A ship goes down in the seas near Crete and through flashbacks we learn about the lives of the sailors who fought within it. The ship goes down and wives and children wait back home to hear about what happened. Bombers fly overhead and men come back from the sea to the corpses of their families. In which we serve is not an easy film to watch. Oh it has the stiff upper lips, the clipped accents, Celia Johnson doing what only she can do- on the edge of tears maintaining an accent which speaks of cups of tea and cucumber sandwiches, John Mills with a false and unimpressive cockney accent and so on- and it is an English film, all about duty and putting on a good show. But it is also an interesting war film.
Firstly it is a key film. Lets start with the careers that started on In which we Serve. John Mills, David Lean, Richard Attenborough and Celia Johnson all made their bows in this film. Those four names incarnate British cinema of the 40s. Lean went on to have one of the greatest careers of all time as a director. Attenborough wasn’t far behind, neither was Mills. Furthermore the film represented technical challenges, presenting a fleet at sea. These were the days that when you filmed in water, you filmed in water rather than in a blue screen filling in the water later. In this film, you filmed in water with diesel oil within it. John Mills had to be shot at one point, Coward remarked that they hadn’t finished the picture so they couldn’t shoot him in the arm, he eventually ended up being shot with a condom.
Secondly it is an interesting film. It’s a patriotic film because it is a propaganda film. Johnson though remarked that it might be too close to people for the British population. It is a very sad film- it is about a catastrophe. Its about Lord Mountbatten the commander of a ship that actually went down. Beaverbrook mocked it because Coward was an effete matinee idol, but of course then Coward had backed Churchill and Beaverbrook believed that there would not be war. Coward thus took his revenge by putting a copy of the Express announcing there would be no war in Europe in 1939. The tragedy though is what makes the film something that endures: this is not a story of British triumph, it was filmed in the early 40s and the greatest British success it mentions is Dunkirk: a success that was a retreat.
Casualties fill the film- ‘now she lies in fifteen hundred fathoms together with half our shipmates’ being one choice line. There were real sailors and real soldiers in the film, Mountbatten a friend of Coward secured them during their leaves. That people died in the second world war just like in the first. It is cloyingly patriotic at times- a last speech about the great British tradition in the sea is perhaps a little Arthur Bryant for me- but at its best the film’s patriotism is the patriotism of defiance, grim defiance and resignation. Resignation is perhaps the last emotion in this film: unusually and impressively we don’t only see the men struggling in the sea, we see the women at home. Celia Johnson’s character, the wife of the captain, gets the best speech in the entire film when she has to announce that she has a rival for her husband’s affections- the ship. There is something too old fashioned about it in the sense that it is a speech by a woman who is primarily a wife- in that sense it shows the world from that point of view- but there is something very moving too. In a sense an obsession like the sea or anything else is an obsession that takes you away from normal life and towards it: this costs others so much more when your obsession could easily lead to death.
I do not imagine that In which we Serve would suit every taste. But I enjoyed it. Its patriotic, stiff upper lipped and easily caricatured. On the other hand it is true to the grimness of the war for the sailors and those left behind and its emotional costs. It is not perfect, but as propaganda goes, its pretty bloody good!