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British War Collection (Went the Day Well? / The Cruel Sea / The Dam Busters / The Ship That Died of Shame / The Colditz Story)

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // March 22, 2005
List Price: $89.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 10, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Anchor Bay's British War Collection is a set of five classic films not limited to World War II buffs and as Father's Day gifts. Each of these uniquely British films - Went the Day Well? (1942), The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1954), The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), and The Colditz Story (1957) - generally avoid the usual war movie cliches, and several are utterly unique. The pictures are different from one another yet share the same kind of intimate storytelling that distinguished many British war films from formula American ones. (The 1948 Charles Crichton film Against the Wind was mentioned in some early reports on this boxed set, but for reasons unknown it didn't make the final cut.)

Chronologically, the set kicks off with Went the Day Well?, a remarkable and often shocking piece of wartime propaganda about "The Battle of Bramley End," a typical English village overrun by German paratroopers expertly disguised as British troops. Adapted from Graham Greene's short story The Lieutenant Died Last, the film opens with a prologue set in the future, technically qualifying this as science fiction as well: "Nothing was said about it till after the war was over," says a friendly villager, directly addressing the camera, "and Hitler got what was coming to him." He then points to a gravestone bearing German names.

The prologue may have been an afterthought, since the picture's first half would have been more effective had the audience, like the residents of Bramley End, not been aware that the friendly British troops who roll into town on lorries are in fact the vanguard of a German invasion. But, one suspects, that if 1942 audiences hadn't been armed with the knowledge ahead of time that the town would ultimately emerge victorious, then the incredible violence to follow would have been too horrible to bear.

The German deception is nearly flawless, with only a few minor clues raising suspicion. Once they reveal themselves, Kommandant Orlter, alias Major Hammond (Basil Sydney), orders most of the population into the local church, while others are forced to share their homes with German guards to keep up appearances with deliverymen, letter carriers and others passing through town. The brave people of Bramley End refuse to give up without a fight, however, and plot a counter-offensive, unaware that one of their most respected citizens, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), is a fifth columnist in league with the Germans.

Despite audience awareness of the soldiers' true identity, Went the Day Well?'s early scenes are highly suspenseful. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared audiences for the cold brutality of the Germans and desperate violence of Bramley End's ordinary citizens, which is taken to harrowing extremes, even by modern standards. While not at all graphic, it's disconcerting to see elderly women bayoneted and blown-up, children shot, a British woman hacking a German to death with an axe, etc., particularly in a setting one doesn't usually associate with this kind of wartime violence.

That such a film could be released in Britain at all suggests that its government felt the picture would work both as anti-German propaganda and to prepare British moviegoers for a worst-case scenario, an invasion still very much a possibility when the film was made, and what they might find themselves up against.

Not surprisingly, the Germans are depicted only in the bluntest, most cold-blooded terms, but these wartime stereotypes are still thrown out of whack somewhat because the faces of the enemy are familiar British ones: Basil Sydney, David Farrar, and James Donald among them. Though it certainly works on an emotional level, the German plan is almost absurdly far-fetched (though movies from The Eagle Has Landed to Red Dawn have borrowed many of its ideas). The Germans speak flawless English, complete with regional accents, a conceit that might have been more believable had a German or two been among the leads, so that the slightest hint of a non-native accent could be perceptible. Conversely, if one accepts its premise, the playing out of this idea is dramatized very believably, with heavy casualties on both sides (including many British women and children) with no punches pulled.

The Cruel Sea is an extremely good and uncompromising portrait of life aboard two convoy escort vessels, a microcosm of the battle of the Atlantic from the beginning of the war to its end. Jack Hawkins leads an ensemble cast as the Compass Rose's Captain Ericson, the only professional seaman among a crew of ex-barristers, car salesmen, and other neophyte sailors.

"The only villain is the sea," Hawkins says in his narration, and indeed a U-Boat isn't even glimpsed until the film is almost over. In keeping the Germans a mostly-unseen, nebulous menace, the ocean itself becomes a much harsher, unforgiving and relentless obstacle. The opening titles tip this off immediately: on big movie screens especially, the rocking swell of the water, up and down, probably made more than a few moviegoers seasick.

Many have called The Cruel Sea a semi-documentary, which it's not, though it is filmed in a style employed mainly to match wartime stock shots (which it does very well). The film also boasts some well-executed visual effects, mostly miniatures and matte paintings. But the filmmakers also knew when less is more: its best and most haunting moments are psychological rather than explicitly shown. The first time a commercial ship is sunk by a U-boat, director Charles Frend cuts to a close-up of a sailor's awed reaction to the ship going down. Later, amid concern that any noise will give their position away, the Compass Rose stops to picks up a group of oil-covered survivors, who ascend the netting up the side of the ship and in so doing bang their boots against its hull, creating enormous nervous tension among the crew.

The methodically-paced film (presented here in its uncut, 126-minute length) plays very authentic, with little moments throughout that contribute to its verisimilitude, such as a familiar buoy offering relief after each perilous convoy. One early scene has Hawkins' captain gently correcting his new officers for saluting him indoors while they're still wearing their caps. He's not wearing his, and thus cannot return their salute. It's a throwaway moment, but it goes a long way to establish Ericson's experience yet easy-going manner, his new officer's inexperience, and so forth. Hawkins is excellent throughout.

It's interesting to compare his character with, for example, John Wayne's submarine captain in the not dissimilar Operation Pacific, filmed about a year before. (Mild Spoliers) Both sacrifice men trying to stop U-boats threatening Allied ships, but where Wayne's captain is merely grimly determined, suppressing any expression of feeling, Ericson is so overcome that his First Lieutenant finds him unashamedly on deck drunk with tears rolling down his cheeks. He's trying to shake off, not very successfully, feelings of guilt by telling himself, "It's just war." Imagine that in a Wayne picture.

Other than Hawkins, the film's producers seem to have made a deliberate effort to cast relative unknowns as the crew of the Compass Rose. The picture has no real story; it's basically a series of well-written vignettes that generally (but not exclusively) focuses in on Ericson's senior staff. Donald Sinden has the most to do as Ericson's Number One, but Denholm Elliott, in a very early role, is fine as an unhappily married man, while Stanley Baker appears early in the film as a First Lieutenant who tries to cover his own inadequacies by leading with an iron fist, while Virginia McKenna as a small role as Sinden's love interest. All would of course become major stars of British cinema, but in early 1953 they were still fresh faces.

The Dam Busters, based on a true story, is equally exceptional, a marvelous picture chronicling efforts to destroy three dams in Germany's Ruhr Valley, whose hydro-electric might is vital to the Nazi's raw steel factories. The dams' masonry is too thick for conventional bombs, which would have to be so heavy even the largest aircrafts couldn't carry them, and the waters behind the dams are fitted with nets precluding the use of torpedoes. But aeronautical engineer Dr. Barnes N. Wallis (Michael Redgrave) has come up with a plan: he conceives a "bouncing bomb" that, dropped from an extremely low altitude, will skip along the surface of the water, hit the inside wall of the dam, sink about 30 feet and upon exploding use the physics of the water to breach it. The idea is so outrageous few think it can ever succeed, and much of the film follows Wallis's hard climb to put his plan into action.

As the bouncing bombs inch their way toward reality, Wallis becomes friends with the wing commander, Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), who has been chosen to lead the 617 Squadron into western Germany, for the exciting finale that was an obvious influence on Star Wars (1977).

The Dam Busters is a terrific and in many ways unique picture. Its hero is a late-middle-aged scientist who's neither cute and doddering nor irascible and eccentric. As presented here, Wallis is a quiet family man who's not even a genius particularly. Indeed, it's his determination to get it right, to apply his talent for physics to aid the war effort that makes him so heroic. That the film avoids the usual cliches about such characters (so prevalent in contemporary American sci-fi), that it uses real science and makes it accessible within the context of a war movie is almost miraculous.

There's also a nice, understated friendship between Wallis and Gibson. They have nothing in common, but Gibson's faith in Wallis's theories and their shared interest in the mission draw them together. Redgrave is a joy to watch, playing him both somewhat meek yet confident. He's excited when Gibson expresses an interest in understanding the science that will make the bomb work. In another scene, when Wallis is told by a Ministry Official, "You say you need a Wellington Bomber for test drops. They're worth their weight in gold. Do you really think the authorities will lend you one? What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?" Wallis replies, "Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?" It's one of the best films ever about science and scientists.

But that's just for starters. The Dam Busters also does a great job capturing the little details of squadron life, especially the nervous hours preceding a dangerous mission. R.C. Sherriff adapted his screenplay from books written by the real Guy Gibson and Paul Brickhill. Brickhill, the author of the non-fiction work The Great Escape (the basis for the 1963 film), was unusually good at capturing little details usually missed in official war histories, and much of what's good about The Dam Busters bears his unmistakable stamp. In one scene, for instance, the problem of flying so close to the water at night, at an altitude of just 150 feet (later dropped even further, to just 60 feet) meant that their altimeters essentially would be useless. A solution to the problem is discovered at a music hall, where Gibson notices how two spotlights converge on a featured singer. Spotlights are soon fixed to the aircraft and by shining the light straight down they're able to measure distances to the inch. Director Michael Anderson also lingers on details like the loading of fuel and ammunition onto the planes before the mission, and the leisureliness of the pre-flight serves to increase tension. The mission itself is explained so well that once it's underway it's easy to follow exactly what's going on and what needs to be done to make it a success.

The Dam Busters is regarded as one of the great British films in Britain, but remains relatively undiscovered in America. One of the reasons for this may have something to do with the unfortunate name given Gibson's black Labrador, who plays an important role in the story. Reader Discretion Advised The beloved dog's name: Nigger, resulting in, as you can imagine, lots of "C'mon, boy! Here, Nigger! Down, Nigger," etc. When the film was first released in America, distributor Warner Bros. dubbed in "Trigger" whenever the name was uttered, which probably only drew further attention to the problem (the looping was probably very obvious). For this reviewer, the name is basically a non-issue since it was, after all, the name of the real Guy Gibson's pooch, and the dog was obviously adored by everyone on the base. It wouldn't be an appropriate name in this day and age, but was considered acceptable (if unenlightened) back then, and is part of this true story's history.

The special effects, especially at the climax, are elaborate and visually appealing enough that one easily forgives their datedness. Some shots of the bouncing bomb are almost comical, looking like a runaway dot at a sing-along. The structure, look, and even some of the dialogue of the finale was echoed more than 20 years later for the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. One key difference is the absence of music for these scenes in The Dam Busters. It might be fun to play John Williams's music over these scenes; I'd bet they'd match wonderfully well.

Despite the appearance of familiar faces like Robert Shaw, Basil Sydney, Nigel Stock, George Baker and others, the film almost exclusively zeroes in on Redgrave and Todd, though there are amusing little vignettes, like Laurence Naismith's single scene as an angry poultry farmer. (He's not credited but isn't that Ernest Thesiger on the committee in one scene?)

Just as The Dam Busters had the same eye for detail as writer Brickhill exhibited in The Great Escape, Guy Hamilton's 1955 film of The Colditz Story is practically a warm-up for that classic P.O.W. thriller. A half-century after it was made, The Colditz Story, also based on a true story, is dated only in that so many movies and TV shows (including Colditz, a 1972-74 series starring Robert Wagner, Edward Hardwicke, Dan O'Herlihy, and The Great Escape's David McCallum) that have followed in its wake. In 1955 though, the film must have seeped with authenticity.

Unlike most P.O.W. shows that followed, which favored snow-covered barracks, lots of barbed wire and a just-out-of-reach Bavarian Forest, Colditz Castle is like something out of a Grimm fairy tale. As with The Great Escape, all the "bad eggs" - prisoners with a long record of escape attempts - have been thrown together into one basket. The difference here is the international make-up of the camp, British prisoners have been placed with French, Dutch, and Polish ones, and their unwillingness to keep one another abreast of their respective escape plans proves their undoing in early scenes. (British and French tunnels collapse upon one another, much to their German guards' delight.)

Eventually there is some cooperation among the different nationalities but also some set-backs, including a fink among the prisoners, so that even several ingenious plans are discovered ahead of time. Once the mole has been ferreted out, hulking Scotsman "Mac" McGill (Christopher Rhodes) proposes a scheme to get him and buddy Pat Reid (John Mills) out, a complex plan involving sneaking through several floors of the castle before waltzing out the main sentry gate.

The Colditz Story is full of what have since become P.O.W. story cliches, including British practical jokes at the Germans' expense, ingenious diversions and forgeries, etc. Director John Sturges, when he made The Great Escape, seemed to realize that to be able distinguish characters he needed actors with strong screen personae, memorable faces, and/or individual quirks that made them memorable. In The Colditz Story, the only characters worth remembering fall into one or more of these categories: Lionel Jeffries and Richard Wattis, for instance, for their distinctive features, but even those played by stars Mills and Eric Portman (as SBO Colonel Richmond) are standard military types.

In some ways The Colditz Story lacks the gravity of later, bleaker P.O.W. movies. Only one character is ever killed on camera, and that scene doesn't live up to its full potential. Though they may be taunted by their captors (Denis Shaw is particularly good as a smarmy, gluttonous guard), at times the prisoners seem to have the run of the castle, including a bar well-stocked with bottles of Carlsberg.

But like The Great Escape, The Colditz Story has many great moments: clever bits of irony, well-planned escapes that fail miserably, extraordinarily simple sleights of hand that succeed.

It's a bit of stretch calling The Ship That Died of Shame a war movie, since all but the first 15 minutes or so take place after the war. The selection is still appropriate though, as it follows the "shame" of a gunboat's "soul" as it makes a postwar transition from heroic guardian of the British coast to its moral decline as a smuggling vessel. George Baker, most familiar to American audiences as Tiberius in I, Claudius (and as Sir Hilary Bray - and much of George Lazenby's voice - in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), stars as Bill Randall, skipper of the 1087, who (spoiler) loses all interest in life after the death of his wife, Helen (the radiant Virginia McKenna, again). With nowhere to turn after the war, Bill accepts an offer from his disreputable former first officer, Hoskins (Richard Attenborough) to refit the 1087 for a bit of "fast freight," to smuggle "life's little luxuries people are short of" in postwar England, like wine and chocolate. The pair are soon joined by another old shipmate, ex-coxswain Birdie (Bill Owen), and later Hoskins partners up with a Major Fordyce (Roland Culver), whose smuggling ring is decidedly less innocuous than wine and chocolate.

The least of the five pictures, The Ship That Died of Shame (not to be confused with USS VD: Ship of Shame, which suffered from guilt of an entirely different sort) is still a quite good crime thriller/fantasy that at times plays like a protracted episode of The Twilight Zone (the episode "You Drive" in particular). The fantasy elements are slight enough that they don't get in the way of the crime meller aspects, which break no new ground but are nicely handled. The brief scenes with Baker and McKenna have a nice romantic intimacy, and while Attenborough is saddled with a stock villain character, both Baker and Owen make a lasting impression, as does Bernard Lee (pre-"M") as a customs officer who knows all the angles.

For trivia buffs it's interesting to note all the future directors who appear in the casts of these films: Don Sharp, Richard Attenborough, and Bryan Forbes among them.

Video & Audio

Overall, The British War Collection look very good. Except for The Dam Busters, the original negatives appear to have been sourced, and some have their original BBFC seals. The titles came from three sources - British Lion, Ealing Studios, and Associated British Picture Corp. (ABPC) - all of which are now part of the massive Canal Plus library.

Went the Day Well? features an excellent transfer, clean and clear at a level rare for British films of this vintage. The Cruel Sea was released in the Spring of 1953, and almost certainly was shown throughout the world in full-frame format and shots clearly make full use of the standard frame. The image on this title is extremely good, with exceptionally strong blacks and excellent detail. The Dam Busters, released in 1954, has the weakest image, though it's serviceable. The film is presented in full-frame format, and clearly was shot for 1.66:1 framing; the opening titles and the roughly 10% of headroom consistently above the actors give this away. Readjusted for 16:9 sets, the image looks perfectly composed, with only a few shots too tight for the 1.77:1 widescreen TV format. (Addendum: While it's possible the film was screened outside Britain slightly cropped for widescreen, your friendly reviewer appears to be otherwise wrong on this point. Director Michael Anderson considered shooting the film in wide screen, but opted for full-frame format instead. See the link to the discussion about this below.) For the record, The Dam Busters is not the shorter, 105-minute American version, but the complete 125-minute cut.

The same holds true of The Ship That Died of Shame, which is likewise uncut (and not the absurdly named, much shorter U.S. version, PT Raiders). It too is presented in full frame format despite being shot for 1.66:1 (or maybe 1.75:1) format. Readjusted for widescreen TVs the framing looks perfect. Fortunately both it and The Dam Busters have transfers that don't suffer too badly blown up to fit 16:9 sets.**

The Colditz Story is 16:9 anamorphic wide screen (the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is apparent in the opening titles, which use black bars on the sides). The main titles have bad edge enhancement and the sound here is quite distorted, but the rest of the film looks and sounds great, with excellent blacks and a sharp image.

None of the titles have subtitle options, a shame as some American viewers may have trouble with the occasionally thick regional accents.

Extra Features

There are no supplements at all, with each title having only a "Play" and "Chapter Selection" option. The set minimally cries out for a booklet that might have put the films into context, both in terms of the genre and within the British film industry, and in terms of how these films reflect British attitudes about the war.

Parting Thoughts

Though two titles would have been better served with 16:9 anamorphic, 1.66:1 transfers, and the lack of any extras at all is a big disappointment (especially considering the high SRP), the movies themselves are superb, earning this British War Collection a top-drawer DVD Talk Collector Series rating.

**There is some debate about this, however. Click here for more on the widescreen vs. full screen debate.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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