January 21st, 2013


In Which We Serve

Three women- elderly, middle-aged, young and pregnant- members of a naval family- are chatting nervily in the parlour. The middle-aged woman is doing the ironing, the others knit. The air-raid siren sounds. Bombs begin to fall. The old woman is fretful, the middle-aged woman pretends to be unflustered, the young woman says little but you can see how tense she is from the way she holds herself. The bombs come closer and closer.  At the last moment the young woman is persuaded to sit under the stairs. Then the house receives a direct hit.

This is a Noel Coward film. He wrote it and shared the direction with his protege David Lean. I attribute the bravura action sequences- with their brilliant use of montage- to Lean. I could be wrong. Coward also plays the naval commander- a ramrod role so far removed from his own persona you doubt that it's going to work- but it does. John Mills and Bernard Miles are other ranks. John Mills is the greatest British film actor of the 20th century. He played every variety of military man and made them all different; here he's chirpy and stalwart. The story follows the destroyer HMS Torrin from its building to its sinking. It gets into scraps, participates in the Dunkirk evacuation, escorts convoys.  In between missions her crew snatch at life. Mills gets married to a girl he meets on a train. Coward and his family picnic on the downs and pretend to ignore the dog-fight that is raging over-head.  Coward is a lightweight, right?  Not here he isn't.