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DVD SAVANT

British War Collection:
Went the Day Well?, The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters, The Colditz Story, The Ship that Died of Shame


British War Collection
Anchor Bay
1942-55 B&W
535 min.
Street Date March 22, 2005
84.33

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Some DVD sets are just too pricey to jump up and buy on a whim, and the Anchor Bay's British War Collection fits that description perfectly. Many fans know The Dam Busters and The Colditz Story but the other worthy and eccentric films here are more obscure. Besides featuring top acting talent (Michael Redgrave, Richard Attenborough, John Mills) and great authors (Nicholas Monsarrat, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Paul Brickhill) the collection offers opportunities to glimpse later stars in smaller roles: Denholm Elliott, Robert Shaw, Stanley Baker and Virginia McKenna.

Many essays about the immediate post-war period in England claim the country tried to cheer itself up amid shortages and the ruin of much of its empire with hearty 'we won the war' dramas, but only a couple of these shows really qualify. Each has its own viewpoint and often quite downbeat story to tell.



Went the Day Well?
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 48 Hours / 92 min.
Starring Leslie Banks, C.V. France, Valerie Taylor, Marie Lohr, Basil Sydney, David Farrar
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction Tom Morahan
Film Editor Sidney Cole
Original Music William Walton
Written by John Dighton, Angus MacPhail, Diana Morgan from the short story The Lieutenant Died Last by Graham Greene
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti

Went the Day Well? is the only movie of the group to be made in the 1940s, let alone during the war. It's quite a brave production from the charming little Ealing film company; obviously a morale piece for the dark days of 1942, it uses a rousing wraparound structure to tell its story from the viewpoint of a later future, when England has won the war. Graham Greene's story gives every homeowner and shopkeeper a vicarious chance to strike back at invading Nazis. When one meek telephone operator attacks a loutish German invader with a hatchet, British audiences must have roared with approval.

Synopsis:

The quiet country hamlet of Bramley End cooperates fully when a detachment of Royal Engineers arrives to secure the area in preparation for a possible German paratroop attack. Little do the citizens know that the soldiers are actually German spies masquerading as Tommies, led by Wehrmacht officers who can pass as English. Not only that, but there is a Quisling among the townies, who helps to organize a quick takeover. The German mission is hold the town for two days as a 'beachhead' for the real paratroops that will follow. The undercover Nazis maintain a ruse of friendliness, but keen townspeople grow suspicious over little details that don't add up -- like the commander having a fresh chocolate bar from Vienna hidden in his backpack!

It's a fantasy every schoolboy has entertained at one time or another: Dreaded invaders have taken over and the community's only hope may depend on what you do about it personally. Went the Day Well? is no classic -- it gets bogged down in some unconvincing fighting toward the end -- but it must have been exciting escapist fun, even when the dangerous events it fantasized were a distinct possibility. It probably raised awareness of how easily spies, saboteurs and even German soldiers could pass themselves off as British.

Pleasant officers Basil Sydney (The Devil's Disciple) and David Farrar (Black Narcissus) have little trouble billeting their troops in town, while the local Home Guard shows them the lay of the land and the best local defensive positions. The Vicar (C.V. France) and the local Squire (Leslie Banks of The Most Dangerous Game) graciously invite them to dinner. Only one woman half-suspects that an invasion is underway. The Germans round up everyone into the church, shoot the Vicar and hold the children hostage in the biggest house in town.

The enjoyment of the wild tale is anticipating the villagers' retaliation. The screenwriters (working from Graham Greene's short story) make them all (well, almost all) into heroes guaranteed to set audiences applauding. A sailor on leave helps a churchman (Mervyn Johns) begin a breakout from the church, while a chronic poacher (Edward Rigby) helps a local kid (Harry Fowler) escape to the next town to raise the alarm. Things almost reach the Dario Argento level of mayhem as knives, bayonets and axes are brought to the fore; by morning the village defenders are holding off the entire German force. Ace Ealing director Alberto Cavalcanti (Dead of Night) handles the suspenseful character drama with ease.

John Dighton's (a contributor to fine Ealing comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets) crisp script has plenty of room for clever reversals as the Germans barely hold on to their disguises through slips of the tongue and bits of behavior that the more worldly locals recognize as essentially continental, not British. The most interesting character is Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor), a woman who discovers that the man of her dreams might be a traitor. In perfect stiff-upper-lip mode, she quietly asks if the pistol she's found is loaded before going to confront him ...

Went the Day Well? is an elaborate production for a wartime Ealing film. The really transcendent picture about home life during the war is Powell & Pressberger's A Canterbury Tale, an almost indescribable blend of anxiety and resolve. But this escapist fantasy provides a great thematic contrast to the later Kevin Brownlow film It Happened Here, which shows rural Englanders acting far less nobly when faced by an invading enemy.


Anchor Bay's picture on Went the Day Well? looks fine, but the audio track is distorted, probably due to lost or damaged elements. There are no English subs or closed captions to help with the rapid-fire dialect, so viewers have to keep their ears peeled to catch as much dialogue as they can.



The Cruel Sea
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 127, 121 min.
Starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, John Stratton, Denholm Elliott, John Warner, Stanley Baker, Virginia McKenna
Cinematography Gordon Dines
Art Direction Jim Morahan
Film Editor Peter Tanner
Original Music Alan Rawsthorne
Written by Eric Ambler from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat
Produced by Leslie Norman
Directed by Charles Frend

The balance of the titles in the British War Collection were all filmed a decade later. Adapted from Nicholas Monsarrat's acclaimed novel, The Cruel Sea dropped heroics entirely to concentrate on what it might have been like to be a young seaman or officer serving in the most dangerous theater of war, the North Atlantic.

Synopsis:

Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins) gets command of the escort Corvette The Compass Rose but has to form a crew of officers out of men who have barely had sailing experience. Officers come and go (Donald Sinden, John Stratton, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker) as a rough chain of command gets ironed out. Personal lives almost cease to exist in the hard duty of escorting convoys. The wolf packs seem to get through the defenses and sink cargo transports, no matter what. In the North Atlantic, the sea is a more dangerous enemy than the German submarines.

The most realistic movie of the group, The Cruel Sea goes against all the rules of naval movies as concocted by Hollywood scriptwriters. If the daily grind of sea duty weren't so well dramatized, the movie would be a semidocumentary. Instead of a fraternity of like-minded patriots, the officers have clashes of personalities and problems concentrating on their work.

There's little time for the supposed 'flavor' of the navy - few drinking parties and fewer opportunities to pursue women on shore. The women the officers meet are themselves sailors; Virginia McKenna (Carve Her Name with Pride) attracts one of the men but simply isn't available for regular trips to the pub when the fleet's in. As for sweethearts back on land, they're under constant threat of bombing. Unlike American fantasy navy movies of the time, there's no secure apple-pie home to come back to.

The Cruel Sea is about the physical exhaustion and unyielding logic of the sea war. The Corvette's crude sonar equipment just doesn't detect the submarines, and the sailors can only do their best to pick up survivors when convoy ships are sunk. Captain Ericson has to make a terrible decision when a U-boat appears to be hiding below some men floating in the water. Staying true to his mission to stop the raiders, he ignores the seamen and drops depth charges. Later on, The Compass Rose is torpedoed and most of the crew are lost. Erickson and his #1 Lt. Lockhart (Donald Sinden) are put on a newer, larger ship, with much better detection equipment.

The Cruel Sea presents a number of powerful personalities able to to little but cope with the difficult circumstances. Jack Hawkins is the frustrated Captain trying his hardest to sink submarines. Denholm Elliott is a likeable fellow married to an unfaithful actress (Moira Lister). Stanley Baker is excellent as a bad-tempered officer constantly pulling rank. McKenna's realistic Wren represents a hopeful postwar world. The film gave all of these actors a solid career boost.

The overriding feeling of The Cruel Sea is melancholy. Sad music accompanies the first exit from port and recurring shots of a lonely buoy as they enter and leave harbor are their only accolades. Characters exit without fanfare; a line of narration says that "(We learned) how to die without wasting anyone's time." Although hope is maintained for the film's central romance, we see three relationships that are doomed. The women (Megs Jenkins of The Innocents and June Thorburn of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver) are only seen in brief sketches, but each makes an emotional effect.

Eric Ambler's script was nominated for an Academy Award. The cut here appears to be the full original, six minutes longer than the American release.


Anchor Bay's flat transfer of The Cruel Sea is excellent. The audio track is again slightly distorted, but nowhere near as badly as Went the Day Well?. The lack of English subs or closed captions combined with the clipped English dialogue is again a bit rough on the ears.



The Dam Busters
1954 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 124 105 min.
Starring Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Ursula Jeans, Raymond Huntley, Basil Sydney
Cinematography Erwin Hillier
Art Direction Robert Jones
Film Editor Richard Best
Original Music Eric Coates, Leighton Lucas
Written by R.C. Sherriff from a book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Commander Guy Gibson
Directed by Michael Anderson

The Dam Busters is probably the best-known title in this collection and the one that fans would like to see available as a single disc. About half of its notoriety comes from Star Wars aficionados, because it was one of the films used by George Lucas' editors to 'pre-cut' the first Death Star attack sequence. Lucas even borrowed dialogue almost verbatim:

Radio question, plane-to-plane: How many guns do you think there are, Trevor? Response: I'd say there are about ten guns - some in the field, and some in the tower.

It's based on the true story of a daring raid on the German Moehne and Eder Dams, with experimental 'bouncing' explosive charges built to deliver a charge in a way capable of breaking concrete structures that normal bombs wouldn't harm at all. The credits list a book by Paul Brickhill (The Great Escape) and also one by the raid's commander, Guy Gibson. He was lost in aerial combat over Holland in 1944.

Synopsis:

Brilliant designer Dr. Barnes N. Wallis (Michael Redgrave) comes up with a novel idea to cripple German war production by blowing up several key dams considered impregnable from the air, but his plan is stalled in red tape. Finally, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is assigned to form the new 617 Squadron to deliver Wallis' special bombs in a one-of-a-kind suicide mission into the heart of Germany. Wallis' designs have problems that are overcome by Gibson's ability to fly extremely low over the lakes behind each dam. The raid commences on schedule but becomes a nail-biting ordeal: Nobody can predict its chances for success.

The Dam Busters is as close as this collection comes to the rah-rah clichés of 'secret mission' movies. Michael Redgrave's patient inventor 'boffin' Wallis becomes an odd partner for Richard Todd's reserved man of action, and the pair of them seem meant to represent what's best in the British character. The script enlivens what might be boring exposition with memorable bits, like Laurence Naismith's angry farmer complaining that low-flying practice is keeping his chickens from laying eggs. Dr. Wallis' chances for being loaned a Lancaster bombing plane improve when he offers the fact that he designed it. A 'glamorous' bomb test ends with Wallis wading into the shallows of a pond to recover pieces of a bomb that didn't survive the impact with the water.

The physical details are almost all 100% accurate. When the pilots are frustrated by the difficulty of flying only a few feet off the water in the dark of the night, the script has Gibson find the solution while watching spotlights at a London stage show. The flyers mount spots at the fore and aft of their planes, tilted at an angle so when the beams converge on the water below, the plane is at the correct altitude. Apparently that fix wasn't found exactly that way. Also, the exact design of Wallis' bouncing bombs must still have been classified in 1954, because in (authentic?) film footage of the testing, they're obscured by animated black dots.

The raid itself is a doozie, with Gibson's planes hedge-hopping their way across France to get to the Ruhr valley dams. One plane hits some power lines and goes down; the other pilots are too wound up even to acknowledge it. At the dams the fliers have to fly through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire, and calmly line up their shots flying low and straight. The cutting pattern between the pilots and the view through their cockpits, with tracer bullets flying they skim across the water, is indeed reminiscent of the first Star Wars film. There are even tense cutaways to mission headquarters, where Wallis and other non-combatants eagerly await news and hope for success.

Although many daring flying shots are completely authentic (one training angle of a plane over the water of a Scottish lake is breathtaking), The Dam Busters has to use special effects to show the bomb hits on the dams. These are no longer very convincing. Animated mattes for water-explosions simply reveal sheets of rushing water below. The excitement of the bizarre raid more than compensates.

Later analysts reportedly decided that the raid had much less of an effect on war production than had been thought. The water loosed from the dams didn't wipe out ball-bearing factories and the Germans somehow restored power to the industries affected. The Dam Buster raid must have been something like our morale-boosting Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, a gesture that proved the allies could strike wherever they wanted and were willing to commit a maximum effort to the job.

The Dam Busters gives us a chance to get quick looks at several interesting actors near the beginning of their careers. Nigel Stock, Robert Shaw and John Fraser are pilots, and someone claims to have spotted Patrick McGoohan as a guard in one scene. The film was often edited for content on television, or not shown at all. Guy Gibson's black pet dog went by the name "n-----," and the animal figures in several scenes and in the sentimental ending. I'm not in favor of 'correcting' content like this, as that would simply erase the historical evidence of bigotry. On the other hand, I know plenty of people who wouldn't be amused to hear the dog's name used repeatedly.


The Dam Busters is presented full frame and almost mattes well to 1:78 on a widescreen set, so it was probably meant to be cropped to 1:66 or the English 1:55 flat aspect ratio of the time. The audio track is much cleaner on this show than the previous two.



The Colditz Story
1955 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min.
Starring John Mills, Eric Portman, Christopher Rhodes, Lionel Jeffries, Bryan Forbes, Ian Carmichael, Richard Wattis, Frederick Valk
Cinematography Gordon Dines
Art Direction Alex Vetchinsky
Film Editor Peter Mayhew
Original Music Francis Chagrin
Written by William Douglas-Home, Ivan Foxwell, Guy Hamilton from a novel by P.R. Reid
Produced by Ivan Foxwell
Directed by Guy Hamilton

This highly entertaining escape drama had almost as much American exposure as The Dam Busters before English films disappeared from our TV channels in the 1970s. The classic story of soldiers trying to break free of captivity bears superficial comparison to Renoir's Grand Ilusion in that both POW camps are located in mountain castles. But viewers will be interested to see many humorous situations from The Great Escape in this earlier film, such as the practice of relocating tunnel earth to outside gardens by hiding it in pant legs.

Synopsis:

Britishers Pat Reid and 'Mac' McGill (John Mills and Christopher Rhodes) are early tenants of Colditz Castle, a German POW camp for 'problem' prisoners. The Kommandant (Frederick Valk of Dead of Night) and his first officer Fischer (Anton Diffring of Circus of Horrors) try to keep tabs on a huge mob of English, French and Polish officers, all of whom have ideas about getting away. Ranking English officer Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman) at first seems unconcerned with escape, but Pat Reid is elected Escape Officer and tries to coordinate efforts in the face of language and cultural barriers -- and the threat of informers. Escape methods simple and complex fail until Mac comes up with a really great plan that requires only some German uniforms and a lot of nerve. But who dares try it?

The Colditz Story is beautifully put together, finding humor amid its unusual perspectives. There's an eccentric range of personalities among the English that sometimes causes trouble, while the French are loners and the Poles refuse to be told what to do by anyone. Even the Germans have given up on getting the Poles to stand to attention or to listen to instructions. And although the brazen escape attempts infuriate the Germans, it's obvious that they admire their charges' sense of initiative and fun, and wish they could join in.

John Mills is a bright and charming leading player, forever trying to make peace while not resenting the fact that as Escape Officer, he can't participate in most schemes. Eric Portman eventually becomes a prime player in the hijinks, masquerading as a mustachioe'd German officer given the derisive nickname "Franz Josef." A young Lionel Jeffries is an unlucky escapee and future director Bryan Forbes (Quatermass 2) sneaks out by hiding in a mattress. Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis are stuffy oh-so-particular chaps with a talent for insulting the enemy -- they lower a dummy 'escapee' from a window and have a good laugh when it draws fire from the guards). And Theodore Bikel is one of Mills' Polish confidantes.

The action eventually centers on a daring 'walk out the front door' escape ruse attempted by several POW's in the middle of a camp variety show. The sly humor kept up throughout the picture pays off in the utterly serious, but somehow ridiculous plan. As someone in The Great Escape remarked, "It's so stupid, it's brilliant!"


The Colditz Story is transfered in razor-sharp enhanced 16x9, indicating that The Dam Busters might have been left flat because the source element wasn't as perfect. This show must have come from the original negative and looks pristine, with crystal-clear audio.



The Ship that Died of Shame
1955 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / PT Raiders / 92 78 min.
Starring Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Bill Owen, Virginia McKenna, Roland Culver, Bernard Lee
Cinematography Gordon Dines
Art Direction Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Peter Bezencenet
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, John Whiting From a book by Nicholas Monsarrat
Produced by Basil Dearden, Michael Relph
Directed by Basil Dearden, Michael

This unusual misfire from another book by Nicholas Monserrat is only partially about the war. It drags in a not particularly successful fantasy element that doesn't mix with the overall realism. A noble fighting ship is used for nefarious purposes after the fighting, and ends up being anthropomorphosed in a way similar to movie animals like Lassie and Flipper. The boat resists its good name being sullied and eventually scuttles the plans of the crooks who sail in her. The filmmaking team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph surround this central idea with a great cast and an impressive production, but the result comes off like an early draft of My Mother the Car.

Synopsis:

Motor patrol Boat 1087 gallantly defends the English coastline, and its skipper Bill Randall (George Baker) is pleased until his wife Helen (Virginia McKenna) is killed in an air raid. Randall's post-war life falls apart until he's contacted by old buddy George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough), now a sharpie interested in shady deals. Randall's outlook improves as they reclaim 1087 from the scrapheap and outfit it as a smuggling vessel, bringing in contraband goods from France. Thanks to their combined expertise and cleverness, the pair escape detection by Customs Officer Brewster (Bernard Lee). But as Hoskins' schemes become less honorable, 1087 seems to balk at performing properly, shutting down its engines and becoming difficult to steer. Finally, Hoskins has Randall smuggle in a fugitive killer from France, which brings trouble from their untrustworthy associates, the cops and 1087 itself.

The Ship That Died of Shame is a nonsensical piece of moralizing that just doesnt' work, even though the movie is expertly crafted. The idea that a boat would come alive to defend its honor is undeveloped and too selective, especially when it takes for granted that 'our' craft and weapons are 'good' and the enemy's are 'bad.' The story does a fine job of showing Bill Randall's moral breakdown and his efforts to extricate himself from the error of his ways. Projecting that tension onto the boat just opens a philosophical can of worms. If a 'noble' patrol boat can rebel against the evil purposes it is meant to serve, than what are we to think of the way the rest of the world works? Did Nazi planes return to their hangars and weep for their misdeeds?

The story's interpretation of a haunted boat is not only infantile, it's a disservice to the honor of the English defenders and their sacrifice. If all inanimate objects suddenly became morally sentient, I'd think that weapons would be the first to refuse to function for any human, no matter what side he was fighting on.

If one ignores the cockeyed fantasy angle The Ship That Died of Shame is a very well-made picture. George Baker makes an excellent compromised hero, and in some lighting situations resembles a less imposing Sean Connery.  1 Richard Attenborough is thoroughly slimy as the knavish Hoskins. We know Attenborough mainly from heroic portrayals, but one of his first hit roles was as a despicable 'spiv' in the 1947 thriller Brighton Rock. Virginia McKenna is again underused while Bernard Lee plays his ususal unflappable policeman. John Raines is disturbing as the contraband cargo that gets the 1087 into hot water.

The boating action is beautifully shot, and key scenes are bathed in mist and moody lighting. The raging storm that concludes the picture would be a winner if the premise were working. Much more effective are Randall's atmospheric smuggling missions, which seem a dark inversion of his earlier war activity.

The Ship That Died of Shame is another fine transfer with clear audio. It's not enhanced but probably wouldn't look good widescreen, as the compositions are tight even in 1:66 - it looks like the English 1:55 flat AR is the right one.


The mostly fine selection of films in this British War Collection will be welcomed by war film fans. They're all the full length originals that many Americans have never seen. The discs come with no trailers or video extras, although the boxes and individual disc holders offer some attractive poster reproductions. The liner notes by Gary Hertz expend a lot of words to cover basic facts about WW2, which I'll admit is probably a necessity these days.

Anchor Bay's pricing for this collection is rather high; I'd have to think that few would sell when studios like Universal are putting out an equal number of features in sets costing less than a third as much. Then again, having a copy of The Dam Busters better than my old Thorn EMI VHS was hard to resist.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, the British War Collection rates:
Movie: TCSea, TDB, TCStory Excellent; WTDW? Very Good; TSTDOS Good
Video: Excellent & Very Good
Sound: TDB, TCStory, TSTDOS Excellent; TCSea, WTDW? Fair ++
Supplements: Liner Notes by Gary Hertz
Packaging: Five slim plastic cases in card box in card sleeve
Reviewed: July 28, 2005


Footnote:

1. Baker actually plays in On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a heraldry expert chosen because James Bond (George Lazenby) resembles him, right down to the mole on his cheek. Both Lazenby and Baker are closer to Ian Fleming's book description of 007 than any of the screen Bonds.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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