In Which We Serve (The Complete War Collection) Review
In a shipyard, what would become the HMS Torrin is being built, rushed into production as the prospect of war becomes almost certain. Completed quickly and launched soon after, the Torrin is commanded by Captain Edward Kinross (Noel Coward) and sees out a quiet first Christmas but early in 1940, it's called into a sea battle in near Norway and is damaged. Out of the 243 men who serve on the Torrin, only one (Richard Attenborough) fails at his post, running away from his gun as the action intensifies. But as the Torrin returns to port for repairs, Kinross refuses to accuse him of cowardice, saying that he feels just as responsible for his not explaining that every man on board his ship is as vital as all of the others.
Later that year, Kinross takes the Torrin back out to sea and into action, making it to Crete and to another confrontation with Nazi destroyers. Unfortunately, this time the damage sustained by the Torrin causes it to sink, taking most of the men on board with it. Yet a handful survive, clinging to a life raft and the flotsam around it, some of them, those that sustained greater injuries, sitting inside the boat hoping to be rescued before losing too much blood. As they await an Allied boat to save them, they look back on the events of the past year or two that took them to where they are now. However, far from suffering in silence, there are enemy aircraft overhead and as they fire at the survivors, one or two of them disappear beneath the waters. What little time they have is running out for them...
Unfairly cast as a mere song'n'dance man, a situation that didn't improve any since his death, Noel Coward felt that he wasn't doing anything for the war effort. A friend of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had captained the HMS Kelly sunk off Crete in the early part of the war, Coward set about dramatising some part of the life of the naval officer and, borrowing his cap for the film, set about adapting it with the behind-the-scenes assistance of David Lean. Unfortunately, what Coward brought to the production that was a script that, in the words of cinematographer Ronald Neame (who would later direct his very own drama-at-sea with The Poseidon Adventure), would have lasted four hours and told almost the entire life story of all of the 243 men on the Torrin. What Lean and Neame did, although this comes from Neame's telling, was to take might have been an overwrought drama and draw out the essence of the story, being the heroism of the men of served aboard the Torrin, their ordinariness and the humdrum lives they led before and during the outbreak of war.
A film that's clearly supportive of the war effort without any obvious beating of a drum, In Which We Serve is a marvellous film, one that has as much interest in the life of the lowliest seaman as it does in that of Captain Kinross. By the kind of coincidence that is as likely to happen in the movies as it is in real life, such men meet even when out of uniform with Kinross and his wife bumping into the newly-wed 'Shorty' Blake (John Mills in a part written for him by Coward) and his wife in a train carriage on the way to the south coast. But In Which We Serve puts this for the major set pieces, being two naval battles, one off the coast of Norway and another near Crete both of which are light up the dark night sky with explosions. Despite being some way removed from Powell and Pressburger's more colourful The Battle Of River Plate, these are impressively-shot, using the pounding of the shells on the soundtrack to build up the tension of the battles. One can, in spite of his actions, fully sympathise with Richard Attenborough's character as he runs away from his post in the middle of one of these shellings. It is, very much in spite of the underplayed visuals, remarkably intense, perhaps all the more so when set against the matter-of-fact faces of the officers, Coward's Kinross amongst them.
As good as the naval battles are, though, what the viewer remembers are the small events in the film, such as Shorty Blake meeting his wife in a crowded train carriage or Kinross' wife (Celia Johnson) awaiting news of the fate of her husband in a telegram. Scenes of Blake's family sitting about the kitchen table during the blitz are as much where In Which We Serve's attentions lie as the action at sea and in spite of the years that have passed between then and now, they're also the most affecting thanks to their showing the resolve of the public at home. It would seem as though Coward realised that the success of the war effort not only depended on those soldiers at sea, in the air and on the ground across Europe but on those people at home. The writer and director might have his Captain Kinross say that the success of the Torrin depends upon every one of the 243 men on the ship but it's also clear that he believes its success also depends on the millions of people who were sure that the taking of a fight to the Nazis was entirely the right thing to do and entirely the right thing to portray in a film.
Presented in 1.33:1, there is some lovely black-and-white cinematography in In Which We Serve, highlighted by its mix of daylight action and tense nighttime naval battles and of its use of location and studio shoots. From a point of view of simply looking at the feature, it is very good indeed but the transfer is only an ordinary one with it often being very good but then let down by an occasional wobble or a stray line floating across the print. Unfortunately, these are much too commonplace to be entirely ignored and though they are never entirely distracting, they are always noticeable, lending the DVD an air of being released carelessly. The audio track is, though, slightly better, particularly, as was suggested in the body of this review, the naval battles but equally the silence of the scenes in which relatives at home wait for news is also very effective. There isn't a great amount of noise - there is some but not much - and the dialogue is kept clear throughout. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Contrary to many of these releases of war films, In Which We Serve comes with a decent set of extras, including a Trailer (1m15s), Biographies for Noel Coward, John Mills, Celia Johnson and David Lean and a Photo Gallery (2m03s). However, the main bonus feature is a Making Of (23m55s), which sees Sheridan Morley, Sir John Mills, the daughter of Celia Johnson (Lucy Fleming) and cinematographer Ronald Neame interviewed about the making of In Which We Serve, the inspiration for the film and how it let Coward feel as though he'd done something for the war, that being important for Coward given his friendship of Churchill and Louis Mountbatten. Within its running time, Neame talks about the writing of the film, the many technical difficulties and personality clashes on the set. However, as much as that might seem rushed, it isn't, being just enough to cover all that one might want without dwelling unnecessarily on any particular aspect of the production.