Criterion Commentaries: “In Which We Serve”
In Which We Serve, we’re told by uncredited narrator Leslie Howard, is “a story about a ship.” Eleven minutes into our story, that ship, H.M.S. Torrin, is bombed by a Nazi airplane and goes down. Three minutes later, it becomes obvious that the film’s structure will be to connect flashback vignettes to the survivors of the Torrin clinging to a raft in the open sea. After about the third such flashback, I began to wish the film had simply been presented straight through in chronological order. Eventually, though, it becomes apparent why it had to be this way: the various character arcs take place concurrently in some instances, but are separated by long stretches of time in others. The through story of the raft at sea provides the necessary framework to allow these stories to be connected.
“It’s remarkable for a propaganda film to make so little of the enemy,” observed Terrence Rafferty in his 2012 essay for The Criterion Collection (In Which We Serve: Battlestations). Quite. This was, of course, the tone that writer/actor/co-director Noël Coward sought to create with the wartime propaganda film. In Which We Serve isn’t meant to denigrate the Axis powers; it’s meant to celebrate the society of Great Britain.
Coward himself plays Captain Kinross (“Captain D”) with the ease of a patrician accustomed to authority that belies the actor’s own humble beginnings. In someone else’s hands, the role might have been played coldly but his demeanor is more reassuring than rigid. Coward’s gentler nature may have been owed to his humility, or perhaps because he was essentially playing a fictionalized version of Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, his friend on whose very real sinking at sea was the inspiration for this screen story.
As Bruce Eder put it in 1995, “a large part of Coward’s genius as a writer was his ability to give the various members of England’s social classes convincing voice.” No doubt this can be attributed to Coward’s own familiarity with these social classes, having been born into a suburban family but through his stage theater work found himself in august circles. By presenting us with a cross-section of society, Coward gave audiences at least one representative. The film – and, by extension, the war – belonged to everyone.
For my money, the brightest spot in the cast is Celia Johnson as the captain’s wife, Alix. She exudes rehearsed poise, masking as best she can her awareness of what the war means for her husband and family. Johnson lights up the screen every time she appears, but in the subdued fashion befitting both the role and the tone of the film. It isn’t cheer that Alix offers, even when offering a toast to newlyweds on Christmas, but rather pride and a commitment to being supportive.
The action sequences feel like co-director David Lean‘s work. Partly, of course, this is because of the judicious editing that was a hallmark of Lean’s. But also it can be attributed to the simultaneous sense of scale and emphasis on the humanity of things. Just as Coward’s narrative celebrates the interconnected British society through stories of individuals, so too does Lean’s presentation of the action. This is, perhaps, rarer in a military film even than what Coward did by reducing the enemy to the periphery of the story.
There is the scene in which the Torrin fires on an enemy destroyer. We follow the action up three decks as different handlers convey artillery to the gunner station on deck, where we see the discharge of a single shot. Just like that, all the work of several members of the crew has concluded, its repetition already underway. We’re mindful from then on that every shot fired isn’t the work of just the gunner, but an entire system of men below deck doing their very small, but extremely important, part in the system.
In Which We Serve is unmistakably propaganda, but of the noblest sort. Instead of a film asserting superiority over another people, Coward and Lean showcase how adversity can unite people of varying backgrounds. In my youth, I may have cynically derided such a message as too idyllic, but I recall vividly the tone in the United States in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. It may have given way to the demonizing sort of patriotism Coward resisted here, but there for a little while at least, I saw for myself the kind of unity that Coward sought to promote with In Which We Serve.
“Good show,” I believe is the appropriate phrase.
How In Which We Serve Entered My Flickchart
In Which We Serve > The Haunting –> #393
I enjoyed the use of setting in The Haunting, but this one goes to In Which We Serve. It’s rare to find a propaganda film so reserved.
Though I admire the storytelling sensibilities of In Which We Serve, the escalating tension throughout Les enfants terribles makes it the more compelling film.
My default reaction is that Batman > No Batman, but despite my fondness for The Batman/Superman Movie, it isn’t as affecting as is In Which We Serve.
In Which We Serve < Beetlejuice –> #294
I admire In Which We Serve, but I love Beetlejuice.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is taut and enjoyable, but here I favor the restraint of Noël Coward’s story for In Which We Serve.
In Which We Serve < Bubba Ho-Tep –> #257
Here’s where my objective critic runs into my subjective individual…and I’m afraid Old Elvis and Old JFK sink the H.M.S. Torrin.
Smiles of a Summer Night isn’t as impressive or as ambitious as In Which We Serve, but it’s the easier to get into and enjoy.
In Which We Serve > The Magician –> #255
In Which We Serve entered my Flickchart at #255/1569