Carve Their Names with Pride; SIMON HEFFER Says the Great Black-and-White War Films of the Fifties Carry a Message about Britain -- and Our Most Precious Values -- That Still Resonates with Audiences Born Long after They Were Made
Byline: by Simon Heffer
FOR millions of Britons of a certain age, the black-and-white Fifties British war film is one of life's guiltless pleasures. Matinee idols such as Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd and John Mills were never better than when taking on Jerry, and winning: and what we like to think of as the best of British was never more clearly seen than in the roles they played.
Those of us not alive when their films -- such as The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters and The Colditz Story -- were on at the cinema grew up watching them on Sunday afternoons on television in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties: and, indeed, beyond.
They still turn up on television with surprising regularity. This is not just because they are so good, but because they carry a message that still resonates with audiences born decades after Odeons all over Britain were packed out by them.
Each evening this week on Radio 3 I am giving a talk on the lasting significance of British war films of the Fifties. As well as the three above, I shall discuss Carve Her Name With Pride (the story of secret agent Violette Szabo, murdered by the Nazis in 1945 after being captured working with the French Resistance) and Dunkirk, the account of the heroic defeat of the British Army in 1940 from which victory was ultimately born.
It is remarkable how deeply these films have been absorbed into our culture. For example, The Dam Busters and its music have become part of the folklore of World War II. Whenever it is shown on television -- which, happily, is still quite frequently -- there is a debate about whether filmmakers should distort history, and the nowoffensive name of Wing Commander Guy Gibson's dog -- Nigger -- should be bleeped out.
This is in deference to how times have changed since 1943, when the raid took place, and 1955, when the film was released. Yet, in other senses, times have not changed at all. The viewing public still like good, honest tales of heroism, where clearlydefined forces of good and evil are pitched against each other. And they are especially popular when it is our side fighting for good, and from the position of the underdog.
A film I did not have room to include, Ice Cold In Alex, has passed into legend not least because of its use for many years in a television lager commercial. And, thanks in part to the film that immortalised what happened at the eponymous prison camp, Colditz has become a synonym for a Spartan, harsh regime from which it is -- almost -- impossible to escape.
But there are deeper reasons why these films mean so much to so many of us. They represent, usually with great accuracy, and with an understatement often missing from American war films, the intensely personal struggles that so many of our grandparents endured after 1939.
It was truly a time when we were 'all in it together', but it was down to individual acts of courage and leadership, often against frightening odds, that victories were won.
The films depict a resilience in the face of loss and tragedy that all too often seems to be missing from modern life. And, in case anyone who watches them suspects that the stiff upper lip and the steely gaze in the face of adversity are overdone, just ask any of the remaining survivors of the Blitz, or veterans of active service, to tell you how they simply got on with life: because they did.
The Cruel Sea, based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Monsarrat about the savage experience of British sailors in the Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats, pointedly shows that there is nothing remotely glamorous about war. It also displays the strong bonds between fighting men that are formed under the most intense danger and privation.
The audience is drawn in by the tough, but sympathetic, characterisation of Ericson, played by Jack Hawkins, the captain of the ship at the heart of the film.
In one of the most memorable scenes in the British cinema, Ericson must choose between trying to rescue some British men in the sea whose own ship has just been torpedoed, and depthcharging a U-boat he believes to be in the ocean underneath them. …