The Way Ahead (The Complete War Collection) Review
The opening credits to The Way Ahead, which was retitled The Immortal Battalion in the US, defines the army as being, "...a considerable body of men, armed, organised and disciplined, to act together for purposes of warfare." This is a very apt definition given that The Way Ahead shows the viewer what it takes to build a group of conscripted men into a fighting unit, following them from the day jobs, through the train journey to the camp where they'll begin training, their disastrous first days as soldiers, their insulting their officers and, eventually, their being sent on a mission as soldiers of the British Army. Finally, we see them in combat with a Greek Chorus of retired army officers, who have grumbled throughout the film at the current state of fighting men, smiling as they do the British Army proud in North Africa.
Much of this is presented in a fairly lighthearted manner, with David Niven, William Hartnell and John Laurie all mixing comedy with the seriousness of war and, thanks to a script by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov and direction by Carol Reed, having the material that allows for it. The early part of the film does tend towards playing the action for laughs with the cast drunkenly upsetting William Hartnell with their mistaken preconceptions about army life whilst two drafted department store employees agree to serve as equals during their time in the forces. This continues into the early part of their training with looking as ill-prepared for battle as would the cast of Dad's Army a couple of decades later. John Laurie, in particular, only looks slightly more nimble in The Way Ahead than he would as Frazer telling everyone, "We're doomed!" Laurie is one of the men leading the soldiers off the base and into the home of a dear old woman who entertains them with tea and cake and loves to hear their stories of army life and their dreadful commanding officer. Speaking of whom, David Niven looks upon his men with an air of disappointment but even he cracks eventually, telling them that it would be better for them and for the British army if the war ended before they were called overseas.
That speech as well as one reminding them of the army they're serving in, wakes them up somewhat, instilling in them a new-found urgency in their training and a sense of belonging to the forces. Without the fire and brimstone of Full Metal Jacket, these men slowly become soldiers and, more importantly, a single unit who can call on and support each other in war. Before long, their bumbling around an assault course begins to look more like army manoeuvres whilst they draw a line to their constant bickering in favour of friendship and support. Looking as though they might finally pass muster, the men are posted to North Africa where they will join the fight against the Afrika Korps and where they insolent glances at Niven are replaced by a steely resolve to live up to the history of their battalion.
What follows are two expertly-directed battle sequences, one of which is an attack on the ship carrying the men to North Africa whilst the other is the defence of a village against what looks to be a superior German force. The former is a real surprise as it comes not long after the men have their last period of home leave - which does, in support of National Service, portray them as being more decent folk than they were previously - before being posted overseas. Their time on the ship passes quickly but once they're torpedoed, they find themselves capable of not only saving their own lives but also that of David Niven, who they pull from the burning wreck as it begins to sink beneath the waves. But the highlight of the film is the defence of the village, which Saving Private Ryan clearly owes a great deal for the manner in which these men hold their positions against three tanks and are last seen walking into the smoke.
At that point the action cuts back to London and to the retired soldiers who, by their smiles, appear to be saying that Niven's men, who he had been prepared to give up on completely, have pulled through. The implication would seem to be that the army is in safe hands so long as there are men like these but the comedy of the early scenes would seem to tell us that such men are not simply born but made through training. Clearly something of a recruitment film for the army - there's a speech during the film that explains the value of the infantryman in the modern army - it works as much for the army as In Which We Serve did for the navy, surely what Winston Churchill had planned when he arranged for its making. One can also understand how it gave the British public the feelgood story that it needed at a difficult time in the post-war era.
Once again and like the rest of these war films, The Way Ahead looks fine but comes with all manner of stray lines, spots and other blemishes on the print. Worse, though, is that the contrast of the picture wavers somewhat throughout the film with the edges of the print, particularly the top left and right corners, being darker than the rest of the frame with the rest of it getting intermittently lighter and darker throughout the film. However, viewers of films produced during the thirties to the fifties should be well used to this and though this was very noticeable during the titles and the early part of the film, one gets used to it very quickly, almost finding it part of the experience of watching a film from the pre-war or immediately post-war eras. The DD2.0 Mono audio tracks sounds a little harsh and though its rounded out by the background noise, which has a tendency to soften it, The Way Ahead sounds brittle during its more strident moments. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
There are no extras on this DVD release.