[Paper given at the conference ‘Going to War, 1939-45: Film History and the Second World War’, Imperial War Museum/Institute of Historical Research’,
22-23 October 2010]
The majority of existing studies of the British Second World War film have focused on either films made during the war itself, or on the 1950s, the period when war films were dominant at the box office. There are very good reasons for this concentration, but it marginalises war films from the 1970s. Robert Murphy’s overview, British Cinema and the Second World War, for instance, devotes only a single chapter to post-1950s combat films. This neglect is unwarranted because 30 war films were made during this period – which, you’ll see from the filmography, I’ve defined rather loosely as 1968-81 – several of which were major box-office successes. Their presence needs to be accounted for and recognised as part of the long-term struggle, in which feature films play a central role, over how the Second World War was to be represented and commemorated in British culture.
Unfortunately, at least for a 20-minute conference paper, these 30 films are disconcertingly heterogeneous. There are epics: Battle of Britain (1969) and A Bridge Too Far (1977); farcical comedies: Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall (1973), Dad’s Army (1971) and Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1974); romantic melodramas: The Eye of the Needle (1981), Hanover Street (1979), The Triple Echo (1972) and Yanks (1979); and low-budget/aesthetically experimental anti-war films: Peter Collinson’s The Long Day’s Dying (1969) and Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (1975).
This heterogeneity is in itself revealing and I shall return to that, but I want to focus on what can be identified as the dominant strand of action-adventure films amounting to half the output or fifteen films (as emboldened on the filmography).
Nine of these action-adventure films fall into what James Chapman identifies in War and Film as the ‘special mission’ film, a sub-category whose prototype was Objective Burma (1945), with the highly successful The Guns of Navarone (1961) setting the pattern for the later period. These films, Chapman argues, were designed for an international marketplace, targeted at adolescents rather than a family audience, their style characterised by ‘action and spectacle, preferably with liberal doses of violence and cynicism’ that replaced the sober realism of earlier periods.
Many of these special mission films were adaptations of highly successful novels and John Sutherland argues in Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s that the special mission story was given added impetus by the release of declassified government papers under the thirty year ruling that enabled the publication of stories based on supposedly authentic accounts now in the public domain for the first time. Michael Klinger’s putative production Green Beach – that he attempted to make over a 20 year period – was to be based on the memoirs of Jack Nissenthal, the only non-combatant on the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, engaged on a secret mission to find out how to disable enemy radar. His expert knowledge was so important that secret orders had been issued for him to be shot rather than fall into enemy hands. Klinger referred to his projected film as ‘The Dirty Dozen that really happened’, but had severe problems combining authenticity with official sanction and audience appeal. But I have documented that story elsewhere – in the September 2010 issue of the New Review of Film and Television Studies – and so do not wish to repeat that material here.
The shocking revelation of the orders to kill Nissenthal and Klinger’s invocation of The Dirty Dozen (1968) indicates a potentially darker side to these ‘special mission’ films: the morally dubious nature of the mission itself, requiring certain types of men and a form of guerrilla warfare, a ‘dirty war’ where the ordinary rules did not apply. In The World War II Combat Film Jeanine Basinger identifies a brief cycle of revisionist war films – the ‘“Dirty Group” movies’, inspired by The Dirty Dozen – that, she argues, appealed to a generation, on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming disillusioned by America’s involvement in Vietnam. However, I wish to argue that Basinger is only partially accurate as these ‘secret war’ films are not all ‘revisionist’ in Basinger’s sense. As I shall sketch, they exhibit a spectrum of attitudes that reveal the extreme uncertainty producers felt as they tried to find ways of engaging cinema audiences, the majority of whom were born after the Second World War had ended and who were therefore not necessarily predisposed towards WW2 narratives in any form. In my limited time, three examples will have to suffice.
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Where Eagles Dare is a secret mission film, not only in its daring raid to free a top American general from the impregnable Schlöss Adler and thus prevent knowledge of the plans for a Second Front falling into enemy hands, but because the real purpose of the mission is to expose the extent of German infiltration of British Intelligence. However, Where Eagles Dare makes no pretence to authenticity, historical accuracy or even plausibility. One reviewer summed it up as ‘the kind of film [where] you don’t have to think, you just gasp’. Rather than attempting a reinterpretation of the war, Where Eagles Dare, lavishly financed by MGM, adopts the established mode of international adventure cinema exemplified by the Bond films: fast-paced, non-stop action including spectacular set pieces and a mixture of British and American stars to interest audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Alistair MacLean, adapting his own bestseller, transformed the Lieutenant Schaffer character from the novel’s garrulous wiseacre into an ice-cool, laconic assassin to fit Clint Eastwood’s star persona, thereby becoming the perfect foil for the more theatrical style of Richard Burton playing the mission’s leader, Major Smith. Several reviewers were unsure whether both Burton and Eastwood were sending up their roles. At one point, as if in deference to the outrageous improbabilities of the script and the bewildering complications of the triple bluff, Shaffer opines: ‘Major, right now you’ve got me about as confused as I ever want to be’.
Where Eagles Dare is not a revisionist war film, neither the purpose of the mission itself nor the war are ever questioned. Rather it presents the war as the setting for a Boys Own Adventure story that celebrated courageous British heroism and resourceful aplomb, buttressed by an American killing machine. But it was a huge hit, an indication cinemagoers were not disillusioned with war narratives, provided they were packaged in the right way.
The Sea Wolves (1980)
The Sea Wolves was made twelve years later, financed, unusually, by a British company, Rank, and adapted from an authentic story by James Leasor, Boarding Party. However, despite its different provenance, The Sea Wolves adopts the international action-adventure formulae with Gregory Peck improbably and unconvincingly – adopting the strangest accent – cast as Colonel Lewis Pugh, teamed with Captain Gavin Stewart, played by Roger Moore as James Bond in Second World War uniform. Their secret mission is to locate and disable a German spy ship, enlisting the help of a superannuated territorial unit, the Calcutta Light Horse, led by Colonel Grice (David Niven). They commandeer a decrepit river barge and, posing as holidaying businessmen, board and destroy the German radio ship lying in Portuguese territorial waters in Goa; it was the fear of offending Portuguese sensibilities that had led to this story being kept secret. The plucky veterans are composed of so many familiar faces – including Trevor Howard, Allan Cuthbertson and Donald Houston – that one critic thought The Sea Wolves resembled ‘a reunion of character actors who saw active service in the British cinema of the Fifties’. Unlike its avatars, The Sea Wolves depicts sex when Stewart beds the beautiful but duplicitous Mrs Cromwell – but it shares with them a mythology of resolution and noble sacrifice, offering itself, without a whiff of irony, as a paean to British courage, resolution and never-say-die. The war is just, the enemy vile and arrogant but, of course, fatally underestimating the British ability to improvise against the odds.
Although Rank’s publicity stressed the story’s authenticity and accuracy – the film is dedicated to Mountbatten, the Calcutta Light Horse’s Colonel, who had been blown-up by the IRA on 27 August 1979 – it was, like Where Eagles Dare another fantasy, but this time a geriatric one; one reviewer called it a ‘Schoolboys Own Adventure starring Dad’s Army’! Critics judged the film unconvincing despite its factual basis and hopelessly anachronistic: ‘The good die nobly, the bad die nastily. And it all brings back a nostalgic whiff of the times when everyone – or nearly everyone – stood and saluted at the clarion call for “King and Country”’.
However, The Sea Wolves performed well at the box-office indicating that the spectacle of paunchy actors lumbering into unlikely action was not too unappetising a sight for younger audiences, or that they were prepared to accept that construction if the rest of the formulae were in place: action and spectacle. The film’s publicity emphasised that this film was ‘from the team that made Wild Geese’, a highly successful action-adventure film in which an aging band of British mercenaries overthrow as vicious African dictator. Sea Wolves transposed that scenario to the Second World War and perhaps had the added bonus of appealing to an older audience as well, one that may have been attracted by the nostalgic elements and would have enjoyed the sense of the film’s basis in fact – the same public that had purchased Leasor’s novel.
Play Dirty (1969)
Harry Saltzman’s Play Dirty was very different, ideologically and aesthetically. Grimly realistic rather than fantastical, Play Dirty was not based on an authentic incident but on a fictional story adapted for the screen by Lotte Colin and Melvyn Bragg. Although financed by UA, it had an all-British cast led by Michael Caine as Captain Douglas, an ‘amateur’ soldier, drafted in from an oil company, BP, to help with the Desert Army’s fuelling operations in Cairo. Played with the soft-spoken slight superciliousness that Caine adopted for the officer class, Douglas takes reluctant command of a motley group of Arab and European mercenaries working for the maverick Colonel Masters (Nigel Green), whose knowledge of ancient warfare is less important than his conviction that ‘War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals.’ Given a last chance by Brigadier Blore (Harry Andrews), Commander of Special Forces in the Middle East, to prove his value, Masters sends Douglas on a secret mission to blow up an oil depot 400 miles behind Rommel’s front line. Douglas’s bolshie second in command is Captain Leech (Nigel Davenport), a convicted criminal – he sank a tramp steamer for insurance money – rescued from prison by Masters. Leech takes a grim pleasure from his adversary’s gradual dehumanisation, murmuring with satisfaction after Douglas shoots an unarmed German ambulance driver, ‘You’re learning’.
Although there are several moments of dramatic action, aesthetically Play Dirty is a reversion to earlier war films, including Sea of Sand (1958) – which also fictionalised the ‘irregular’ operations of the Long Range Desert Group – emphasising the drabness and hostility of the desert landscape, and the sporadic and messy nature of the fighting. The key difference from Sea of Sand is the cynicism with which any action in Play Dirty is regarded. Unbeknown to either Douglas or Leech, Brigadier Blore has sent an authorized Army motorized column a day later, thus using Masters’ mercenaries as bait for German defences, leaving the way clear for Blore’s men to complete the raid and gain the glory. However, in a typically brutal scene, Douglas’s troop watch as the authorised group is massacred. Douglas’s own mission turns out to be chimerical as the fuel depot they destroy turns out to be fake. And Blore, having received news that Montgomery has broken through, insists that Masters double-cross his group by revealing Douglas’s location to the Germans. They are machine-gunned by prepared German defences, but Leech and Douglas escape, only to be killed whilst trying to surrender by a trigger-happy British officer who open fires on these two ragged men still in Italian uniforms.
[EXTRACT] Play Dirty’sdownbeat ending and its relentless, often heartless, cynicism was undoubtedly, as several reviewers pointed out, influenced by The Dirty Dozen, but it is, in fact, much bleaker in its refusal to grant heroism to any of its characters, including Douglas, all caught up in a world of betrayal and double-dealing that resembles Le Carré’s unconsoling spy fiction much more than the fantasy world of James Bond. Despite the revisionist nature of Play Dirty, critics were, in the main, fairly hostile to the film. David Robinson commented sourly that Play Dirty ‘brings the unsurprising message that war is not all heroism and chivalry’. Only Alexander Walker was impressed by the corrosive savagery of a film in which the innocent are shot, a German nurse nearly gang-raped and Red Cross personnel have to be paid money to co-operate. Walker commented acutely that Davenport’s ‘cool, contemptuous self-interest gives the film its bitterness’.
Play Dirty was not a box-office success. Unlike The Dirty Dozen it did not have the necessary mixture of cynicism and spectacular and successful action. Thus even though I agree entirely with Murphy’s assessment of Licking Hitler (1978) and The Imitation Game (1980) – that they depict ‘a dirty war, where the government and its representatives are devious and unscrupulous, distorting truth in the name of national security’ (262) – I wish to point out that these two films were broadcast by the BBC and thus addressed to a more educated, probably older, middle-class audience whose values and tastes would be different from the average cinemagoer, and who might well have a critical attitude to the war.
Thus judged by the criterion of box-office success, what cinemagoers seemed to want was not authenticity, realism and ethical debate, but attractively packaged spectacular entertainment in which the war is seen as a, potentially replaceable, backdrop for thrilling and violent action. Thus we need to be very cautious in characterising the 1970s as a revisionist era with regards to the war film in which the war’s meaning is contested and redefined. Rather we have, to return to my opening contention, an era of uncertainty and competing directions, where producers struggled, and often failed, to find ways of representing the war that might work, one in which a heterogeneity of style, address and attitude is the defining feature.
British Second World War Films, 1968-1981 (30 titles) Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1973) (United Artists), d. Norman Cohen
Attack on the Iron Coast (1968) (Mirisch/United Artists), d. Paul Wendkos
Battle of Britain (1969) (United Artists), d. Guy Hamilton
A Bridge Too Far (1977) (United Artists), d. Richard Attenborough
Play Dirty (1969) (United Artists), d. André de Toth
The Sea Wolves (1980) (Rank), d. Andrew V. McLagen
Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1974) (Charter/Fox/Rank), d. Roy Boulting
Submarine X-1 (1969) (Mirisch/United Artists), d. William Graham
The Triple Echo (1972) (Hemdale), d. Michael Apted
Underground (1970) (United Artists), d. Arthur H. Nadel
Where Eagles Dare (1968) (MGM), Brian G. Hutton
Yanks (1979) (United Artists), John Schlesinger
Special Mission Films (9):
Attack on the Iron Coast (1968); The Eagle Has Landed (1977); Force Ten from Navarone (1978); Hell Boats (1969); Mosquito Squadron (1969); Play Dirty (1969); The Sea Wolves (1980); Submarine X-1 (1969); Where Eagles Dare (1968)
[Green Beach – Michael Klinger, 1967-83]