no choice but to
passively collaborate as well. Democratic ideals and Churchill's
patriotic defiance have fallen by the wayside,
as if they had been only bitter illusions. The radio voices (and
a particularly convincing newsreel) sell the wonders of National
Socialism with disturbing confidence - disturbing because it is
the same kind of confident attitude the modern media use to assure us
that our military actions overseas are all in the name of Freedom and Democracy.
Pauline is tainted by association with a suicidal pro-partisan
Doctor Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw) and is eventually exiled to the
countryside by her harsh Immediate Action supervisors, to work
in a tiny clinic curiously free of oppressive party
supervision. That's as much of the spoiler-laden
plot as is fit to reveal.
It Happened Here's strength is in its details. The uniforms, the
paperwork, the posters on the buses, the patches on the sleeves,
ration cards all look 100% authentic. Its prime creator,
Kevin Brownlow, was
a cutting assistant in films and already a cinema history expert that
as a child (!) cobbled together a 9mm film reconstruction of Abel
Gance's Napoleon from pieces found in film libraries. His
collected uniforms and equipment,
mostly German, at flea markets. The pair linked up with a London collector
of Nazi arms and vehicles, all
stored at his country farm. Begun (after many false starts) as
an amateur film shot in two or three-hour spurts on weekends
with whoever would cooperate, the movie grew into an ordeal that
went on for years. The crazy production enlisted the help of friends who came and
went and the filming sessions were full of last-minute improvisations,
like pulling German tourists off the streets of London to don SS Uniforms!
The whole experience is documented in a book by Kevin Brownlow
called How it Happened Here, which is out of print but highly
recommended if you can find a copy (many big libraries have
It's difficult to imagine the gangly-looking
Brownlow persuading London authorities to let him stage Nazi
troopers marching on parade past city landmarks. Apparently fights
broke out between the crew and street toughs - real Teddy Boys stole cameras and
roughed up the filmmakers.
That was nothing compared to the ordeal the filmmakers would be subjected to when the film
was finished. Because It Happened Here maintains a documentary distance
and refuses to moralize, some reviewers concluded it was condoning the attitudes it
presented. Brownlow and
Mollo's mature philosophy was to present the premise without editorial
comment. They got real English fascist hate-mongers to play the collaborating
Immediate Action spokespeople, thereby giving the fictional film a 'true' documentary
aspect. The main Nazi spokesman (an odious Frank Bennet) composed much of his own
dialogue ... he really believes it, and as we watch this moronic
Hitler wanna-be speaking his hatred for Bolsheviks and Jews, we realize just how commonplace
and banal ideological evil can be. It's the most realistic and truthful presentation of
the threat ever presented in a 'non-fiction' movie. By staying resolutely neutral,
It Happened Here can't be dismissed as propaganda, as can its two close cousins,
Battle of Algiers and
Peter Watkins' The War Game.
The denial in England and America that 'fascism could happen here' is the subject of
this great movie.
It goes right to the heart of the problem: The victors think they have
defeated some monstrous demonized 'other' and that their job is done. In truth, the
ugly fascist, racist and totalitarian ideas didn't die with Hitler.
They always existed and still exist everywhere, and not just in Germany.
Industry resistance to their film was to be expected since it had the guts to
assert the unpopular but logical truth that England would collaborate just as France had.
Some distributors that were impressed by the movie wanted no part of its controversy.
The ones who 'got' the message still worried that normal audiences would think
the film an endorsement of Naziism. 3
United Artists, who finally took on (and buried) Brownlow and Mollo's labor
of love, insisted on the deletion of a six minute non-scripted discussion
sequence where the fascists present their vicious philosophy. Image's DVD
reinstates this scene.
Never telegraphing their message with position speeches, the young
directors also make It Happened Here a lesson in cinematic storytelling.
The skill in the direction completely overcomes considerations of budget
and the fact that the movie was shot piecemeal over years of tiny sessions.
There's nothing to apologize for here. Without voiceover or
expository dialog, we follow the nurse's every action and clearly understand her
every reaction. It's a model of great filmmaking by any stretch
of the definition.
Filmmaker-turned actor Andrew Mollo (left) plays a murderous extra.
Kevin Brownlow went on to become a foremost film historian,
and is still active making documentaries about movies.
His wonderfully detailed work on silent films, when few were
interested in the subject, recorded the story of those years just in time, before
the actual actors and filmmakers of the silent era passed away.
Andrew Mollo's knowledge of military
history and costumes quickly earned him work as a technical consultant
and costumer on big-budget movies. You'll instantly recognize him as
the costume designer for the Star Wars movies. The Lucas
connection goes back further. Peter Suschitzky, the cameraman who gave
It Happened Here its
Triumph of the Will-styled
later shot The Empire Strikes Back. And one of It Happened Here's few
professional actors, Sebastian Shaw,
will have many fans wondering where
they've seen him before. He plays Anakin Skywalker in Return of the
Jedi, glimpsed only for a minute or so when his black Darth Vader helmet
is removed. 4
Image's new DVD is a great opportunity for It Happened Here to make the jump from
obscurity to at least a 'cult' level of familiarity. Half 16mm and half 35mm, the picture
is purposely grainy and high in contrast. It looks far better on the DVD than Savant has
ever seen it projected. The still-frame button makes it fun to peruse
the mind-boggling detail in the historical reconstruction. Almost any
image in the show looks like some 100% authentic shot from a WW2 newsreel
or magazine layout. That this was accomplished on such a non-budget is incredible.
The audio is basically clear but some dialogue is difficult to follow. The (sometimes
amateur) original sound recording isn't the best and some actors speak in mumbled English
dialects. As it is, there's never
difficulty in following the story, and appreciating just how well the actors in this
'amateur' film are directed.
The DVD packaging art makes the movie look at first glance like just
another wartime documentary - the subtle image of storm troopers marching past
Big Ben is not going to 'hook' causal browsers. This is one film that needs explaining,
and the copy on the box only touches on its amazing back-story. The great documentarian
Kevin Brownlow restored the film for theaters and is listed as the copyright owner on
the box, so you'd expect more detail on the film.
The new Image disc is a prime example of the good things happening in DVD. Never
before seen on tape or laserdisc, It Happened Here can finally be rediscovered.
This one really deserves to be more widely seen. Kudos to Image for bringing it out!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, It Happened Here rates:
Sound: Good -
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 6, 2000. Street Date: February 15, 2000
1. A good example of
where the 'negative subjunctive' pops up in a more conventional film is
It's a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey is given a taste of what
his town might have been like if he had never been born. Think of the
Saturday Night Live skit, 'What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub at that
last battle with the Romans?' Think also of the unending exploitative pulp
fantasies about WW2 that have bizarre
plots where the Nazis win, where the US president is a Nazi, etc.
The granddaddy of these is an excellent, visionary non-exploitative book by science
fiction author Phillip K. Dick called Man in the High Castle, which
would make a fantastic movie and is recommended one zillion percent by Savant.
2. There is also a documentary film made in 1974 called
It Happened Here Again. Although
Leonard Maltin identifies it as a follow-up to the feature, it is actually a
'making of' for a later Brownlow-Mollo film, Winstanley(1975) -
which is also coming out from Image later this Spring.
correlative: Starship Troopers, whose message that our society
is developing into a Nazi-like aggression machine, was completely
misinterpreted by its audience. (and Paul Verhoeven arguably encouraged
the misinterpretation!) Maybe the distributors who turned
down It Happened Here were right - the audience at large was (is)
incapable of dealing with ideas more complex than Good Guys
versus Bad Guys. Even the oft-touted Battle of Algiers, which similarly
affects a documentary style, is less sophisticated:
Battle presents both sides but constantly makes liberal
comments prejudicial to the Algerian revolutionaries. Brownlow and
Mollo's film non-judgmentally presents an imperfect (collaborating,
even) heroine and lets the politics fall where they will.
4. A real tangent: Those of you
trying to figure out how George Lucas will make cute little Anakin Skywalker
into Big Bad Wolf, I mean, Darth, should check
out Doctor Zhivago again. Tom Cortenay's Pasha/Strelnikov character
sketches a perfect arc between youthful altruist and scarred
inhuman totalitarian monster. He's the most successful part of
the Zhivago movie. Come to think of it, it's too bad the
movie spends so little time with him. He's more central to
the revolutionary theme than the soft-hearted,
weak-minded medico played by Omar Sharif. Weirdly, Andrew Mollo was a special consultant
You can read another SAVANT Science Fiction DVD Review,
Quatermass and the Pit.
Like SCIENCE FICTION? Try the following SAVANT
Review: IT HAPPENED HERE,
The Ultimate INVADERS FROM MARS,
METROPOLIS and STAR WARS,
DUNE and David Lynch,
The Uncut THINGS TO COME,
THE ANGRY RED PLANET and CineMagic,
Jump Cut 1 - FORBIDDEN PLANET,
An Exotic Treat - THE MYSTERIANS!,
Those ASTRAL COLLISION Movies,
The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson