“When things buck up”: Love on the Dole (1941)

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of any civilization.” (Dr Samuel Johnson, 1709-84)

“They can take away our jobs, but they can’t take away our love, can they?” (Sally to her fiancé Larry in Love on the Dole)

In 1932, the year in which Walter Greenwood’s novel, Love on the Dole was accepted for publication by Jonathan Cape, the UK was suffering an economic Depression and unemployment topped three million. There were protests and riots against wage cuts and the deeply unpopular Means Test legislation in places as far apart as Birkenhead and Belfast. In October a demonstration in Hyde Park of 10,000 people from across the country had to be broken up by the police, with 40 people injured and 14 arrests. In December a Health Insurance Act led to the deprivation of pension rights to the unemployed. A Housing survey reported that 98,000 families in the UK of five or more were still living in two rooms or less.

Small wonder, then, that the appearance in 1933 of Greenwood’s novel about life in a Salford slum caused something of a literary sensation. It was hailed not simply as a powerful work of fiction but as an indelible social document of the time. It had behind it the authenticity of personal experience. Born in Salford in Lancashire in 1903, Greenwood had held at least a dozen jobs since leaving school at the age of 12, none of which had earned him a living wage. He had experienced life on the dole on three occasions and had been unemployed for three years at the time of the book’s acceptance. When he adapted the novel for the stage in 1935, in collaboration with Ronald Gow (whose wife, Wendy Hiller played the leading role of Sally Hardcastle in London and New York), it ran at the Garrick theatre in the West End for nearly 400 performances. It also enjoyed a national tour so successful that it was estimated more than a million people in the UK had seen the play in 1935 alone. The following year it had a successful run in America, playing for 129 performances at the Schubert Theatre in New York. Evidence of its impact can be gauged from an extract in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), when George Orwell described the shame felt by miners about being unemployed and their feelings of impotence and despair. “Everyone who saw Greenwood’s play Love on the Dole,” he wrote, “must remember that dreadful moment when the poor, good working man beats on the table and cries ‘O God, send me some work!’ That cry must have been uttered in tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of English homes, during the last fifteen years.”1

The passage from novel to screen was not as straightforward as novel to play. When Greenwood had submitted a script to the British Board of Film Censors in 1936 for approval, it had been rejected on the grounds that the material was “tragic” and “sordid”; that the “coarse” language and scenes of mobs fighting the police were unacceptable; and that Sally’s morally dubious situation at the end of the drama made it undesirable as a film project. However, in 1941, Love on the Dole was allowed to be filmed and released uncut, but with a Prologue and Epilogue which asserted that the social problems it depicted, notably that of unemployment, had by then been largely eradicated. Or, in the words of the critic Nora Alexander when reviewing the film in 1941: “What a difference a war makes!”2 In fact, there may have been several factors that influenced the official change of heart towards the work’s suitability for film treatment, not least the incongruity of the imposition of censorship on an acknowledged working-class classic when the country was engaged in a battle for freedom and democracy in which working men and women were playing a vital part. “Their reward must be a New Britain,” stated Labour MP and member of the wartime cabinet, A. V. Alexander in the Epilogue. “Never again must the unemployed become the forgotten men of peace.”

Rather surprisingly, one of British cinema’s leading attractions at the time, the singer and dancer Jessie Matthews had auditioned for the part of Sally. It is possible that her popularity would have enhanced the film’s box-office appeal, but it was indicative of the approach of the director John Baxter that he thought her stardom would have undermined the film’s intended realism. He cast instead a then relatively unknown actress in the leading role, Deborah Kerr, whose performance had a radiance and fervour that portended great things. Recalling her work on Love on the Dole in an interview with film historian Anthony Slide, Kerr paid tribute to her director, whose understanding of the British working class, she said, infused the cast with confidence. As an example of his attention to detail, she declared: “Who could forget Sally’s father cutting ONE hard-boiled egg into enough slices for each of the family?!!”3 It is a telling gesture indeed, revealing not only the deprivation of the Hardcastle household but also the deference in which the father (George Carney) is held, a respect which will wither as the family’s circumstances deteriorate.

No one in the British cinema at that time was better qualified than Baxter to do justice to Greenwood’s novel and play, for ever since his debut film, Doss House (1933), his work had shown a consistent sympathy with ordinary people in straitened circumstances courageously struggling to make the best of their lot. Although the setting and the situations are grim, he gives the film pace and passion, with montage sequences that not only compress information but are sometimes charged with indignation, notably when Sally’s brother, Harry (Geoffrey Hibbert) searches for work month after month without success. There are flashes of genuine cinematic imagination, like the moment when Mrs Hardcastle (Mary Merrall) is preparing in the morning for her husband’s return from work, and, as she uses a newspaper to help light the fire, the camera closes in on the headline ‘TRADE BOOM IS COMING’, before the paper is consumed by flames, suggesting a promise that is quickly to go up in smoke. There is more than irony at work here: the flames seem to connote a flare of anger at governmental betrayal, as the disparity between what the workers are being led to expect and what they are ultimately delivered becomes sickeningly wide. They are regularly being told that there are better times around the corner, but when they turn the corner, they meet a dead end. Harry becomes increasingly exasperated by his father’s tight-fistedness over money matters until the time, the father says, “when things buck up”: when will that be, if ever? Nevertheless, the film still finds room occasionally to lighten the tone and catch the novel’s touch of mordant humour, particularly from the Greek chorus of women who frequent the Good Samaritan Clothing Club to dispense credit, gossip, fortune-telling, and a minute drop of spirits at threepence a glass which is measured out with the care of a physician administering medicine to a patient. In another scene, when the pawnbroker Mr Price (A Bromley Davenport) opens his doors to the queue of customers, there is pandemonium as they jostle for service, but he knows how to bring them to order: a sudden dead silence descends when they hear the jingle of coins on the counter.

Is there any way out of this destitution? Certainly not marriage: as the most sympathetic of the Good Samaritan ladies, Mrs Bull (Marjorie Rhodes) says, “You marry for love an’ find you’ve let yourself in for a seven-day- a- week job with no pay.” Nor does political activism offer a solution. Sally’s idealistic fiancé Larry Meath (Clifford Evans) finds his Marxist analysis of the ills of capitalism cuts little ice with his workmates, who are more preoccupied with day-to-day survival; and his dreams (and skull) are to be crushed under the hooves of a police horse during a workers protest march against unemployment which turns into a riot. The availability of credit offers temporary relief that only leads to further financial entanglement and is anathema to Hardcastle, but it is the only recourse available to Mrs Hardcastle when she wants her son to have a new suit. The other outlet is the distant promise of a win at the races through a bet placed with the wealthy local bookmaker, Sam Grundy (Frank Cellier). Harry will win £22 on a three-way-bet and the camera will pan across the workers’ faces, torn between joy and envy at Harry’s luck, as Grundy counts out the pound notes one by one. Harry is prepared to share his winnings with his family, but his father generously advises him to spend it on a holiday in Blackpool with his girlfriend Helen (Joyce Howard): it will provide a happy memory, he says, that may have to sustain them for a lifetime. As if to reinforce the father’s words, Baxter lingers on the Blackpool interlude to give it its due visual and emotional weight. The couple’s luxuriance in their unaccustomed surroundings is sympathetically rendered, but that also serves to heighten their gathering gloom about the prospect of returning to the daily and deadly grind of Hanky Park, particularly in the case of Helen, whose home situation sounds even worse than Harry’s.

Sam Grundy is to play a significant role in the fortunes and misfortunes of the Hardcastle family. Much to Sally’s disgust (for Grundy is a married man), he has been pursuing her for some time, professing honourable intentions whilst offering financial favours. After Larry’s death, she is compelled to borrow £5 from him to pay for Larry’s cremation, but as her options narrow, the temptation to give in to his pleading becomes overwhelming. She succumbs. When she re-enters her home, her elegant appearance is one of the biggest visual shocks of the film, for it immediately proclaims her situation and, in her father’s eyes, her shame. The ensuing argument between the two – a veritable crossfire of recriminations and accusations, culminating in violence – is the work’s dramatic highlight and painful to watch. “You kicked our Harry out because he was married, and you’re kicking me out because I ain’t,” she cries; “Get out, or I’ll kill you!” he shouts back. The father’s rage is ostensibly motivated by the humiliation Sally has wrought on the family through her brazenly immoral relationship with Grundy, but behind it, one senses a displacement of his own shame and guilt at failing to provide for his children and for his wife (whom Greenwood has brutally described in the novel as “an old woman of forty”). When Sally climbs into Grundy’s car before being driven away, she overhears a fragment of a neighbour’s gossip – “As though I don’t know how she’ll pay him back” – but she is unmoved. The purpose of her visit home has not been to flaunt her new status but to inform them (and clearly through her influence over Grundy) that she has procured jobs for Harry and for her father, which might not be a road back to reconciliation but, for the latter, could at least be a route back to self-respect.

In the film’s final scene, Mrs Hardcastle declares: “Things can’t go on forever like this. One day we’ll be wanted: the men who’ve forgotten how to work and the young ‘uns who’ve never had a job. People’ll begin to see what’s been happening and once they do, there’ll be no Hanky Park.” This is not drawn from the novel but clearly directed at the film audiences of 1941, suggesting that the current war waged against fascism is also a fight for a better future for the working class. It reminds me of Ma Joad’s final speech in John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s great Depression novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1941), which subverts the author’s pessimism and replaces it with Fordian populism: “Rich fellas come up and they die, an’ their kids come, ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out.” Love on the Dole was not released in America until 1945, and Deborah Kerr’s recollection was that it was better received in the States than in the UK. Some critics saw the Epilogue as prophetic of the spirit that was to sweep the Labour Party to a landslide victory in the General Election of that year. Variety praised the way the direction, acting and tight scripting made what it called “the tragic journey” of the heroine “vital and real”. In the New York Times in 1945, Bosley Crowther thought the message of the film was universal and described it as “a thoughtful and earnest attempt to throw some light on a problem that concerns us all to a varying degree”.4

In some regards a precursor of the British New Wave and the social realism of Ken Loach, the films of John Baxter have often been described (by John Grierson, among others) as “sentimental”,5 but is that applicable to Love on the Dole? On re-viewing the film, I was particularly struck by a scene in a billiards hall (not in the novel), where unemployed men are shown scrabbling for cigarette butts carelessly tossed on the floor, whilst Sam Grundy’s assistant, an ex-convict called Charlie Fox (an incisive cameo from an uncredited Philip Godfrey) blithely carries on with his game and brags about his successful lifestyle. For all his humanity, Baxter was under no illusions that there will always be unscrupulous and predatory spivs like Fox who are ready to pounce on the misfortunes of others. As for the claim that the problems the film dealt with had mostly been eradicated by the time of its release, that has hardly been borne out by modern times. Poverty, exploitation, misinformation, managerial crassness, political callousness? While these persist, Love on the Dole, irrespective of its period and setting, will continue to be relevant and a landmark of social protest. John Baxter’s uncompromising adaptation pulls no punches.

Neil Sinyard


  1. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin edition, 1962), p.77. 

  2. Nora Alexander, review, Sunday Pictorial, 30 May 1941. 

  3. The Deborah Kerr quotations in this essay are taken from Anthony Slide’s Fifty Classic British Films, 1932-1982 (New York: Dover Publications, 1985), p.40 and from Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 343. 

  4. Bosley Crowther, review, New York Times, 13 October 1945. 

  5. Quoted in John White, Love on the Dole, in Sarah Barrow and John White (editors), Fifty Key British Films (London: Routledge, 2008), p.38. 

Tribute to Network: Five British films

To the great sadness of genuine lovers of British film and television, the DVD and blu-ray company, Network, closed for business early in 2023. Over a period of 25 years, it had released (and supported with superb documentation) a vast array of vintage shows, dramas and films, some familiar, some relatively unknown. In so doing, it fostered a vital re-evaluation of British film and television culture. For this, and for the countless hours of entertainment it provided, researchers, scholars and ordinary viewers will be forever in its debt.

I had the pleasure of contributing booklet notes to around 30 Network releases. They were always a joy to do, not least because of the unfailing support, enthusiasm and knowledge of the Commissioning Editor, Steve Rogers. I can honestly say that none of the films disappointed. Some of them were comparatively well known but, in some cases, deserved to be better appreciated; others were barely known at all and warranted discovery. It became a labour of love.

The five films in the following collection came too late to be released but they seem to me representative of what Network habitually offered: an early vintage Michael Powell (The Phantom Light); a young Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson making their theatrical skills sparkle on screen (The Divorce of Lady X); a virtually unknown UK/Swiss co-production (The Village) which could scarcely seem more urgently relevant in its look at the plight of refugees and war orphans; an exceptional film from those legends of cut-price film-making, the Danziger brothers (Tarnished Heroes); and Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe in Jack Gold’s imaginative rendering of Adrian Mitchell’s revisionist take on the Defoe original (Man Friday). An eclectic bunch certainly, but, in one way or another, all interesting, and all adding to our knowledge and appreciation of British film in sometimes unexpected ways. In other words, typical offbeat, provocative and stimulating Network projects. It will be sorely missed.

Neil Sinyard

Read Neil’s essays on these five British films here:
The Phantom Light (1935): read Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)
The Divorce of Lady X (1938): read “The anguish of humiliation”: The Divorce of Lady X (1938)
The Village (1953): read Orphans of war: The Village (1953)
Tarnished Heroes (1961): read Strictly Danziger: Tarnished Heroes (1961)
Man Friday (1975): read “I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)

Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)

“I’m a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said ‘Yes’ to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot, the better.” (Michael Powell)1

“Lummy, what a night!” (Gordon Harker as Sam Higgins, the Lighthouse Keeper, reflecting on his new job)

Introduction

It is sometimes forgotten that, prior to teaming up for the first time with Emeric Pressburger on The Spy in Black (1938), a partnership that was to develop into the most creative and dynamic director/producer collaboration in the history of the British cinema, Michael Powell had already directed 24 films. Admittedly, they were generally modest, low budget affairs, but they proved a valuable training ground for a fledgling director whose talent was clearly discernible even amidst the limits of the material.

Of these early films, four were made for Michael Balcon’s Gaumont British Picture Corporation, the last and best of these being The Phantom Light (1935), a ghost story-cum-comedy thriller adapted from the play The Haunted Light by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford. It stood out as a cut above the standard British B-movies of that era. Variety described it as “a very strong melodrama, atmospheric to a marked degree.” Even Graham Greene, that most notorious denigrator of British movies of the time, was positive. Reviewing it for the Spectator he called it a “an exciting simple story of wreckers on the Welsh coast”; praised “some lovely use of Welsh scenery”; and only lamented the under-use of one of his favourite actors, Donald Calthrop in a relatively small role as the Harbour Master, whose main task is to tell the new lighthouse keeper that the North Stack Lighthouse, of which he is now in charge, is haunted.2

All in a Night’s Work

A lighthouse keeper with “twenty-five years’ service come Michaelmas”, Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) arrives in a small Welsh village to take up his new post. He is at first unfazed by village gossip about the mysterious fate of previous keepers or the talk of a “phantom light” that has appeared on the cliffs and lured ships to their doom. On arriving at the lighthouse, however, he is taken aback by the distraught state of the senior assistant keeper, Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas), and by Claff’s traumatized nephew, Tom Evans (Reginald Tate), who seems to have lost his mind over what he has seen. Evans is adjudged by Dr Carey (Milton Rosmer), who has accompanied Sam to the lighthouse, as being too ill to move, although still sufficiently dangerous to warrant being tied to his bunk. As if that is not enough to occupy him, Sam has then to contend with the sudden appearance alongside the lighthouse of a boat containing two people he had expressly told not to follow him: an investigative journalist, Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter), and an amateur spiritualist, Alice Bright (Binnie Hale), who are both purportedly investigating the stories of hauntings. In fact, Pearce turns out to be a Naval officer on the trail of a gang of wreckers who are planning to sink an approaching ship, the Mary Fern, captained by Pearce’s brother, in order to claim the insurance; and Alice will at first claim to be an actress and then an insurance investigator but who is most plausibly seen as a decorative red herring. Unbeknown to them all, conspirators have infiltrated the lighthouse; there is still much skullduggery to contend with as well as rescuing the ship from disaster.

Preparation and casting

As he recalled in the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies, although he did not think much of the film’s plot, Powell enjoyed the actual filming very much. He insisted, by way of preparation, on visiting all the most inaccessible lighthouses he could. He also visited the premises of the manufacturers of the lenses for the lights. He was delighted to have Gordon Harker in the leading role, for Harker was popular with audiences through his appearances in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies, such as The Ring (1927) and Champagne (1928) and his splendid character performance in an early British success of the sound era, Rome Express (1932), a film Powell greatly admired. He was less happy with the casting of Ian Hunter as Pearce, a dependable player in numerous British films but who is probably best remembered by cinemagoers as King Richard the Lionheart opposite Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood in the Warner Brothers swashbuckler classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Powell would have preferred Roger Livesey. He had seen him on stage at the Old Vic and been entranced by what he called this “golden-haired Viking” and tested him for the role. However, on viewing the test, Michael Balcon, who, in Powell’s view, was “not an exciting leader”, disliked Livesey’s husky voice, his hawk-like profile, and his upswinging hair, and vetoed the suggestion. “This was my first experience of being overridden by the front office,” wrote Powell, “and I didn’t like it.”3 Later, of course, when he had the power to do so, he was to star Livesey unforgettably in two of the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945).

The character of the comedy

Powell thought of The Phantom Light as a comedy-thriller, but the comedy arises mainly out of wry observations of behaviour rather than from suspenseful situations. He has fun with the opening scenes of the film, as Harker’s Sam Higgins alights at Tan-y-Bwlch station and seems like a stranger in a foreign land, unable to understand the language or the people. Even his friendly greeting to a local villager, “Nice evening”, receives the less optimistic response, “Maybe”; and almost every person he encounters seems to go under the name of Owen. “Owen, Owen,” he muses. “Anybody paying?” He is alone (understandably perhaps) in finding that quip funny. “Nice place, Wales,” he says, as if trying to convince himself. The visual jokes are relatively subdued. The landlady of the local pub, the Bottle and Jug, makes no attempt to be a glamour queen and even smokes a pipe; when menaced by a raving Tom Evans, Sam’s strategy for keeping him at a bay consists of hopefully waving a stick at him and a bottle of sleeping pills; and when Alice needs to change into some dry clothes, she accepts Sam’s disgruntled offer of his best pair of trousers to wear but, finding them too big, proceeds to cut them in half with a pair of scissors. Most of the humour comes from Sam’s reactions to events. When he arrives at the lighthouse and his first sight is that of Claff at his most deranged, he cannot help exclaiming, “Cor blimey, King Kong!” When Alice (who prefaces each succeeding lie about her profession with the line “I’m going to tell you the truth”) tells Sam that she is an actress in hiding from the police, Sam’s cheeky response is to take her at face value: “Was your acting as bad as all that?” But as she elaborates ever more outrageously on her sob story, Sam retorts: “What was the show you were in? East Lynne?” Today’s viewers might not immediately pick up that reference to Mrs Henry Wood’s phenomenally successful sentimental blockbuster of the Victorian era, which gave rise to the immortal phrase “Dead!… and never called me mother!” (which is not from the novel itself, incidentally, but taken from T. A. Palmer’s 1874 stage adaptation). Audiences of the time, however, certainly would have recognized it (the play was still a regular in the theatrical repertory and had been filmed twice in the silent era); and would probably have enjoyed Sam’s ironic way of implying that he did not believe one word of what Alice had said. Harker’s expert timing and delivery at times reminded me of the style of the diminutive comedian Arthur Askey. Was Harker an influence? Several critics have noticed some similarities between this film and Askey’s later feature, also a comedy thriller set on a lighthouse, Back Room Boy (1942).

The character of the lighthouse

Nevertheless, the thing that fired Powell’s imagination most was not the comedy or the characters but the lighthouse itself, and the possibilities it offered for atmosphere and tension. A panning shot across a wall reveals the lighthouse’s portentous motto, which is the opening of Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that built it.” Behind the credits we see a hand gripping the top of some steps and a shadowy figure emerging, almost like Nosferatu out of his lair, and then walking like a somnambulist before disappearing up the lighthouse steps. An uneasy spirit walks abroad. The lighthouse appears to have a life of its own. A fire breaks out unaccountably; doors that were closed are now mystifyingly open; and sounds of footsteps and screams seem eerily amplified. The waves crash ceaselessly outside as a constant reminder of the difficulty of escape. Powell’s direction exploits to the full the dramatic potential of the lighthouse interiors, where at various times, a cabin can offer safety or entrapment; winding steps as shot from above can gather a vertiginous sense of impending danger; and shadowy spaces can provide momentary safety or sinister concealment. Herbert Lomas’s intense performance as the disturbed and frightened Claff helps sustain the anxious mood, as does Roy Kellino’s black and white photography, which has the quality of a 1930s horror film and met with the director’s approval. The climax is genuinely exciting, as Powell crosscuts between a ship in serious trouble, a violent struggle on the lighthouse, and Pearce and his village helpers negotiating the treacherous waters in a small boat as they try to reach the lighthouse in time to rescue the endangered Sam and Alice from the now desperate wreckers.

Two contemporary classics for comparison

This may appear an invidious comparison but, considering The Phantom Light, I was struck by how it could seem a modest companion piece (not necessarily in terms of quality) to two acknowledged classics of that period, both of which Powell knew and where his own film comes somewhere between pastiche and homage. The first is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), his documentary about a small community of crafters and fishermen in the west of Ireland. Powell had encountered Flaherty in the editing rooms at Gaumont British when Flaherty was editing his film,4 and, like most people, he was enchanted by Flaherty’s flamboyant and outsized personality which enabled him to secure funding for what would seem impossible subjects for the commercial cinema. (In fact, Man of Aran was funded by the normally cautious Michael Balcon, was a success, and became Balcon’s favourite film.) “He was like an Irish bishop,” he said of Flaherty, “and he could sell the flies off the wall if you didn’t see him coming first.”5 There is something about the opening scenes of The Phantom Light that put me in mind of Flaherty: the crisp depiction of the isolated community; the wonderful collection of faces that seem authentic to the area; and the way the location is photographed which Graham Greene saluted and where one can almost feel the wind on one’s face.

The other film that comes to mind in this connection is Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). As with Flaherty, Powell encountered Hitchcock during his time at Gaumont British, when Hitchcock was working on one of his most eccentric vehicles, Waltzes from Vienna (1934), a biopic about Johann Strauss, which Powell, observing the incongruous match of director and subject, said was “like asking Picasso to design greeting cards.” When Hitchcock mentioned that his next project would be an adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Powell was delighted (“the best thriller ever written”, he enthused), but puzzled when Hitchcock added that Madeleine Carroll would play “the girl in the film”, for there is no female role in the book. But then he thought: “There was no reason why there should not be a girl in the film.”6 One wonders whether that reasoning influenced the decision to include Binnie Hale in The Phantom Light, whose character, in terms of the narrative, is strictly surplus to requirements, but whose presence would add to the film’s box-office allure. Coincidentally, both films feature quite prominently a daring scene where the heroine is required to remove some of her wet clothing, a risqué thing to show in the cinema of the mid-1930s. There is something Hitchcockian in the film’s shifts of tone between comedy and suspense. Powell’s movie even sneaks in a Buchan-esque spy sub-plot which lasts about ten minutes, when Sam suspects that Pearce and Alice might be Communist saboteurs. In both films, the principal villain is an ostensible pillar of the community, who at the end is armed but cornered and tries unavailingly to jump clear of capture. Another connection between the two films is that both were edited by Derek Twist, who was to become one of Powell’s regular collaborators.

The Phantom Light is minor Powell perhaps, certainly when viewed across the perspective of his later achievements, but this is still one of his best films before his association with Pressburger which transformed his career. And there is something about its quirkiness of characterization, the response to setting, the oddity of situation, the turbulence of nature, that hints at things to come. Travellers finding themselves in strange surroundings and whose presence causes unease and unrest in a private and remote community will crop up from time to time in some of his most original movies, such as Edge of the World (1937), I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950). That might explain why he jumped at the chance of directing The Phantom Light, and why he delivered it with such precocious panache. He knew where he was going.

Neil Sinyard

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.


  1. All quotations from Michael Powell are taken from his two volumes of autobiography, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (Heinemann, 1986) and Million Dollar Movie (Heinemann, 1992). 

  2. Graham Greene, ‘St Petersburg/Paris Love Song/The Phantom Light’, The Spectator 12 July 1935, reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by John Russell Taylor), The Pleasure-dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-40 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp. 6-7 or reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by David Parkinson), Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007 edition [originally 1993]). The Phantom Light is discussed on pp. 7 and 9 respectively. 

  3. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (Mandarin, 1992 [originally published by Heinemann, 1986], p. 236. 

  4. Powell, pp. 236-237. 

  5. Powell, p. 237. 

  6. Powell, p. 227. 

“The anguish of humiliation”: The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Everard: “When you smile at me, you’re as guileless and innocent as a child.”
Leslie: “That’s why I smile at you.”
(Laurence Olivier as Everard and Merle Oberon as Leslie in The Divorce of Lady X)

Lord Steele to Leslie: “What made you play the woman with a past?… The danger is that when the costume falls off, the young man may look at you and wonder what on earth he saw in such an innocent slip of a girl.”
(Morton Selten as Leslie’s grandfather, Lord Steele)

Introduction

Released on 15 January 1938, Alexander Korda’s production The Divorce of Lady X was based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield, Counsel’s Opinion, which had first been filmed in 1933 under its original title. That film (now believed lost) had starred Binnie Barnes, who was to play the role of Lady Mere in the remake, as the heroine, Leslie; and was directed by the Hollywood pioneer, Allan Dwan, one of three films he made in England in the early 1930s, the first of which, Her First Affair (1932), had featured the screen debut of the fourteen-year-old Ida Lupino. When Korda decided on a remake, he probably calculated that he had three major assets to exploit: a glamorous leading lady who was already a Hollywood star, Merle Oberon (and whom he was to marry in 1939); two of the rising stars of the Old Vic stage, who were also making a career in films, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson; and Technicolor. At that time, it was more usual to reserve Technicolor for action films, but it justifies its deployment here, at the very least, for the sight of Laurence Olivier’s orange pyjamas and for the startling transition at the beginning when Olivier steps out of a foggy night in London town and into the lobby of the Royal Park Hotel that is positively ablaze with light and colour coming from a Fancy Dress Ball. The film’s cameraman, Harry Stradling, was to become one of Hollywood’s ablest and to win Oscars for his colour cinematography for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964).

Genteel screwball

When it opened in the USA, the trade magazine Variety greeted it as a “rich smart entertainment”, attributing much of the film’s sparkle to the uncredited contribution of the American screenwriter and playwright, Robert Sherwood, who had added a welcome comedy sting to the material. The magazine’s enthusiasm for the film was possibly enhanced by its recognition of elements of the screwball comedies that were flourishing in Hollywood at that time. Although it hardly possesses the kind of manic zest and panache that directors such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey were bringing to the genre, in its genteel fashion The Divorce of Lady X contained some of the same ingredients of character, setting and situation: high society, divorce, mistaken identity, women giving no quarter in the battle of the sexes, heroes exposed to ridicule, irresolute or ambivalent endings. All these were often observed by a disgruntled array of underlings, ranging from waiters to butlers, receptionists to shop managers. In the Hollywood comedies such roles were taken by the likes of Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton. Their equivalents here are the expressive performances of H. B. Hallam as Lord Steele’s butler, so used to his Lordship’s cantankerous temperament that threats of the sack are accepted as morning greetings rather than ominous warnings; and Gus McNaughton as the hotel’s room service waiter, so constantly bewildered by whom he is supposed to be serving breakfast in Everard’s bedroom, that he finally dispenses with the customary courtesies of “Sir” or “Madam” and just announces: “It’s ready”. Coincidentally the humour around the ownership of a pair of pyjamas is also to occur in the opening of Ernst Lubitsch’s film of the same year, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Although influence is unlikely, Korda’s screenwriter, Lajos Biro, would most probably have known his Lubitsch: he had sold his play The Czarine to Lubitsch back in 1924. Again, although influence is highly unlikely, it is intriguing how Divorce of Lady X anticipates some features of one of the greatest of all screwball comedies, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1942): the hapless hero still in love with a duplicitous heroine with a scandalous past that is more imaginary than real, but who manipulates, humiliates and deceives him so comprehensively that he resolves to escape not simply from her but from the world. In both, reconciliation of a kind will be achieved aboard an ocean liner.

The performances

At that time under contract to Sam Goldwyn but on loan to Alexander Korda’s London Pictures, Merle Oberon could report back to Goldwyn that Divorce of Lady X was “the real Mccoy” and that “at last the girl had a chance to look ravishing with divine clothes.” Later she was to report that the film “is quite good” and the colour “excellent”. It came after the ill-fated attempt to film Robert Graves’ I Claudius (1937). This had been cancelled after Oberon, who was cast as Claudius’s wife, had been injured in a serious road accident. In Divorce of Lady X, she gives an attractive performance in a relatively undemanding role and is appropriately the subject of the film’s most lingering luminous close-ups, which cleverly add to the irony, for they are mainly directed at Olivier’s divorce lawyer, who prides himself, because of his profession, on being able to know what lies behind “those dear deceiving lips” but is to be complexly dazzled by Leslie’s deceptive appearance and manner.

Olivier was to be bewitched by Oberon the following year, playing Heathcliff to Oberon’s Cathy in William Wyler’s celebrated film of Wuthering Heights (1939), and it is curious that the well-documented feud between the two leading actors on that film seems not to have happened when they were filming Divorce. Perhaps he had not taken much notice of her and was not then so aggrieved that she had secured the role of Cathy over his preferred choice, for obvious reasons, of Vivien Leigh. At this early stage of Olivier’s film career, and particularly through the way he often seems to rattle through his dialogue at breakneck speed as if it were slightly beneath his dignity, one sometimes gets the impression of someone casting pearls before swine. (If this were the case, he was to be subsequently disabused of this notion by the rigorous perfectionism of Wyler, a peerless director of actors whom Olivier was to acknowledge as the man who more than any other taught him how to act for the screen.) In a funny way this pomposity of Olivier towards the screen and his slight awkwardness before the camera fit the character of Everard Logan very well, for he is to find his complacency and composure blown off course by unexpected romantic feelings and farcical consequences. Olivier is very adroit with bits of comic business: pulling out random pieces of paper and documents from a drawer in an endeavour to persuade an unwelcome client that he is very busy; hiding behind a pair of spectacles to persuade a witness that he is not the man she saw coming out of Lady Mere’s hotel room at a compromisingly late hour (he was not and in any case, the person he has fallen for is not the real Lady Mere): even vaulting over a sofa at one point in his eagerness to see Leslie before she leaves. Along with his General Burgoyne in the 1959 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (the section directed by Alexander Mackendrick before he was fired), this is perhaps his most enjoyable comedy performance on screen. Yet there is one close-up of him towards the end, when Everard realizes that he has been taken in by Leslie’s masquerade and that Lord and Lady Mere are laughing at him, that is powerful enough to give one pause. It carries the hurt and anger of someone who at that moment feels so keenly the ”anguish of humiliation” (a phrase used earlier by Lord Mere to denote how a deceived husband must feel) that his only course of action, as he sees it, is to depart from the room, and then his office, and then from society altogether.

If the early scenes between Olivier and Merle Oberon tend to drag a little, things perk up when Ralph Richardson’s Lord Mere shows up in Everard’s office, seeking his services so he can divorce Lady Mere for infidelity. As anyone who has seen Richardson’s performances in later films like Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1960) and Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969) will recognize, few actors could excel him in projecting the outer edges of British eccentricity, and his Lord Mere is a step along the road to that inspired lunacy. My favourite section of the film occurs when he has seen Everard in his office to reassure him that his suspicions about his wife have been unfounded, and Everard, still labouring under the misapprehension that Leslie is Lady Mere, says: “Tell her from me that she’s the most awfully clever woman in the world.” Lord Mere is out of the door before the full import of that remark strikes him: why would Everard say a thing like that about his wife? (The implication is that his own perception of his wife is somewhat different.) Simply in his faltering walk from Everard’s office through the front door and out into the street, all the while juggling hat and umbrella, Richardson gives an absolute comedy masterclass in how to convey mental confusion through physical movement. Later thrown out of his living quarters by his wife, he will progress to his gentlemen’s club where he will he spend the entire evening imbibing regularly and audibly musing on Everard’s remark, on woman’s perfidy, and on Eden (not the politician, he tells the club’s puzzled drinks steward, but the Garden, from which all man’s troubles have derived). Later, accompanied over the soundtrack by what composer Miklos Rozsa called a “jolly little tune on the bassoon”, Lord Mere will attempt to walk home, and Richardson will perform a tipsy-turvy lurch along the high street that is a classic mime of comic inebriation. Watching it I was reminded of that priceless incident in Richardson’s own life when, stopped by the police as he was walking in a suspicious manner along the gutter of a street in Oxford, he explained that he was taking his pet mouse for a stroll.

Strength in depth

As well as enjoying the opportunity to compose a jolly bassoon melody for Lord Mere, Rozsa was pleased to compose what he described as “a lilting waltz theme for Merle Oberon.” He was more than a little chagrined when a review by the so-called doyen of English music critics of that time, Ernest Newman, thought his music to the film “largely unnecessary.” In his autobiography, Double Life, Rozsa, obviously wounded by the remark, commented ironically: “Encouraging words for a young composer.” I think Newman was wrong. Rozsa’s music performs a useful function in helping to maintain the film’s narrative impetus. Also (and at home among fellow Hungarians at Korda’s Denham studios), he has composed a nice piece for a night club scene featuring a small musical ensemble whose soloist regales the guests with a solo on the cimbalon, a traditional folk instrument rather like a zither (this is ten years before Cariol Reed’s discovery of Anton Karas’s zither-playing skills for The Third Man) probably most familiar to listeners through its use in Zoltan Kodaly’s Harry Janos Suite. At the outbreak of World War Two, when members of the Korda company moved to Hollywood to complete work on The Thief of Bagdad, Rozsa accompanied them and stayed on to become one of the most accomplished and celebrated of all film composers.

In some ways, one of the most remarkable features of The Divorce of Lady X, viewed in retrospect, is the quality in depth of its personnel, some of whom were destined to go on to make their mark in the industry. The film’s supervising editor William Hornbeck was to become the favoured editor of the great Hollywood director, George Stevens, editing such masterpieces as Shane (1953) and Giant (1956) and winning an Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1951). The camera operator Jack Hildyard developed into one of the most respected cinematographers of the British cinema and won an Oscar for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). There is a small part for the actor Michael Rennie (described as ‘greeter in club’) who was to have a successful career in Hollywood and is probably best remembered by cinemagoers as the investigator on the trail of James Mason’s spy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952). Everard’s junior clerk, who is mesmerized by the arrival of two ladies in the office to see Everard and each claiming to be Lady Mere, is humorously played by the then child actor Lewis Gilbert, who, after the war, would become one of the most prolific and successful British directors. The popular British actress Patricia Roc made her screen debut in this film as a beautician. The part is a small one, but the scene is important, for Leslie and Lady Mere are conspiring to pull Everard Logan down from his pompous perch, and the scene closes meaningfully on a close-up of the women’s toenails being painted.

Leslie’s challenge

For Leslie painted toenails are not a fashionable embellishment; she is making a consciously symbolic statement of defiance. She has been in the courtroom when before the judge (Leslie’s grandfather, Lord Steele), Everard has launched his verbal assault on modern womanhood, in which painted toenails are seen by him as evidence of woman’s essential frivolity and triviality. Delivered by Olivier in his most majestic and authoritative vein, the speech is too long (and outrageous) to quote in full, but the following extract will suffice to explain why Leslie is so provoked:

Modern woman has discovered womanhood and refuses man’s obligation. She demands freedom but won’t accept responsibility. She insists upon time to develop her personality and spends it on cogitating on which part of her body to paint next. By independence she means idleness. By equality she means carrying on like Catherine the Great […] Modern woman has no loyalty, decency or justice, no endurance, reticence or self-control. No affection, fine feelings or mercy. In short, she is unprincipled, relentless […]

Everything in the film has led up to, and will follow from, this pronouncement and is the challenge that Leslie, as a modern woman, will face. Her grandfather (endearingly played by Milton Serle, a fine character actor who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of King Edward VII) might later have sincere concerns for Leslie’s romantic hopes when Everard finds out about her act as a multi-divorced woman: what if he prefers the performance to the truth? But that is an assignment for the future. The immediate priority is to bring this monster of misogyny to his senses. Nothing less than a complete comeuppance will do. She can eat his breakfast in his hotel room. Can she make him eat his words in the courtroom?

Yes, she can.

Neil Sinyard

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.

Orphans of war: The Village (1953)

Introduction

Despite winning the Bronze Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival and being a Grand Prix nominee at the Cannes Festival of the same year, the UK/Swiss co-production, The Village has attracted little attention since its first showings. To say it has over been overlooked would be an understatement: you would struggle to find a single reference to the film, let alone a review, in any published history of British, European and World cinema. The only available online review is a negative one from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times at the time of the film’s US opening.1

This neglect is surprising, bordering on the inexplicable. After all, its technical credentials are impressive; and without mentioning The Village explicitly, one of the earliest of film historians, Paul Rotha, reckoned the team of producer, director and writer who were primarily responsible for it were “an underestimated European team that deserve more attention”.2 Moreover its basic theme – about the treatment and resettlement of displaced persons whose lives and homes have been devastated by war – was a continuation of the team’s earlier work.

The Pestalozzi Project

The film is dedicated to the teachers and children of Pestalozzi village in the Swiss Alps. Although it points out in the opening prologue that this is a story and not a history, it is clearly intended as a tribute to the values of international understanding that the village espoused. It was named after a Swiss humanitarian and social reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who had dedicated most of his adult life in endeavouring to secure educational provision for the poor, the underprivileged, and those without any family support. He believed in “learning by hand, head, and heart”, which became a sort of mantra; and his subsequent influence on educational content and reform was huge. In 1947 the Swiss philosopher, Dr Walter Corti, had created a children’s village named after him and as a memorial to his ideals, and which accommodated around 200 children from across Europe who had been orphaned during World War Two. They were housed in small national groups where they could be taught in their own languages and cultures. (It was, incidentally, a humanitarian initiative that was to expand globally over the next decade, and beyond.) The film’s task was to encapsulate the spirit of the Pestalozzi enterprise in dramatic form.

A Swiss trilogy

In fact, no team of cinematic collaborators would have seemed better equipped for the task, because, in its context, The Village was not a one-off project, but the third part of a trilogy made by essentially the same creative personnel and all three about the plight of orphans and refugees in post-war Europe. The first two films of this unofficial trilogy were extremely successful. which makes the subsequent critical neglect of The Village the more perplexing.

The first of them was The Last Chance, made in 1945, with the same producer (Lazar Wechsler), director (Leopold Lindtberg), cameraman (Emil Berna) and composer (Robert Blum) as were subsequently to work together on The Village. It was to become arguably the most famous Swiss film ever made. The plot concerned two Allied prisoners in Italy – one English, one American – who escape from a train carrying them and slave workers to a labour camp, and who then encounter and aid a group of refugees of various nationalities in a perilous journey across the mountains before reaching safety in Switzerland. It was shown triumphantly at the Empire Leicester Square in London in 1946 and was championed by esteemed critics such as Richard Winnington, who thought it a parable of internationalism and described it as a “brave and good film […] moving and tragic”.3 Earlier it had been an even bigger success in America, where the legendary film critic, James Agee, had extolled the film’s “desperate courage, humanness, intensity and overall eloquence.”4 Such prestigious support persuaded MGM to give it major feature circulation.

The film’s popularity made it possible for producer Lazar Wechsler to negotiate a co-production deal with MGM for his next film, which resulted in The Search (1948), which was to surpass The Last Chance in terms of American and international acclaim. It was to be nominated for four Hollywood Oscars; introduce cinema audiences to Montgomery Clift, whose performance was so convincing that some thought he was an actual American soldier; and transform the fortunes of its director Fred Zinnemann, whose career had languished since being put under contract by MGM. His name was still so unfamiliar that, in his autobiography, he grumbled that “people were under the impression that I was a Swiss director who had just been imported by MGM from Europe – a full 19 years after I had first arrived in America.”5 As a documentarian by training (he had been an assistant to Robert Flaherty) and as a European by birth (he was born in Vienna of Jewish parents), he was an ideal choice to direct a project inspired by Lazar Wechsler’s admiration for Therese Bonney’s book, Europe’s Children, and his desire to alert American audiences to the depth of human suffering in postwar Europe, particularly that of starving children, many of whom had come out of concretion camps and lost contact with their families. These ‘unaccompanied children’, as they were known, had been taken under the wing of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Zinnemann and his team spent months visiting the children in displaced persons’ camps and hearing the harrowing accounts of their experience. How to forge an absorbing narrative out of these appalling case histories? Unable to participate in the first-hand research because he was ill with pneumonia in Zurich, the writer Richard Schweizer (who had scripted The Last Chance) came up with a solution: ‘Why don’t we make a story about a mother who has lost track of her little boy and is looking for him all over Germany; and the child has forgotten his name and lost his speech and is picked up by a soldier?’6 Schweizer was to win an Oscar for his motion picture story in collaboration with David Wechsler (Lazar’s son), and they were also to be nominated for best screenplay. In what seemed like a logical continuance of this experience, David Wechsler was later assigned to write the story for The Village. One imagines he saw the challenge as akin to that of The Search: how to come up with a narrative which arose naturally from its post-war background; would engage an audience’s interest; and, in this case, one that did justice to the Pestalozzi project, but without sentimentalizing or simplifying some of the difficulties and disappointments it had to face and endure.

A trio of talents

Lazar Wechsler succeeded in assembling a formidable team of screenwriters – Kurt Fruh, Elizabeth Montagu and Peter Viertel – for the film. All of them had worked on previous Wechsler productions. An assistant director on Leopold Lindtberg’s Four Men in A Jeep (1951) and on The Village, Kurt Fruh was a theatre and film director, writer and actor of great renown who is widely credited as being Switzerland’s most popular film director. Peter Viertel was a novelist and screenwriter well known to cineastes for his work on such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), John Huston’s We Were Strangers (1949) and later, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and most particularly for his novel, White Hunter, Black Heart (1953), inspired by the making of John Huston’s film of The African Queen (1951). Viertel’s Wechsler connection came with the making of The Search, for he had been involved in the early preparatory research and, according to Fred Zinnemann, was responsible for recommending the then unknown Montgomery Clift for the leading role of the American soldier. As for Elizabeth Montagu, it would be virtually impossible to summarize the life and career of this extraordinary woman in a few sentences.7 Among other things her life encompassed training at RADA; working for the stage and film; being personal assistant to Arturo Toscanini on his conducting assignments in London, an ambulance driver in France during World War Two before fleeing to Switzerland, an operative for the American Secret Service, and a story editor and business administrator for Alexander Korda, during which time she became Graham Greene’s escort in Vienna when he was collecting research for The Third Man (she is credited as being an Austrian adviser on that film). Prior to that, her most fulfilling film experience, according to Timmermann, was working on The Last Chance; and before The Village, she was to co-direct, with Leopold Lindtberg, Four Men in a Jeep, which, like The Third Man, takes place against the background of a post-war Vienna divided into four separate zones and tells the story of four soldiers of different nationalities – American, Russian, British and French – who come together in an attempt to help a woman in the search for her husband missing after the war. It won the Golden Bear at the 1951 Berlin Film Festival. Overall, then, it would be hard to imagine a team of writers better qualified, in terms of empathy and experience, for a project like The Village.

The opening of the film: a sense of belonging

“I only know it is where I belong.” The off-screen narrator of these lines at the start of the film is an English teacher, Alan Manning (John Justin), who is speaking of Pestalozzi village. Ironically it is a conclusion rather than a beginning, for the story is about to be told in flashback; and one could see Manning’s words as a belated self-realization. Although the film begins in an atmosphere of festivity, this will be offset somewhat by the sight of Manning, accompanied by a young girl, Anya (Krystyna Bragiel), placing a simple wreath beside a gravestone. It sets a tone of melancholy that anticipates what is to follow. In this respect, it makes an interesting comparison with The Search. Although Zinnemann’s film is more harrowing in its imagery and arguably a more powerful emotional experience than The Village, it ends happily and on a note of hope for the future, whereas the ending of The Village is more uncertain and equivocal, its idealism clouded and subdued by occurrences both personal and political.

The first crisis is an internal one. Should German children be allowed to join the village community? Manning, who at that stage is shortly due to take up another post, is all for it, at least as an experiment to see what will happen. However, he is vigorously opposed by another member of the team, Wanda (Eva Dahlberg), who is fearful of the effect on the other children, believes it is too soon for them to accept this integration, and is scathing of Manning’s advocacy when, as she says, he will be leaving in a few weeks anyway and will not have to live with the consequences. Rather taken aback by her hostility, Manning asks Wanda afterwards what was behind it. In reply she takes him to observe a silent Polish boy, Andrzej (Voytek Delinski), who is still deeply traumatized by his experience of escaping from the Warsaw ghetto and just stares obsessively out of the window in mortal fear of the Germans’ return. His drawings are a visual representation of what he remembers and a kind of diagrammatic evocation of his internal torment. Manning is duly shocked; and the moment will be a portent of events which will bring back those horrors to the forefront of the boy’s memory.

In the event, the decision will be made by the children, for, when called into a meeting, they are unanimous in not wanting the German children in their midst: German brutality, after all, is responsible for where they are. Yet the situation is not resolved, and will flare up again when Anya, comforted by Manning at the station when separated from her foster parents, has followed him to Pestalozzi. Under the mistaken impression that she is German, the children band together in their determination to drive her out of the village. It is one of the film’s most powerful sequences. As Bosley Crowther described it, “the latent resentment of the children against the German girl bursts into flame and almost leads to disaster”, with a chase that, as he wrote, “bristles with terror and irony”.8 She will be discovered in a barn by Manning, who will severely upbraid the children for their unthinking cruelty. Before that, however, she is protected and sheltered by Andrzej, whom we surmise has empathized with her terror at the pursuing mob and rushed to her rescue. A bond is established between them, which will form the basis of the film’s exciting and tragic finale.

A doomed love

Although Bosley Crowther had admired the first twenty minutes of the film, he felt that after Anya had been absorbed into the community, the drama, as he put it, “flattens out into a listless undulation of romantic conflicts and concerns” and he found the “grown-up romance” between Manning and Wanda “drab”.9 The casting is somewhat unusual. Eva Dahlbeck would have been unknown to many film viewers at the time, but she was to become an arthouse favourite through her performances in several films of Ingmar Bergman, who was to describe her as “incomparable”; and it might be that modern viewers would be tempted to reassess her performance in that light. Fresh from what was to prove his finest hour on film as the test pilot in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), John Justin as Manning now looks like almost an archetypal 1950s English gentleman, well-spoken, decent, sincere, perhaps a little pompous, but whose judgment is sometimes fallible (which might explain the retrospective melancholy). It seems to me a little simplistic to describe the upcoming “conflicts and concerns” as “romantic”. What will develop between the two is a conflict of priorities and their relationship will be tested (and finally destroyed) by a conflict between the personal and the political, between romance and realism, and perhaps also between selfishness and selflessness.

During a field trip with the children, in which they have come across a wedding taking place inside a castle, their feelings for each other have come to the surface and have been quickened perhaps by twin anxieties: by Manning’s possible departure from the village; and by Wanda’s return to Poland for an indefinite period on an education course. Will they see each other again? In Wanda’s absence, Manning completes the rehearsals for a concert she has been preparing and is initially overjoyed that her return is earlier than expected so he can tell her of his decision to stay. However, the joy will rapidly turn to dismay when he sees that she is accompanied by a government official carrying an order from the Polish government that the Polish children must be returned to their native country. Wanda has been put in charge of a children’s house in Warsaw and must return with them. In an ensuing argument with Manning when Wanda is insisting that she cannot desert the children, he responds: “They’ll forget you in a few weeks: I won’t.” Is that just the petulant outburst of a disappointed lover or does he really believe that? It was not Fred Zinnemann’s experience when he was returning to the camps to continue his research on The Search. “The children were still enormously disturbed and in need of personal affection,” he wrote. “They desperately longed for someone who belonged only to them, who they could call their own.”10 It appears that Manning still has some leaning to do. As if to reinforce the point, in his haste to speak to Wanda after the concert, he brushes heedlessly past Anya who is clearly distressed at the prospect of being separated from Andrzej and is anxious to speak to him. The consequence of his momentary callousness (putting his own feelings before those of the children in his charge) will be severe, for, in his absence, Anya and Andrzej will escape together into the woods and into a nightmare.

Finale: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”

Unlike Bosley Crowther, I find the final part of the film just as involving as the opening. The editing is particularly good, cutting nimbly between foreground and background: the actual concert performance whose surface high spirits are being undercut by urgent phone calls behind the scenes and whispered rumours circulating in the audience; the village carnival, whose raucous gaiety and firework explosions are crosscut with the growing anguish of Andrzej as he hides in the castle cellar with Anya. As the carnival fireworks start exploding like gunshots, a stunning superimposition of Andrzej’s drawings across a large close-up of his terror-stricken face seems to take us inside the boy’s consciousness, with the cacophony of noise summoning up memories too awful to control and contain: it will precipitate his fatal fall. Before his death, he will ask: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”

The film’s coda is noticeably subdued, as if the community is still in shock from Andrzej’s death. It adds an extra weight of sadness to the imminent departure of the Polish children from the security of Pestalozzi to an uncertain future. The camerawork is commendably discreet here, as if disinclined to underline the palpable sense of sorrow in the air with any hint of sentimentality or melodrama. So the farewell kiss of Manning and Wanda (for it is unlikely they will meet again) is seen not in close-up but in long shot from her room window by Anya, and is all the more effective from that perspective because the departure is overlaid by Anya’s lingering grief for Andrzej. The camera is similarly positioned for the film’s last shot, as Manning sees through the window a lone boy standing in the square, as if in search of the sanctuary the village provides. He goes down to greet him; the work goes on.

Conclusion

Thinking back about Richard Winnington’s rave review of the Lazar Wechsler and Leopold Lundtbeg production, The Last Chance, I was struck by his observation that “it is the first time in any film made about this war that compassion is all-important.”11 “Compassion” is a difficult word and sometimes inappropriately used, but it is applicable to The Village, which could be seen as exemplifying what the great Victorian novelist George Eliot saw as the moral purpose of any work of art: that is, to enlarge human sympathies. For all his cavils about what he saw as the film’s inadequacies, Bosley Crowther did acknowledge that the film’s intentions “were fine and generous”. In today’s world, that might go a long way. The Village is a still-relevant film about children in need and about the hope for a kinder world where nations can reach out a helping hand to the helpless and the homeless. It might not represent an advance in cinematics, but it should hopefully stir a few consciences.

Neil Sinyard

The UK equivalent of a Pestalozzi community was launched in 1959 and located on a 170-acre property in East Sussex. For more information, consult the following website: www.earlypestalozzichildren.org.uk .

Sources cited:
James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967.
Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Bosley Crowther, ‘Review: The Village’, New York Times, 23 September, 1953.
Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, revised edition, Spring Books, 1967.
Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005.
Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975.
Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992.

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.


  1. Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 23 September 1953. 

  2. Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema , revised edition, Spring Books 1967, p. 752. 

  3. Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975, p. 167. 

  4. The Nation, 4 November 1945. James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967. 

  5. Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992, p. 73. 

  6. Ibid., p.61. 

  7. For a valuable brief biography, see Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005, p. 105. 

  8. Crowther. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Zinnemann, p. 59. 

  11. Winnington, p. 167. 

Strictly Danziger: Tarnished Heroes (1961)

“You must be disgracefully bad not to have worked with the Danzigers.” (Geoffrey Bayldon, actor)

“When working on a film for the exploitation director/producer Harry Alan Towers, an actor was told to crouch down. Instructed to crouch lower, he protested he was as low as he could get. Came the voice of the cameraman: ‘You should be working for the Danzigers!’” (Leslie Halliwell)1

Introduction

“Notorious” is the first word that appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s entry on the Danziger Brothers in Brian McFarlane’s Encyclopedia of British Film.2 By contrast, “legendary” is the word the actor Dermot Walsh used when recalling his work on several of their productions. For filmgoers who regularly populated British cinemas in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the name “Danziger” was synonymous with a certain species of B-movie preceding the main feature, lasting around 6o minutes and offering entertaining monochrome melodrama of comforting modesty and reliable mediocrity. For film students and historians of that era of British film, however, they could now fairly be regarded as something of a cultural phenomenon. Leslie Halliwell referred dismissively to their production of “hundreds of second features and TV episodes” and remarked that “hardly any [were] worth recalling”.3 If the Danzigers’ emphasis was indisputably on quantity rather than quality, Halliwell’s judgment nevertheless seems harsh overall; and one of their features that is certainly worth recalling is Tarnished Heroes.

The Brothers Danziger

Who were the Danziger brothers? Richard Lester, who directed some episodes for their television series featuring a private detective called Mark Sabre (played by the one-armed actor Donald Gray), remembered them as resembling little white mice in appearance but being distinctively different in temperament: one all mildness and charm, the other mean and menacing. Their early lives had certainly been different. Edward J Danziger (1904-99) had studied law and had been an assistant at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, whilst younger brother Harry Lee Danziger (1913-2005) had taken courses in music at the New York Academy. They had teamed up in the mid-1940s in New York, dubbing foreign films into English. Arriving in England in the early 1950s, they set about producing a string of low-budget material for the cinema and television, renting space from a variety of British film studios for the purpose. Undoubtedly their most memorable feature from this era was Devil Girl from Mars (1954), in which a leather-clad female Martian, equipped with ray gun and accompanied by bargain-basement robot, descends on a Scottish inn with the intention of taking healthy males back to Mars where there is a shortage. At the time even that most rigorous of film magazines, the BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin was bewitched by its madness, suggesting that “there is really no fault in this film that one would like to see eliminated.”4

In 1956 they acquired a property in Hertfordshire that had previously been used during wartime as a factory for aero-engine testing and set up their own studio there, calling it New Elstree Studios. It consisted of a production headquarters, six sound stages, and a seven-acre backlot that could be deployed for exterior filming. Between 1956 and 1961, they were to produce countless productions for television, including two series of 39 half-hour episodes, and around 60 hour-long features to fit into the supporting slot of a double-feature programme.

When the head of Ealing Studios, Michael Balcon, used to talk of the team spirit which existed there, director Alexander Mackendrick would wryly remark that “team spirit” was synonymous with low pay. That philosophy was even more pronounced at the Danziger studios. Economy was all. Half-hour episodes for television were allotted two-and-a-half days for filming and no more. An hour-long feature film would be given 8 to 10 days of shooting, with budgets that very rarely exceeded £15,000 to £17,000 per movie. Anyone rash enough to request a pay rise would be promptly shown the door.

Yet it was employment; and over this period, the studio provided jobs for around 200 technical and administrative staff. It also began to gather a sort of repertory company of seasoned professionals in their own sphere who, whilst recognizing it would not make them rich, nevertheless enjoyed the continuity of work and liked the studio atmosphere, for the Danzigers had a rare and much appreciated quality amongst film producers: they never interfered. Accomplished actors such as Dermot Walsh, Francis Matthews and Trader Faulkner made regular appearances; Jimmy Simpson was their most trusted cameraman; and directing chores were shared between the likes of people such as Godfrey Grayson, Max Varnel, Ernest Morris and others, whose names never became well-known even to film scholars but who could be relied on to deliver what was required. Ernest Morris deserves a special mention, for he is not included in the BFI’s supposedly comprehensive 2006 publication devoted to British and Irish directors, and yet he directed 18 films for the Danzigers as well as other movies and was respected by his actors and crew as a competent, considerate film maker. Then at the start of a distinguished screenwriting career, Brian Clemens worked for the Danzigers for four years, becoming in effect their resident staff writer. He recalled being told by the brothers that there was no mystique to writing; you just sat down at a desk and did it. That might seem simplistic, but, in essence, it was the same as Mark Twain’s basic rule for writing (“Apply seat of pants to chair”) and Clemens found it valuable advice.

At the beginning of the 1960s, even the critics were noticing an improvement of quality and an increase in ambition in the Danziger product. Films that attracted attention included a creditable adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (Ernest Morris, 1960), starring Dermot Walsh and Laurence Payne; a film version of Agatha Christie’s stage success, The Spider’s Web (Godfrey Grayson, 1960), starring Glynis Johns, which was released as a main feature; and So Evil, So Young (Godfrey Grayson, 1960), where Jill Ireland suffered the torments of the unjustly accused in a girls’ reformatory. Another Godfrey Grayson film, The Pursuers (1961), developed into a standard hunted man scenario, but its context was interesting, the pursued individual being an ex-Nazi war criminal hiding (amongst others) under the cloak of respectability in post war Britain. Unusually for a British film of the time, the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust were explicitly evoked. (Did Edward Danziger’s first-hand knowledge of the Nuremberg trials come into play here?) The Silent Invasion (Max Varnel, 1961) was a thriller set in a small French village during the Nazi Occupation and explored the emotional conflict which arises when the sister of an executed young Frenchman, assigned to seduce the German officer in command into unwittingly disclosing information she can relay to the French Resistance, finds herself falling in love with him. The ending delivers a visual sleight-of-hand that is deft and deceptive. The film at this time which particularly exemplified the Danziger product at its best was Tarnished Heroes.

Tarnished and afraid

The film’s title is intriguing. One presumes it was the invention of its writer Brian Clemens, but what was the inspiration? There is a famous passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1944), which as a thriller writer, Clemens would probably have known, where Chandler is describing the character of his detective hero Philip Marlowe and writes: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”5 The ‘heroes’ of the Danziger film are both tarnished and afraid. Or might the inspiration have been Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957), a title Sirk much preferred to that of the source novel on which it was based, William Faulkner’s Pylon? Any connection between the two films is speculative, since the milieu of Sirk’s movie is obviously very different – the lives of performing flyers in Depression America – and one is not suggesting comparability in terms of ambition and accomplishment. Nevertheless, it is curious that the themes that Sirk identified in his film as of particular interest to him – what he called “the irony of heroism” and “loyalty to a lost cause” – are not dissimilar to those that will predominate in Tarnished Heroes.6

The most striking aspect of the narrative, however, is the way it anticipated by a good six years the theme of Robert Aldrich’s smash hit of 1967, The Dirty Dozen: that is, a suicide mission behind enemy lines in wartime undertaken by a motley array of condemned men. In the Danziger film, these are thieves, drunks, cowards and deserters, who are, in Army terms, expendable and who have, in their own terms, little to lose, since they are facing lengthy imprisonment or a possible firing squad. Their commander, Major Bell (Dermot Walsh) addresses them as “dregs” and describes the mission as “a last opportunity to show you’re worth something”. The irony of his situation is that he is no more likely to survive than they are. In fact, his choice of action is not much different from theirs: either lead this dirty half-dozen reprobates and outcasts (plus a distinguished but mysteriously disillusioned officer who has joined the ranks of deserters) or, when told strategic withdrawal is out of the question, stay behind to defend at all costs an army position unlikely to withstand the German advance.

Mission Expendable

Tarnished Heroes was filmed in around ten days in the studio and on the backlot of New Elstree studios and, for the bridge sequence, at Tykes Water Lake, Aldenham Country Park in Hertfordshire. Having economically established characters and situation in the opening scenes, the film settles into an ostensibly conventional patrol movie, in the tradition of something like Harry Watt’s Nine Men (1943) and, anticipating by a year or two, more prestigious high-profile Hollywood movies in the same vein as Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (1962) and Roger Corman’s The Secret Invasion (1964). The storytelling is brisk, and the action scenes are well staged. The destruction of a bridge, which is transporting supplies to the German army, inspires a sequence which excitingly crosscuts between three different planes of action: the planting of the explosives, the killing of the Germans on guard, and the approach of the supply column itself. The soundtrack is effective, even piquantly catching the occasional sound of birdsong as the men trudge their way across fields and towards the bridge: after all, this might be the last time in their lives they will hear that sound. The tension is maintained not simply through the danger of the mission and the hazardous sheltering inside a church as the men ponder a route back to safety, but also through rebellion within. This is inflamed by a disgruntled and volatile member of the group, Tom Mason (Maurice Kaufmann), who hates the Army, appears anti-authoritarian by nature (the very word “Sir” seems anathema to him), and thinks Major Bell’s strategy of escape is a recipe for disaster. Although the film does not endorse Mason’s surly insubordination, which borders on treachery (at one stage he even looks on as a German soldier is about to attack Major Bell from behind), his emotions are at least understandable, arising from a desperate will to live rather than what seems to him a resigned submission to one’s fate.

In fact, one of the things that lifts the film above the conventional is its attention to detail in motivation and performance. The demoted Irish sergeant, Riley, whose love of the bottle has brought about his military disgrace, might seem something of a cliché, but the part is played with real swagger by that fine character actor Patrick McAlliney; and there is a nice narrative twist near the end whereby his addiction to drink will come to his aid and save his life, as he has earlier saved Major Bell’s. The discovery of a young Frenchwoman Josette (Sheila Whittingham) hiding in the church crypt with her dying uncle might seem to introduce an unnecessary romantic distraction, but a conversation she shares with Major Bell is acted sensitively enough to avoid sentimentality and expand the film’s emotional range, as they share a wistful remembrance of past times and a tentative hope for a better future after what she calls this “lousy” war.

This “lousy” war

Two responses to this “lousy” war are particularly noticeable in the opening scene when the Army prisoners climb out of the van in a small French town but are told to “Get down!” as there is a sudden explosion nearby. One of them, Conyers (Anton Rodgers), remains cowering in terror after the danger has passed and Major Bell orders him sharply to “get up!” before realizing what he is looking at: not a snivelling soldier, but a shell-shocked one. “It’s all over,” he says to Conyers quietly; a lot is said about both characters in that moment. At the other extreme, when the explosion has occurred, Hoyt (Hugh David) has remained on his feet and must be shouted at again to get down before obeying orders. Only later do we discover the reason for this. Awaiting a fresh assault on the church by the Germans (“They won’t be in the mood to take prisoners” we are told later), Hoyt seems almost to welcome oncoming Death, for, as an officer, he has found the guilt of leadership impossible to live with and it has prompted his desertion. “They were my responsibility,” he tells Bell about the deaths of the men he commanded whilst he remained unharmed. “The stench of death was all around me… I couldn’t stand the responsibility of seeing one more of my own men die.” The speech is finely acted and carries some weight because there is a sense that Major Bell is close to the same realization. “My responsibility,” he murmurs as he comes across the dead body of Hoyt after the raid. At moments like this, the film quietly exposes some ugly truths about war, about sacrifice and survival, about orders and responsibility, and about the human toll it takes on ordinary lives, numerically and psychologically.

“How many medals are you trying to get?” Mason has asked Major Bell contemptuously as they have set off on their assignment. He has misread the situation and the man, for if medals are to be won, the Major expects them to be posthumous. He even refers to himself as “the late Major Bell” at one stage. If this had been a British A-war movie at the time, the role of the commander might have been given to an actor like Richard Todd or Kenneth More, calm under fire, clean-shaven, and with stiff-upper-lip firmly in place. There is none of that in Dermot Walsh’s Major Bell, who is unshaven, short-tempered, disheveled (he has not slept for three days), war-weary, entirely shorn of false nobility, a professional soldier to the last but bitterly fatalistic about what he clearly perceives might well be his last mission. Walsh’s edgy, urgent performance drives the film forward and catches its troubled spirit.

Conclusion

On completion of Tarnished Heroes (which went on to be an international hit), the Danzigers moved straight on to making the popular television series, Richard the Lionheart (1961), with Dermot Walsh in the title role, and whose 39 half-hour episodes were shot in the space of 26 weeks. They then used some of the sets, costumes and props from that series on what was to prove their final film, The Spanish Sword (1961), after which production came to a halt. The Danzigers, it seems, had decided to return to running their luxury hotels in London (the Mayfair) and Monte Carlo. The studio was closed and converted into a storage warehouse in 1965 before being later demolished.

Theirs was surely one of the strangest interventions in British film production history. Their productivity was astounding, yet comparatively short-lived and fundamentally mysterious, because they were essentially entrepreneurs who seemed to have little interest in film other than as a commodity they could make cheaply and sell as programme fillers. Often critically derided for their shoddy products, they nevertheless were remembered with affection by employees and provided a useful training ground for new talent. A young Richard Lester worked for them before moving on to making feature films; Nicolas Roeg was a focus puller on some of the television features. When an asthmatic, penniless and blacklisted Joseph Losey arrived in the UK as an exile from Hollywood during the McCarthy years, it was the Danzigers who proved his early saviour, paying him £100 a week in cash under the table (in order to avoid tax) if he would supervise and occasionally direct a television series for them, providing he would agree that his name should not appear on the credits. Losey was only too willing to oblige: the series, he said, was “absolutely appalling, but it was work”, and was essentially what he lived on whilst he set about trying to re-build his career. Brian Clemens observed that, after working for the Danzigers, nothing ever fazed him in his future writing career. He thought of them as “a force for good”, and, for all their cost-cutting limitations, it is a judgment that stands. One might even see them as tarnished heroes of the British B-movie scene.

Neil Sinyard

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.


  1. Leslie Halliwell, Who’s Who in the Movies, 13th edition, 1999. 

  2. Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film 5th edition, 2021. 

  3. Leslie Halliwell, Filmgoers Companion

  4. Review, Monthly Film Bulletin

  5. My italics. 

  6. Sirk on Sirk, S&W, 1971. 

“I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight strong limbs, not too large; tall and well-shaped; […] I made him know his name would be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I likewise taught him to say Master and then let him know that was to be my name.” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)

Crusoe: “I don’t look upon you as a slave.”
Friday: “Then what am I?”
Crusoe: “You’re an ignorant savage!”
(Peter O’Toole as Crusoe and Richard Roundtree as Friday in Man Friday)

Introduction: Footprint in the sand

It is one of the most famous moments in English literature: “It happened one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition…”1 The sole survivor of a shipwreck a dozen or so years before and stranded on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe had over time adjusted to his isolation and constructed shelters that would ensure his survival. It is a considerable shock, therefore, to discover he is not alone. The prospect petrifies him.

Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is recognized as a literary landmark: one of the first great novels to create a realistic imaginative world, tell a fascinating story, point a moral, invest an ordinary character with the stature of myth, and invest this fictional tale with the impression of autobiographical authenticity. (It is worth noting incidentally that, in the novel, the discovery of the footprint does not occur until halfway through the narrative and Friday does not make an appearance in the text until 50 pages and two years after that.) Luis Buñuel had made an impressive film adaptation, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) with Dan O’Herlihy giving an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance as Crusoe. However, in 1973, the poet and dramatist Adrian Mitchell had the idea of writing a play which re-told the familiar story from the point of view of Friday. In some ways it was part of a literary vogue of the time where classics of the past were being reinterpreted from a different perspective: for example, Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), had revisited the story of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester’s ill-fated first wife, Bertha, and Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (1967), offered a new slant on Shakespeare’s Hamlet by seeing the drama through the eyes of two of its minor characters. Peter O’Toole had seen Mitchell’s play and liked it very much. With his production partner, Jules Buck, he had bought the rights for their independent production company Keep Films, securing additional funding from the television tycoon, Lew Grade. Jack Gold was assigned to direct.

Production and reception

Apart from some work in Shepperton studios, most of the filming took place over a period of five weeks on location in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. At that time best known for his performance as a private eye in the title role of Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree was cast in the role of Friday. By all accounts the filming went smoothly; and it was particularly memorable for Gold, for it gave him the opportunity to meet one of his cinematic heroes, director John Huston, who was a friend of O’Toole and who at that time lived near enough to join them for dinner one evening. On completion, the film was chosen as the official British entry at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where it was well received, but it fared less well on release with critics and the general public. In 1978, Gold said that “we did Man Friday, in which in the Crusoe-Friday situation all Crusoe’s beliefs were challenged by Friday, and it was done as in a fairy tale and in song etc. It didn’t go down well at all.”2

Reasons for the film’s critical and commercial failure have been attributed to a variety of causes. Critics seemed to think the contrast between the two main characters was overly facile; audiences were thrown by its revisionist take on a classic tale; and critics and audiences alike were bemused by the film’s disconcerting mélange of moods and modes, as it moved between tragedy, comedy, song and dance, horror and despair. The distributors also had some trepidation over the film’s downbeat ending. Nevertheless Jack Gold, a fine director not given to blowing his own trumpet, declared that “I am very proud of the film”, which suggests that he felt he had broadly accomplished what he had set out to do.

A collision of cultures

At the beginning of the film and prior to his discovery of the footprint, Crusoe has been reading aloud from the Bible and particularly relishing the phrase about God’s giving man “dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” as if his situation on the deserted island strikes him as being analogous to that. Since Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Peter O’Toole had made something of a specialty of playing somewhat deranged or egocentric personalities with a tenuous grip on sanity and who believe they are monarchs of all they survey. This concept of Crusoe fits him like a glove. No wonder Crusoe is alarmed by evidence of another presence on what he believes is “his” island. When he sees smoke in the distance, he goes to investigate, but then will misinterpret what he sees. As in the novel, Crusoe thinks he has rescued Friday from cannibals, shooting them “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”, as he says; and he believes he should thence be viewed by Friday as his saviour. “I have saved your life,” he tells him, and adds he will go on to “save your benighted soul.” However, as Friday tells his tribe what has happened in his flashback narration, a completely different picture emerges. Following a storm during a fishing expedition, Friday and his four companions have been washed up on the shore. Discovering that one of them has died from his injuries, they prepare a meal of the dead man’s body in tribute to their friend and “so we could take some of the spirit of that man to the future with us.” In fact, when Crusoe approaches with his musket, one of Friday’s friends with a welcoming gesture beckons him to join them, only for Crusoe to start firing.

Whatever the motivation of rescue, Crusoe’s action is sudden and brutal. The powerful visual emphasis given to the impact of the bullet carries the implication that Friday has never in his life encountered such an extreme example of the effect of violence. The image will resonate in his mind (it will recur in a nightmare and at a later point when Crusoe will ask to join his tribe), and in some ways will define the ensuing relationship and the conflict between the two men. This is emphasized when Crusoe has decided to teach Friday the English language (it is significant that he never for one moment considers learning Friday’s language) but is having some difficulty in explaining the difference between the meaning of “mine” and “yours”. Crusoe gives, as an example, “this gun is mine”. “Yes, Master,” replies Friday pointedly, “I know that.” Earlier, when he has been teaching Friday to say the name he has given him, Crusoe says, “You Friday. Me… Master.” O’Toole delivers the line with a thoughtful pause between the words “Me” and “Master”, as if momentarily deliberating on what to say. After all, Crusoe could have told him his actual name, but instead he chooses a name that, in his eyes, defines the relationship between them. This will be at the root of all the problems that follow, for it is an assumption of superiority that will prove to be a delusion.

“A fable for our times”?

Paul Newland summarized the main themes as follows: “The film effectively reverses the roles of Crusoe and Friday. Here Crusoe is a blunt Englishman while Man Friday is an altogether more intelligent figure. As such, Man Friday operates as a critique of colonization and Western imperialism, but also as an examination of contemporary race relations.”3 The earlier review in Time Out had taken a similar line but in a more hostile vein: “Turning the familiar Crusoe/Man Friday story on its head,” the review stated, “this version becomes a straightforward confrontation between instinctive lithe and beautiful Black versus repressed, guilt-ridden and mottled White: a fable for our times. But too seldom does this Crusoe become anything more than a one-dimensional knock-down figure, and O’Toole’s noisy strangled performance is disastrously wide of the mark.”4 Yet Defoe himself is not averse to knocking down Crusoe at times. Although the novel is narrated in the first person, Defoe does not always expect us to take Crusoe at his own elevated evaluation, sometimes implicitly puncturing his pomposity, particularly when his hero is taking a lordly attitude towards Friday’s religious education but finding Friday a more astute student than he had anticipated. When he is telling Friday how much stronger God is than the Devil, Friday counters: “But if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?”5 Crusoe never does find a satisfactory answer to that one. And, whatever the Time Out critic might think of O’Toole’s performance, there is little doubt that O’Toole delivered the kind of broad strokes that Gold thought the material required. As well as song, dance and slapstick comedy, Gold said, the performance “had to have great touches of sensitivity and self-examination. He could do the gamut, there’s no question how efficient Peter was.”6

O’Toole’s Crusoe is nicely complemented by Richard Rowntree’s intelligent and well-conceived performance as Friday. It is striking, for example, how he is almost entirely serious in his scenes with his tribe, whereas the persona he adopts with Crusoe, particularly in the early stages, tends to be more ingratiating and playful, as if recognizing alertness and adjustment to his Master’s volatile temperament, which he has seen at first hand (and will again) will be vital to his survival. When he is back with his tribe, he can reflect on the experience and conclude that Crusoe has learnt nothing and should not be allowed to educate the native children and infect them with his “sickness” of “power and guilt and fear”. Friday might even have caught that “sickness” himself.

“A fable for our times”, i.e. the mid- 1970s’, as the Time Out review claimed? Not entirely. Although the material would inevitably evoke parallels with attitudes at the time to race relations and colonial history, Gold was insistent that this was not the primary aim. It was more important to him that he was dealing with a story that was set in the past, so that he could look more closely at the origins of prejudice through the meeting between single individuals and invite an audience to ponder: what is the problem? “It wasn’t intelligent white man and ignorant savage,” he said, “it was intelligent white man with a very intelligent and cultured, in his own way, black man.” Crusoe’s culturally conditioned assumption of supremacy (as opposed to equality, say, or even simple friendship) is thus misguided from the outset.

“Sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, but always […] entertaining”

Although Gold shared Adrian Mitchell’s left-wing sympathies and was in agreement with the political thrust of the material, Man Friday was never intended as a polemical film, more an adventure with moral and philosophical undertones. The trailer is revealing, for the voice-over narration says the behaviour of the two main characters is “sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, but always […] entertaining,” as if endeavouring to reassure potential customers. Audiences would (then and now) probably be tempted to assess the film according to how effectively it balances those three propositions, or whether one or the other predominates. The film undoubtedly has its funny moments. Crusoe’s appearance and surroundings are a sight to behold, skilfully replicating a moment in the novel when he concedes that his clothes “were wretchedly made, for if I was a bad carpenter, I was an even worse tailor.”7 The increasingly tattered flag in his compound sardonically symbolizes his diminishing moral authority. During his education of Friday into the ways of civilization, he tells him solemnly that “there’s nothing funny about England”, but he has difficulty in justifying that when teaching Friday what sport is about, particularly when the games are intercut with what seem to be quizzical reactions from Crusoe’s parrot, Poll. My favourite comedy moment (delightfully acted by O’Toole) occurs when Crusoe returns to his hut to be confronted by a newly baptized Poll who parrots the phrase “Hallowed be thy name” as Crusoe enters. He is so taken aback (“Did you teach him the Lord’s Prayer?” he asks Friday incredulously) that he seems blithely unaware that his two visitors on the island, Captain Carey (Peter Cellier) and his First Mate McBain (Christopher Cabot) are commanders of a slave ship and secretly eyeing up Crusoe and Friday as potentially lucrative captives.

Yet Poll’s fate is one of the film’s most shocking moments (and different from Defoe’s novel, where the parrot will accompany Crusoe on his final departure from the island). When Poll has croaked earlier, “I love you, I love you”, Crusoe has told it brusquely to “shut up”. Now when it repeats the phrase, a crazed and self-loathing Crusoe (“I am a vile king from a vile earth!” he rages) abruptly blasts it to pieces, its bloody feathers drifting ironically and reproachfully across a blackboard headed by the word “Civilisation”. Poll is the fifth victim of Crusoe’s murderous eruptions in the film, none of which is retaliatory. In his story Mitchell will describe this mood that afflicts Crusoe as “a great wave of anger-poison”8

The sadness comes from a man who is beginning to sense his own loneliness and hollowness. When he joins Friday on what Friday calls Sorrow Day, he is told, “You must stare into the dirt to see the faces of those you have lost”. When Friday does so, he can see the children of his tribe, but when Crusoe tries, he sees nothing, the inference being that he is staring into an abyss that is staring back into him. He begins to weep (and O’Toole always claimed that, at moments of extreme emotion, he could make his tears come out horizontally) and in long shot we see that Friday puts his hand on Crusoe’s shoulder to comfort him. It is a very moving moment not so much because of the gesture itself as the fact that Crusoe does not resist. Earlier he has recoiled with horror at the prospect of being touched by another man, but his self-protection is disintegrating. He has earlier said also that “killing myself” would be “a crime before God”, which makes the ending not just sad, but tragic.

Conclusion

When Gold said of Man Friday that “it was done as in a fairy tale”,9 one might query whether that quite comes across in the finished film. To achieve that extra dimension of fantasy, does it need a touch of surreal whimsy and zaniness to give it the kind of lift that a director like, say, Richard Lester (who was at one time interested in acquiring the property) or Terry Gilliam might have provided? How one responds to its flying sequences (liberating or leaden?) might influence whether one feels the film sometimes soars or remains earth-bound. Nevertheless, at the very least it offers a stimulatingly oblique and iconoclastic take on a venerated classic that prompts a re-examination from a modern perspective of the text’s assumptions about race, religion, colonization and so-called civilization. In this respect, the film it reminds me of most is Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a radical and revisionist interpretation that is by far the most interesting and challenging screen adaptation of any Austen novel in my experience. “I like to think with all the things I’ve done,” Gold said once, “that people will come away with a little more awareness of life around them”. With that in mind, one can see why Man Friday was an important film for him; and why, despite audience indifference and the critical brickbats, he was proud to have made it.

Neil Sinyard

Sources Consulted
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719), Bantam edition, 1981.
Adrian Mitchell, Man Friday, Futura Publications Ltd, 1975.
Paul Newland, British Films of the 1970s, Manchester University Press, 2013.
Robert Sellers, Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, Pan Books, 2016.
Sheila Whitaker, ‘Interview with Jack Gold’, Framework, Issue 9, Winter, 1978/79, pp.38-41.

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.


  1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Bantam, 1981, p. 136. Originally published in 1719. All page numbers in this essay are taken from this 1981 Bantam edition. 

  2. Jack Gold, quoted in Sheila Whitaker, ‘Interview with Jack Gold’, Framework, Issue 9, Winter, 1978/79, pp.38-41. 

  3. Paul Newland, British Films of the 1970s, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, p. 111. 

  4. Review, Time Out. My italics. 

  5. Defoe, p. 196. 

  6. Robert Sellers, Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, Pan Books, 2016, p. 215. 

  7. Defoe, p. 125. 

  8. Adrian Mitchell, Man Friday, Futura Publications Ltd, 1975, p. 139. 

  9. Quoted in Whitaker. 

A dangerous liaison: Stephen Frears’s Bloody Kids (1980)

“Over the years Frears has refined a magical instinct for just how long we want to see a face and how long a scene needs to be. If he could bottle this instinct, it could be called “Essence of Moviemaking”.”- Pauline Kael1

Interviewer: “Would you say that your films show a concern for people living on society’s fringes?”
Stephen Frears: “It would never cross my mind, but now you come to mention it…”

The opening

It is dead of night, and the sound of a crash is heard. Emerging out of the darkness, 11-year-old Leo (Richard Thomas) chances upon a scene of pure carnage, which, we will come to recognise, could stand as a symbolic representation of his vision of a broken-down grown-up world. A serious traffic accident has occurred, in which a lorry appears to have careered off a flyover and caused significant damage and serious injury below. The police, rescue workers and interested bystanders are already at the scene and getting in each other’s way. Amidst the chaos, no one pays much attention to the young boy moving between them or notice that Leo has spotted the cap of the chief inspector of police (Jack Douglas) on the back seat of his car and, while the inspector is otherwise occupied in trying to bring matters under control, has stolen it. When challenged about his presence on the scene, Leo has said he is on his way home; but, in fact, he pauses at the nearby police station and watches a young offender being roughly bundled out of a patrol car and taken inside. His curiosity being aroused, he stares in at the window as Inspector Ritchie (Derick O’Connor) is showing off the force’s new surveillance equipment. One of its monitors catches a glimpse of Leo.

This opening is as striking for its style as its content. Although photographed by Chris Menges, who was the chief cameraman on Kes (1969), one could not mistake Bloody Kids for a Tony Garnett/Ken Loach social drama, for its look is lurid and garish and seems to be pushing the film beyond gritty realism. Stephen Frears was always looking for material that offered imaginative responses to the everyday, thus giving an overworked theme (in this case, juvenile delinquency) a fresh perspective and dimension. Visually Bloody Kids has something of the ambience of modern film noir, which will resurface in some of Frears’ later work, such as The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Some of his thematic preoccupations (to be discussed later) are being foreshadowed here also.

As Leo looks through the police station window, is he already formulating a plan in his own mind to learn more about the workings of the police by setting up a case of his own for them to solve? It will involve the theft of one of the blood bags being stored for the school play in his school’s refrigerator, and the collaboration of his easily manipulated best friend at school, Mike (Peter Clark). But the plan will go awry. Staging a fight using the fake blood outside a football ground, Leo is accidentally stabbed for real by Mike, who will go on the run, while Leo in hospital will concoct ever more fantastical tales to the police about what has happened and about the violent nature of his friend.

The making and reception of the film

Originally entitled Red Saturday and then One Joke Too Many and based on an original idea and screenplay by a rapidly rising star of theatre and television drama, Stephen Poliakoff, Bloody Kids was acquired for production by Barry Hanson and developed as a film for television. At that time Frears had only one feature film to his name, the unusual private-eye parody, Gumshoe (1971), but over the decade he had built up a formidable reputation as a director of television plays, particularly those in which he had collaborated with writer Alan Bennett and some of which had been produced by Hanson. Bloody Kids was filmed on location at Southend-on-Sea and at the Hampstead Royal Free Hospital in London. The two boys had never acted before. Their fake fight, which kicks off the whole drama, was filmed on a cold and windy morning outside the Southend football ground before an actual match. They were still filming when the crowd came out after the game and started gathering around the incident out of curiosity, which added a touch of authenticity. “We hadn’t planned to film the scene with a genuine crowd,” said Frears, “they were an unexpected bonus.” Frears was to become very adept at using unexpected situations to a film’s advantage. What realism taught him, he said, was “making the best use of where you are,” citing an occasion when the location prompted him on the spur of the moment to change the season in the script he was doing (The Hit) from Spring to Autumn. When the writer objected, Frears replied: “I just don’t have time to sew leaves on the trees.” When a giant crane was mistakenly delivered for a day when they were filming My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Frears took the opportunity to create the most spectacular shot of the entire film, where the camera cranes from the launderette up and over the roof to disclose the gang of white youths readying themselves for violence.

Prior to its screening at 9.30 p.m. on Sunday 23 March 1980 on ITV, Bloody Kids was advertised on the front cover of that week’s edition of the TV Times under the heading: “The children beyond the law.”2 The magazine went on to describe the film as “dealing with the disturbing problem of children and crime, in a story of two 11-year-old boys who try to outwit the police. The story is fiction – but the problems it describes are only too painful fact. A glance at the newspaper headlines almost any day of the week makes one wonder whether we have created a generation of monsters.”3 This was somewhat at odds with how Poliakoff described the film in publicity notes provided for the press, in which he said simply: “The kids have been raised on TV images. They feel at home in their own dark exciting urban landscape and have learned to manipulate it for their own purposes.” Indeed, and perhaps inadvertently reflecting the material’s complexity, TV Times seemed to contradict itself in its further description of the film, in its listings referring to the boys’ actions not as a “crime” but as a “juvenile prank”.

“A generation of monsters”? Have “we” created them, as the magazine suggested? When reflecting on the film in the context of Poliakoff’s early writing career, the critic Robin Nelson claimed that “it is not always clear whether he [Poliakoff] attributes social failings to the individual youths or to the harsh environment which the economic and social structures afford them.”4 What is noticeable here, however, is the absence of parental control; a demoralized police force, where even the most sensitive of the policemen shown, PC Williams (Billy Colvill) can reflect that “it’s no job for a grown man”; a health service wilting under pressure, with a hospital lift out of order and its staff working to rule; a shabby environment with limited sources of diversion and entertainment; and a society that seems only capable of offering surveillance over stimulation.

After its television showing, the film began to create a stir on the international film festival circuit, particularly at the 1980 New York Festival, where it was shown as part of a strand entitled ‘British Film Now’. In a review in the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that it “gracefully and economically moves through a cool forbidding world of the urban young,” evoking a world of “deadened responses, bright neon colors, soulless activity.”5 She was particularly impressed by what she called the “the light, concise feeling” of Frears’ direction and “its lovely mode of punctuation as he fades swiftly and delicately out of one episode to the next.” In fact, it was Frears’ direction that particularly caught the eye of the New York critics more than the film’s depiction of modern Britain. Frears was to call himself a “rather odd combination of somebody enmeshed in British society but with a yen for American movies.”6 Perhaps because of this, American critics appeared to have no difficulty in attuning themselves to the film’s world; they probably saw some affinities with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

The favorable reception given to the film on the festival circuit was undoubtedly instrumental behind the British Film Institute’s decision to give it a limited release on some of the UK’s regional cinema outlets in November 1982. By then, Stephen Poliakoff’s reputation had risen sharply because of his award-winning television play Caught on a Train (1980), so splendidly acted by Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Kitchen, and superbly directed by Peter Duffel. The UK cinema release of Bloody Kids also coincided with the launch on 2 November 1982 of the new television station Channel 4, part of whose remit was to fund and re-vitalize feature film making in Britain and to provide a significant emphasis to its representation of youth culture. Although not a Channel 4 film, Bloody Kids seemed in some ways a kind of standard bearer for the quality television film – fresh, challenging, unconventional – that the new channel aimed to provide. Frears had already been signed up to direct Channel 4’s first feature film showing on its opening night, Walter (1982), starring Ian McKellen; and he was to go on to direct what is arguably the finest of all Channel 4-funded films, My Beautiful Laundrette.

A joke too far

When Leo first outlines to Mike his plan of staging a fake fight between them, which will look sufficiently bloody and violent for the police to become involved, he concludes: “Then I’ll tell ‘em it was a joke.” Mike seems more puzzled than amused and asks: “Why are we doing this?” “Surprise ‘em, that’s why,” replies Leo; but it is unsettling that Mike is willing to go along with a plan he seems not to understand nor even fully approve. He is right to sense that there might be more to this than a simple joke at the expense of the police. It has already been suggested in the school scenes that Leo is a potential troublemaker and attention-seeker who is determined to make his mark. In fact, he has already literally done so when he defiantly draws a line across a wall in the school corridor with indelible pencil. Watching cops and robbers on television and being momentarily entangled in the police operation in the opening accident, he wants to participate in a drama of his own contriving. He will lead the police a merry dance and do so by implicating his friend in his stabbing and mischievously depicting him as an aggressive personality who has declared his intention to kill someone before his 12th birthday. A cold-blooded, manipulative streak in Leo is here finding a disturbing outlet.

Poliakoff’s development of the events following the stabbing is quite ingenious. The narratives of Leo and Mike separate but are still interconnected, in that both now involve different levels of manipulation. Whilst Leo is spinning his tales in hospital to doctors, nurses, and the police, who are suspicious but not yet disinclined to believe him, Mike has been drawn into the clutches of a gang led by a sort of modern Artful Dodger, Ken (Gary Olson), who has taken the reluctant lad under his wing. He begins to initiate him in the arts of petty crime: how to steal a car; how to drive round a shopping mall precinct and evade police cameras; how to order a Chinese meal and then leave without paying. By this time Mike seems to be in a nightmare from which he cannot escape. Fearing retribution from the police, he tells Leo that “they’ve got to know it wasn’t real,” but now fantasy is racing ahead of fact, and the so-called ‘joke’ is being played out in deadly earnest and gathering momentum. When the two boys meet again, another fight breaks out between them but this time it is for real.

Frears as auteur

Bloody Kids is an exhilarating but edgy movie, zig-zagging its way through an unpredictable series of events, and with an abrasive and anarchic spirit that seems to derive in part from the temperament of its director. (When he was a castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Frears had chosen as his favourite disc the Groucho Marx song in Horse Feathers, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’.) I am aware that Frears would be resistant to this line of argument. In several interviews, he has indicated that he has no time for the auteur theory, that critical procedure which seeks to ascribe the core meaning (and quality) of a picture to its director. He has always insisted that he is a director for hire, moving freely between film and television, Hollywood and Britain, big-budget star vehicles to modest assignments outside of the mainstream, sometimes in the same year (for example, in 1992, where he went straight from the $42 million Dustin Hoffman blockbuster, Accidental Hero to the whimsical low-budget Roddy Doyle comedy, The Snapper). With Bloody Kids, he would have been quick to acknowledge the quality of his cast (which features fleeting appearances from such future formidable performers as George Costigan, Brenda Fricker, Geraldine James, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Mel Smith) and the important contributions of his technical team. If anything, rather than a directors’ cinema, Frears’ work, he would argue, seems to support the notion of a writers’ cinema, since he has collaborated with a stunning array of writers who comprise practically the cream of British screen and theatrical dramatists of the last half century: in addition to Poliakoff, his writing collaborators have included Alan Bennett, Steve Coogan, Roddy Doyle, Lee Hall, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Hanif Kureishi, Jimmy McGovern and Peter Morgan. When asked once where he gets his inspiration, he answered: “Through the letter box.” Nevertheless, this begs the question of why certain stories seem to attract him more than others, generally those that, as Lesley Brill has astutely observed, “offer an unusual perspective on the familiar”, which in turn allows him to go beyond realism in finding a style to match his subject. Many of his films have female leads and, in fact, all the seven Oscar-nominated performances in his films have been by women, which might make Bloody Kids look somewhat atypical, since it has no major female roles. Yet, in another respect, the material seems prophetic.

After the unexpected success and enthusiastic reception of My Beautiful Laundrette in America, he was offered the chance to direct the film version of Christopher Hampton’s stage success, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), based on the scandalous 18th century novel by Henri Laclos. Coincidentally, and fresh from his Oscar-winning triumph with Amadeus (1984), Milos Forman was making a film, Valmont (1989), on the same theme; and yet Forman’s interpretation was unexpectedly upstaged by the verve and panache of Frears’ version, which, as well as being a commercial hit, went on to win three Oscars and several Oscar nominations. “It’s a sort of incredible film,” Frears has said. “When I watch it, I can’t believe I directed it.” Yet if you watched it in conjunction with Bloody Kids, I think you could very much believe that Frears directed it: the films have the same kind of impudent humor, social satire, and a similar choreographic energy in the camera movement. Both films are lifted into the realms of dark melodrama by George Fenton’s dashing and rhythmically pulsating scores. In Dangerous Liaisons, the Marquise (Glenn Close), in her sexual dealings, describes herself as “a virtuoso of deception”; in his different context, Leo in Bloody Kids could claim the same for himself. And what is Bloody Kids but a story of a dangerous liaison?

In fact, it is possible to see dangerous liaisons as a recurrent pattern at the heart of Frears’ work. One thinks of the Pakistani Omar and his affair with the ex-National Front white schoolfriend Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, which will culminate in violence; the hit man and the gangster in The Hit (1984), making contact in the context of impending execution; Joe Orton and his gay lover in the biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a relationship which will end in murder; mother, son and femme fatale in The Grifters, a lethal cocktail of deadly liaisons if ever there was one; the precarious friendship between two refugees in Dirty Pretty Things, which endangers both their lives; the friendship between a Queen and her Indian servant in Victoria and Abdul (2017), which scandalizes the royal household and has political repercussions. In this category, one might even slip in two television dramas about British politics, The Deal (2003), portending the future stormy relationship between Prime Minister, Tony Blair and his combative Chancellor, Gordon Brown; and A Very English Scandal (2018), where Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) resorts to desperate measures to rid himself of a former gay lover (Ben Whishaw) who could bring down his career. It has been said that Frears’ films have explored different varieties of love in an unconventional way, but I have always thought that his key films are more about friendship than love, but a particular kind of friendship that often develops into a power struggle in which one of the protagonists could become the nemesis of the other. It is the element of danger that gives the relationship its dramatic spice; and Bloody Kids is a forerunner of this.

Summing up

The ending is as remarkable as the opening. Leo has run amok, escaping from his hospital bed, and setting off a fire alarm that is prompting an emergency mass evacuation from the hospital. Whereas Mike is wanting the whole thing to stop, Leo insists that it is just starting. Their violent tussle in the lift is brought to a sudden halt when the lift reaches ground floor and the doors open onto a scene of chaos bordering on surrealism, as casualties, patients, doctors, nurses, policemen and fire fighters float past the boys’ field of vision towards the hospital exit in a sort of dream-like slow-motion. That extraordinary image alone could have inspired one of Frears’ directing mentors, Lindsay Anderson to make Britannia Hospital in two years’ time. It brought to my mind a line by the poet WH Auden in his ‘Address for a Prize Day’ in The Orators (1932): “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” The final shot is a freeze frame which shows our two underage kids in the act of naughtily smoking a cigarette as they leave the hospital to confront the adult world: but it also has the effect of ending the film on a disquieting question mark, rather like the famous freeze frame that concludes Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959). What will they do next? In the long term, where are they heading? “You’re gonna be quite famous,” Ken has said to Mike earlier in the evening during their Saturday night spree in Southend-on-Sea. “Infamous” might prove to be nearer the mark.

Sources consulted
Chris Allison, ‘Bloody Kids’, Screenonline, available here.
W H Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mandelson (Faber & Faber, 1977).
Lesley Brill, The Ironic Film Making of Stephen Frears (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lester Friedman (ed.), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (Wallflower Press, 2006). Second edition.
Pauline Kael, Hooked (Marion Boyars, 1990).
Robin Nelson, Stephen Poliakoff on Stage and Screen (Methuen, 2011).


  1. Pauline Kael, review of My Beautiful Laundrette, New Yorker, in Pauline Kael, Hooked (Marion Boyars, 1990). 

  2. TV Times, 22-28 March 1980, p. 1. 

  3. Ibid., p. 2. 

  4. Robin Nelson, Stephen Poliakoff on Stage and Screen (Methuen, 2011), p. 215. 

  5. Janet Maslin, New York Times, 23 September 1980. 

  6. Lesley Brill, The Ironic Film Making of Stephen Frears (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 8. 

“Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!”: an appreciation of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980)

Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1979) is to Australian film what David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is to the British cinema and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is to the American. Like those two masterpieces, it has a larger-than-life, arguably tragic hero who is charismatic but controversial; an iconoclast and outsider who tends to follow his own rules and can be a thorn in the side of authority; a character of enormous courage who is also capable of a savagery that can test the boundaries of acceptable conduct; and a character whose progression raises important and uncomfortable issues about racism and about national identity.

In an interview in 2004, Edward Woodward was to call Breaker Morant “the greatest piece of work I’ve ever been involved with” and Bruce Beresford “the greatest director”. His performance of the English-born Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (the nickname derived from his reputation as the best breaker of horses in Australia) catches all the character’s complexities, adding an impudent twinkle of irony to the man’s intelligence and hot temper. Reflecting on the film a good twenty-five years after its making, Bryan Brown, whose sardonic performance as Lt. Peter Handcock contributes invaluably to its variety of mood, said of Breaker Morant that “it doesn’t date”, a deserved tribute not only to the solidity of its craftmanship but to its still pertinent observations on the hypocrisies of high command and the facility with which those in power can serve up scapegoats to cover their own deficiencies and duplicities.

Researching the facts

The setting is Pietersburg, South Africa, and the year is 1901, towards the end of the Boer War. Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), members of a mainly Australian guerrilla unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers who are fighting on the side of the British, are on trial for the murders of Boer prisoners and of a German missionary, the Reverend Hesse (Bruno Knez). They are facing the death penalty and it is soon made apparent to the court that a quick conviction is politically desirable, as it would discourage Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boers and facilitate negotiations for peace by showing the Boers an example of British fairness. However, Major Thomas puts up an unexpectedly strong case on the defendants’ behalf, not only disclosing their bravery and effectiveness in deterring insurgences from outlaw Boer commandos, but claiming the men were acting on unwritten orders not to take any prisoners issued by the head of the British armed forces, Lord Kitchener himself (Allan Cassell). Suddenly political expediency is being compromised by inconvenient revelations.

Although there were several sources behind the film’s screenplay (a play by Kenneth Ross, an unproduced television adaptation by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a fictionalized biography of Morant called The Breaker by Kit Denton), the bulk of the writing was done by Beresford. He did extensive research on the Boer War at the National Army Museum in London and was given access to the library of the actor Kenneth Griffith who was an authority on the conflict. In the Mitchell library in Sydney, he came across a manuscript by George Witton, whose life sentence of penal servitude had been commuted, and who had written an account of the affair entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, whose publication in 1907 had been suppressed. (Its eventual publication in 1982 was presumably prompted by the success of the film.) A bizarre incident in the film, where the prisoners are temporarily released from their cells to help the compound to ward off a Boer attack (“Well, that relieved the monotony, didn’t it?” comments Handcock, as their foes retreat), only for them to be promptly put back on trial again the next day, was apparently based on fact. One particularly felicitous discovery in the Imperial War Museum in London was a letter home from a member of the firing squad, who said Morant and Handcock held hands on their way to their execution. It is an affecting detail that Beresford said would never have occurred to him in the ordinary way.

Making the film

The filming took place between May and June of 1979, with the external sequences of the Boer War being shot in Burra, South Australia. The film was brought in at a very modest budget of around $800,000. The fact that it looks so splendid owed much to the exceptional skills of the cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who worked on several films with Beresford, and the production designer David Copping. Beresford said that, cinematically, his main concern was whether he could bring sufficient visual variety into the trial scenes to avoid dullness. In fact, the film has all the ingredients that one looks for in a gripping courtroom drama: eloquent and heated exchanges between two evenly matched legal adversaries; a Capra-esque David and Goliath element in the case, as Major Thomas finds he is not only opposed by the prosecutor Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar) but up against the president of the court, Lt Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), who is clearly in favour of a conviction; outbursts of anger from Morant, which could harm his case for it shows how his temper on occasion might override his judgment; and even occasional moments of comedy, particularly when Handcock is defending his dalliance with the wives of two absent Boer soldiers (“Well, they say a slice off a cut loaf is never missed”) to the morally affronted Lt Colonel Denny. The witnesses are well contrasted and flawlessly acted, generally introduced in close-up when taking the oath, which tends to magnify an untruth when uttered. This is particularly the case when Lord Kitchener’s aide, Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), is called to the stand to respond to Major Thomas’s claim that the accused had not been acting out of undisciplined sadism but out of obedience to unwritten orders authorized by Kitchener himself. The slightly distorted close-up of Hamilton as he takes the oath conveys the discomfort of a military man who is swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, whilst knowing that he has been sent to the court by Kitchener to conceal it.

The character of Major Thomas has sometimes been compared with Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick’s blazing indictment of military injustice, Paths of Glory (1957), in that both are underdogs making a similarly impassioned protest against a rigged court martial that has already reached a verdict that will save face more than serve justice. (Incidentally, Kirk Douglas was president of the jury when Breaker Morant was shown at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and was known to be an admirer of the film.) There is an electrifying moment when Major Thomas rounds on the court for its air of moral superiority to inform them that he has witnessed at first-hand the appalling treatment by British forces of Boer civilians, with farmhouses being burnt, crops destroyed, and women and children being herded into what the British even then were calling “concentration camps”. Were the British, then, not guilty of the same barbarity as the men on trial? Yet, for all his passionate advocacy, it is striking that he is never in complete possession of all the facts, which means that the issues are not as cut-and-dried as he (and some of the film’s critics) might believe. For instance, he never becomes aware of the true circumstances behind the missionary’s death. In his investigation of the facts behind the trial (and contrary to the assertion in Ross’s play and in Witton’s memoir), Beresford had become convinced that, carrying out Morant’s orders, Handcock had indeed killed the missionary, as Morant suspected him of being a Boer spy. Although sympathetic to the predicament of the accused soldiers generally, Beresford felt it would be wrong not to reveal his conclusion about their complicity in this deadly deed. The killing is one of the most compelling, yet chilling, sequences in the film, and it certainly deepens the moral complexities of the trial since we are not dealing with innocent scapegoats but tarnished heroes with blood on their hands. It is one of the many ironies of the film that this is the one charge on which they will be found innocent. Thomas unwittingly also misrepresents Breaker Morant’s character when he says in mitigation that Morant only carried out the killing of prisoners after the murder by the Boers of his commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend and brother of Morant’s fiancée, implying it was this incident alone that had motivated his subsequent savagery. Yet Beresford has shown in an earlier scene that Morant was aware of this policy – indeed, as carried out by Captain Hunt himself – and observed it without any sign of moral qualms.

Beresford supplied another original twist to events, which complicates the moral landscape still further. In his cross-examination of Morant, Major Bolton makes the point that Morant could not possibly know how Captain Hunt had met his death, for the men had been compelled to retreat, assuming that Captain Hunt was mortally wounded. In reply, Morant has said that, on recovering the body afterwards, they had seen that the bullet wounds were not fatal and that the injured man must therefore have been tortured and mutilated before death, an act of barbarism that has fuelled Morant’s thirst for revenge. However, the film shows that, after his men have gone, Hunt has got up and shot one of the Boer leaders as he emerges from the farmhouse, so the Boers’ subsequent treatment of Hunt could be interpreted as harsh retribution for the killing of one of their own. In other words, their motivation is not that dissimilar to Morant’s. It is not the only time in the film that one is made to sense that Morant might have more in common with his adversaries than he has with the British and that the Australians (whom the British refer to throughout as “you colonials”) in this conflict might be fighting on the wrong side. Not for nothing does Morant note that the date on which he joined the Carbineers was April Fool’s Day.

Away from the clashes in the courtroom, Beresford has intelligently opened out the drama in a way that enlarges the issues without impeding narrative momentum. He takes full advantage of the landscape where possible and cleverly exploits the occasional discrepancy between what we hear in the courtroom and what we are shown on the screen, such as the self-serving testimony of the regiment’s Boer translator, Botha (Russell Kiefel), who claims not to have supported the killing of the prisoners when we have seen the opposite. (It will not save him from the wrath of Boer sympathizers.) A telling visual contrast is made between the spartan conditions of the prison compound and the luxuriance of Kitchener’s living quarters, which is relevant because it matches a key theme of the film: the gulf between the decision makers and those who are compelled to enact those decisions and take the consequences. There is a brilliantly staged early scene of a dinner party hosted by Lt Colonel Denny, where, behind the civilities, the political priorities against which the trial is to be conducted are symbolically laid out. It will begin with a recitation of the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin’s celebratory poem about the relief of Mafeking (“Swelling the page/Of England’s story”) and it will end with a song from a young Boer singer who is representative of what Denny now calls “an ex-opponent of ours” (new political alliances are in the process of being drawn up). In between, British values dominate the conversation (even the discussion of Morant turns on his English background); the German and the Boer guests play along in harmony, whilst the latecomer, Major Thomas, looks physically stranded at the opposite end of the dinner table to Kenny and is pointedly addressed as a “colonial”, the outsider representing Australian soldiers whose fates, one deduces, have already been sealed.

Beresford was justly proud of the execution scene. A droll overhead shot frames both Morant and Handcock in the prison courtyard and the men outside the prison walls at work on their coffins. When Handcock grumbles that they could have had the decency to measure them first, Morant replies: “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints.” (Handcock’s misgivings prove to be well-founded, as, after the execution, they have some difficulty squeezing his body into his coffin: a misfit to the end.) Morant bids a dignified farewell to Major Thomas, rejects the padre’s offer of a final blessing – instead directing the padre’s attention to a particular passage in the Bible, Matthew 10:36 (“And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household”) – and then, under a beautiful dawn light, walks hand in hand with Handcock to the chairs in the distance (there is no convenient wall against which they can be lined up to be shot) where they seat themselves before the firing squad, refusing blindfolds. “Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!” Morant shouts out in a call that combines defiance, black comedy, and military pride. The shots ring out; at a tactful distance and with a slight hint of slow motion, the bodies fall backwards off the chairs with the impact of the bullets. Over the end credits Morant’s voice is heard singing “Soldiers of the Queen”, a remembrance of how the film began (the brass band at the rotunda playing the same theme) and a song whose words are in praise of the very forces by which he has just been executed. One can sense the director’s outrage behind the irony.

Controversy

One of the most controversial parts of the film proved to be Major Thomas’s concluding address on behalf of the prisoners. He stresses the circumstances that have driven the men to behave as they did: as Morant has put it, it is “a new kind of war for the new century”, in which the enemy are not only soldiers but civilians, even children. He does not deny the substance of the charges but argues that the responsibility for the men’s action lies with the people who put them in that situation in the first place and who are now complacently passing judgment. “The fact is that war changes men’s natures,” Thomas argues. “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations… We cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial.” Some critics, particularly in America, were troubled by this argument, saying it amounted to excusing a My Lai massacre situation. Nevertheless, George Witton had made the same point in his memoir:

“War is calculated to make men’s natures both callous and vengeful, and when civilised rules and customs are departed from one side, reprisals are sure to follow on the other, and the shocking side of warfare in the shape of guerrilla tactics is then seen. At such a time it is not fair to judge the participants by the hard-and-fast rules of citizen life or the strict moral codes of peace. It is necessary to imagine one’s self amidst the same surroundings – in an isolated place, with the passions of war aroused, men half-starved, dangers constantly threatened from all quarters, and responsibilities crowding one upon another – to enable a fair decision to be reached.”

In his response to the criticism, Beresford said that he was not in any way attempting to whitewash My Lai or similar such occurrences but simply reflecting an ugly truth about war, which deforms human nature. “It’s not just a case of a madman with a gun,” he said. “War puts normal people into circumstances where they have to cope with pressures that no one should ever have to confront.” In the end, and amidst all the other dimensions that this remarkable film explores and exposes, it is this anti-war statement that is at the heart of what Beresford wished to communicate.

The brief flashbacks are important, because behind them lies the question: how have these three men, from their quite different but essentially decent social backgrounds, wound up as alleged murderers and sacrificial pawns in a military and political chess-game of empire building? Morant was a published poet and adventurer before becoming a decorated soldier and Handcock had joined the army simply to provide for his family and escape poverty at home. As the film makes clear, Witton had been brought up to believe in the values of Empire. In his memoir, he wrote that he joined the British conflict against the Boers with unreserved excitement (“I could not rest content until I had offered the assistance one man could give to our beloved Queen and the great nation to which I belong”). His subsequent disenchantment was absolute. By the time of his return to Australia in 1904 after his three years in prison, he had concluded that the war he had joined so enthusiastically was “mercenary” and “inglorious”.

Reception and conclusion

Although Beresford was to migrate to Hollywood over the next decade and make Oscar-winning films such as Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it seems to me that Breaker Morant remains by far his finest achievement. The film has over the years attained classic status. At the time of its release, it was generally well received, but with one notable exception. It was to be nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay; Jack Thompson won the best supporting actor prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival; and it swept the board at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning ten awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet it was totally ignored by the British Film Academy when the awards season came round and was given a poor commercial release. It had its distinguished British champions such as Dilys Powell, who wrote that “The quality of Breaker Morant is that it involves you in the basics of war. And war changes not the soldier only, but all of us. After all, one comes out sympathizing with a man who shoots his prisoners”, and Graham Greene, who called it “The film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years… I thought it a magnificent film, most moving.” However, Beresford was to characterize the film’s overall critical reception in the UK as “horrendous”. As a former Chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board in his younger days, he would no doubt have been particularly incensed by the fact that the BFI’s main critical journal, Sight and Sound, did not even review the film and that the review in the BFI’s sister journal, Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1980), was negative and even slightly patronizing, comparing it with the morally strident films of Stanley Kramer (a comparison Beresford would not have appreciated). On reflection, and if any consolation, the reception only served to mirror one of the film’s main themes: British injustice. Still, Beresford would surely have approved a comment attributed to George Witton when he heard an Australian politician declaring that Australians would fight alongside the British in World War One to the very last man. Witton’s response was terse and unequivocal: “That last man would be me.”

Neil Sinyard

Sources consulted

Peter Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart (Angus & Robertson, 1992).
Keith Connolly, ‘The Films of Bruce Beresford’, Cinema Papers Supplement, August-September, 1980.
Kit Denton, The Breaker (Angus & Robertson, 1973).
Graham Greene, Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, edited by David Parkinson (Carcanet Press, 1994).
Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970-1985 (Secker & Warburg, 1987).
Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen (Pavilion Books, 1989).
Tim Pulleine, ‘Breaker Morant’, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1980, p. 153.
Kenneth G. Ross, Breaker Morant (Edward Arnold, 1979).
David Stratton, The Last New Wave: the Australian Film Revival (Angus & Robertson, 1984).
George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers (1907. Oxford City Press edition, 2010).

Ambler and Greene: Journeys into Fear

“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
(Eric Ambler)

“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving? […] These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)

Introduction

A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland.

My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.

The first quotation comes from Volume One of Norman Sherry’s biography, The Life of Graham Greene (1989), where Sherry is quoting from a review of a novel published in 1951: “The cinema has taught him speed and clarity, the revealing gesture. When he generalizes it is as though a camera were taking a panning shot and drawing evidence from face after face.”1 As Sherry remarked, it could be a description of Greene’s own writing style, but it is, in fact, taken from a review by Greene of Eric Ambler’s novel, Judgment on Deltchev. We know that Greene was an admirer of Ambler’s work, describing him as “unquestionably our best thriller writer” on the cover of a compendium of Ambler’s work; and including Ambler in The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957) which he compiled and edited with his brother Hugh. “He analyses danger,” wrote Greene of Ambler, “as carefully and seriously as other novelists analyse guilt or love.”2 His review of Judgment on Deltchev suggests a stylistic literary kinship particularly derived from their common cinematic experience.

The second quotation comes from the third edition of Quentin Falk’s study of cinematic adaptations of Greene’s work, Travels in Greeneland (2000), when he draws attention to an observation from the Observer’s film critic, Philip French made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Third Man in 1999. French had been musing on why Greene had always expressed a preference for The Fallen Idol over the more highly esteemed The Third Man, the reason being, Greene said, that it was more a writer’s film whereas The Third Man was more a director’s movie. French suspected there was more to it than that and that Greene was distancing himself from “this masterpiece” because he was aware that, in terms of plot and character, The Third Man owed something to Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios, most notably its central situation of a main character, presumed dead, who turns out two thirds of the way through the story to be very much alive. French suggested further points of contact which I will be exploring in due course, but he seemed surprised that few commentators had picked up the comparison. When he had once asked Ambler if he had noticed the resemblance, Ambler replied drily; “Yes, I have.”3

It should be emphasized that I am not talking about direct or conscious influence here, but more about parallels and connections between two writers who might be considered, in a sense, kindred spirits. I have talked in a similar way about parallels between the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, even though Greene’s film criticism had a curious blind-spot about the merits of Hitchcock’s movies.4 Ambler had an even more direct contact with Hitchcock. He not only wrote two episodes for Hitchcock’s television series, but he married Hitchcock’s long-time assistant and later producer of his tv shows, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock being their (by all accounts, very unruly) best man.5

Parallel lives and literary connections

Before exploring the cinematic and literary connections in greater detail, I think it might be useful to sketch in a bit of biographical background. Incidentally, both wrote two volumes of autobiography, the second of which was even less forthcoming than the first and the first each having titles that suggested something short of complete self-revelation: in Greene’s case, A Sort of Life (1971); in Ambler’s Here Lies (1985). I think it was John le Carré who said of Greene that he never disclosed the whole truth about himself but only gave you a cover story, in the spirit of someone who sometimes covers his tracks with the truth only because it is easier to remember. Ambler put things more bluntly. “Only an idiot believes he can write the truth about himself,” he declared.6

Both were born and died in the same decade: Greene (1904-1991) at the age of 87; Ambler (1909-1999) at the age of 89. Their family backgrounds were very different, Greene being the son of a headmaster, Ambler the son of parents who were partners in a successful music hall variety act. Both were psychoanalyzed in their youth and both early on seemed to conclude that England was a dull place to live, finding inspiration and excitement in foreign locations.

They each discovered at an early age a love of reading and a passion for writing. For Greene a decisive influential text was Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan (1906), a deceptively escapist period novel which for Greene conjured up a world of tragedy, treachery and terror. “She had given me my pattern,” he was to write in his essay ‘The Lost Childhood’, “perfect evil walking in the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”7 The whole world of The Third Man is evoked in that description; the Great Wheel of Vienna seems almost like the Wheel of History tilting tentatively and only temporarily towards a more optimistic future. For Ambler, it was his encounter, at the age of fifteen, with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, being, as he wrote, “shattered by it. Wrapped in the mantle of Raskolnikov, I used to go for long, gloomy walks in the more depressing quarters of London, looking for fallen women whom I could salute, though from a respectable distance, in the name of suffering humanity.”8 It led to his conviction that there is a potential policeman or criminal in every human being. The Dostoyevskian influence can even be felt as late as 1963 when The Ability to Kill was published, his macabre and even morbid collection of essays about notorious murder cases, narrated in that characteristic low-key prose which in his novels, as Gavin Lambert remarked, often conveys “a high state of panic”.9

Over the years they developed a writing routine that was quite similar. They both would draft out their work in longhand. Greene would customarily stop when he had written 500 words; and Ambler was to remark that 500 words a day “was good going.”10 Their literary reputations were established in the 1930s, with both ending the decade on a high note: in Greene’s case, with two masterpieces, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940); and in Ambler’s case, the two novels on which his literary fame and prestige largely rest, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Although there is no evidence of conscious borrowing, there seems sometimes an intriguing crossover of stimuli. Ambler uses as epigram a quotation from Dryden to launch Cause for Alarm (1937); Greene does likewise for The Power and the Glory. There is a similarity of titles: Journey into Fear (Ambler); The Ministry of Fear (Greene, 1943). “Dangerous” is one of Greene’s key words, whether it be found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem Bishop Blougram’s Apology that he said was at the basis of all his work (“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things”) or his comment that it was the “dangerous third martini” that prompted him to propose himself as film critic to the editor of The Observer in 1935. Ambler describes Dimitrios’s “brown, anxious” eyes as “dangerous” and one of his early novels has the title, Uncommon Danger (1937). “Would they ever cross the border?” says a character in Uncommon Danger; and crossing the border is a main theme of Greene’s great short story of the following year, ‘Across the Bridge’.

Given that they were both working within the thriller genre, such coincidences are perhaps not surprising in themselves or significant until one considers what each novelist has done with the ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to me noteworthy when the imagery one of them uses prompts a memory of something in the work of the other. For example, we know now the symbolic importance to Greene of the green baize door which led to a passage by his father’s study, and which signified not only the dividing line between home and school, but also between safety and anxiety, for the other side of the door opened onto an alien world of fear and hate.11 Ambler’s image in Journey into Fear for a similar kind of realization, where a zone of comfort leads to one of chaos, is “the world beyond the door, the world in which you recognized the ape beneath the velvet”.12 This is the moment when three shots are fired at the armaments engineer Graham as he opens his hotel room door; and suddenly he is aware of a world of terror outside of the orderly and comfortable terrain in which he has hitherto complacently moved. When Ambler talks in Epitaph for a Spy of “mankind fighting to save itself from the primaeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being” and then later in Journey into Fear refers to “the insanity of the subconscious mind…the awe-inspired insanity of the primaeval swamp”,13 I cannot help mentally fast-forwarding to Greene’s fascination with the Viennese sewers in The Third Man, this slippery underworld through which Harry Lime moves, and which could symbolize the subconscious mind of Holly Martins, who has a guilty admiration and envy of his best friend’s outlawed vitality that must be rooted out and destroyed in a final and deadly underground confrontation. Greene has always – and rightly – been admired for the prophetic quality of his novels, his nose for the next political trouble spot, which prompted his friend Alec Guinness to remark that when he heard that Greene was going off to visit some part of the globe, he would avoid that place like the plague: he thought some revolution or war would be bound to erupt soon. The Quiet American is the quintessential example of that. Ambler also had his impressively prophetic side. One would struggle to find a more chillingly prophetic sentence in all 1930s literature than the one in Ambler’s 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier: “Never does a man’s knowledge advance so rapidly as when he is creating a weapon of destruction.”14 In a few years’ time that knowledge will have advanced the world into a new nuclear and Cold War age that could imperil its very survival.

The cinematic connections

The connections between the two authors’ engagement with the film industry seem alternately minor and substantial. Both made a solitary personal appearance in a film: Ambler as a Bren Gun instructor in The New Lot (1942), Greene as a retired businessman in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Each had the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: Greene for The Fallen Idol, Ambler for The Cruel Sea (1953). A more substantial connection is that both collaborated on three films with the director Carol Reed. During Greene’s period as film critic in the 1930s, Reed was one of the very few English directors whose work he had consistently championed. Their three films together – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana (1959) – constitute one of the most highly regarded writer/director partnerships in the history of British film; and Greene was to dedicate the publication of his novella The Third Man, which provided the basis for the screenplay, to Carol Reed “in admiration and affection”. A good friend of Reed also, Ambler had a more quirky and unorthodox collaboration. His first screenwriting experience was for Carol Reed’s Army Film Unit, where they worked together on The New Lot, which was intended as a recruiting film for the Army and an introduction to basic training. This was expanded into the feature film starring David Niven, The Way Ahead (1944), which, with Went the Day Well? (1942), seems to me arguably the best British war film made during the actual war years. Their third collaboration was an altogether more troubled affair, for they were involved in MGM’s ill-fated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which essentially involved their endeavor to make a coherent and entertaining movie whilst satisfying the whims of its temperamental star, Marlon Brando. Years earlier, in a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist and the Film-Makers’, Ambler had defined the central issue confronting any screenwriter, as being “the problem of collaboration without loss of self-respect”.15 After fourteen re-writes had failed to satisfy the film’s star, Ambler resolved to salvage his self-respect by leaving the production altogether and Reed followed shortly afterwards. Less original and imaginative a screenwriter than Greene perhaps, Ambler was nevertheless to demonstrate a particular facility for literate and well-crafted adaptations of popular English novelists in the realist tradition, such as his adaptation of H G Wells’s The Passionate Friends (1948) for David Lean, and his version for Ronald Neame of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1952), which Ambler mentions in his autobiography as being his father’s favorite novel. As well as the Oscar nomination for The Cruel Sea, Ambler was to be nominated for British Academy Awards for The Purple Plain (1954), which its director Robert Parrish thought improved on the HE Bates novel, and for Roy Baker’s film, A Night to Remember (1958), which still looks the best film yet made of the Titanic disaster.

Ambler’s lecture on the novelist and the film makers had originally been given in 1951 at the invitation of Greene’s publisher friend, A. S. Frere to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition and delivered later that year to the Edinburgh Film Festival. It offered a wise and whimsical fantasy about the likely fate awaiting a young and enthusiastic novelist who has excitedly sold his novel to the movies but then must look on askance and even aghast as his precious work becomes progressively altered to suit the commercial imperatives of the medium. Ambler is pragmatic about this process. After all, he says, “most writers from other media go to work in the film industry in the hope of making a lot of money in a comparatively short time.”16 There is nothing wrong in that, of course, because it means they will be able to continue writing novels; and it still requires them to fulfil their obligations to the project with all the diligence and professionalism at their command. The novelist must be under no illusions, however, about what is involved. “Screenwriting has very little to do with writing as a novelist understands the term,” Ambler argues. “The only common denominators are a sense of story construction… and the ability to create characters who breathe.”17 The distinction Ambler makes between writing a novel and writing for the screen underscores one significant difference between Ambler’s approach and that of Greene: namely, Ambler’s policy of never adapting his own novels for the screen, for they involved completely different approaches and techniques. This was in sharp contrast to Greene, who, after what he saw as his disastrous attempt to adapt John Galsworthy’s play ‘The First and the Last’ in Twenty-One Days (1937), vowed in future only to adapt his own work for the screen, a rule he kept, except for the solitary (and frustratingly unexplained) exception of his adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) for Otto Preminger.

In 1958 Greene was to write his own essay on the same theme, entitled ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – A Personal View’. Like Ambler, he expressed a general gratitude towards the cinema in the contribution it has made to a novelist’s survival; in his case, not so much in writing for the screen but selling the rights to others for his novels to be filmed. “It is better to sell outright,” he wrote, “and not to connive any further than you have to at a massacre.”18 The book would probably have a longer life, he reasoned, and the money he made from a film version would enable him to carry on writing. The “massacres” he mainly deplored were those films which reversed the meaning of his originals: as examples, he would single out particularly John Ford’s film, The Fugitive (1947), his version of The Power and the Glory, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American (1958), neither of which he seems to have seen but which he concluded, from reports he had read, were travesties of his intentions.19 Worth recommending also, for a more balanced assessment than Greene’s, is Andrei Gorzo’s perceptive and judicious analysis of Mankiewicz’s film of The Quiet American in A Sort of Newsletter, February 2021, pp. 2-7.)) Like Greene, Ambler disliked nearly all the films made from his work. Probably the most successful was Jules Dassin’s heist movie, Topkapi (1965), adapted from his novel, The Light of Day (1962), and which at least won a best supporting actor Oscar for his great friend, Peter Ustinov. An adaptation of Journey into Fear (1942) was, in Ambler’s phrase, “master-minded” by Orson Welles, who was a great fan of Ambler’s writing, but was directed by Norman Foster and in the end bore little relation to the novel. Jean Negulesco’s film of The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Huston’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and similarly featured Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The experience of watching it gave Ambler stomach cramps; and although the film has gathered a following as a well-executed mystery of mood and atmosphere, it and the novel were never mentioned, in terms of theme or achievement, in connection with The Third Man. Until Philip French, that is.

Dimitrios and Lime

Ambler’s preferred title for his novel had always been A Coffin for Dimitrios. One surmises that the publishers might have thought it too downbeat, but for Ambler, it would have concealed for longer the twist in the tale: that, just as the body in Harry Lime’s coffin is not Lime’s but that of the hospital’s doctor, Joseph Harbin, so the body in Dimitrios’s coffin is not that of Dimitrios but of his expendable criminal associate, Manus Visser. As Philip French went on to argue, the connection between Ambler’s novel and The Third Man was not simply confined to the two charismatic criminals at their core, but to their other main characters, both of whom are writers of popular lowbrow novels (Greene’s Holly Martins writes westerns, Ambler’s Charles Latimer writes detective stories) who discover that there is more excitement in pursuing a real-life adventure mystery. With his admiration for Ambler, Orson Welles is likely to have noticed the similarities and, for that matter, so might Carol Reed, whose opening narration for The Third Man, as French noted, begins: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war – Constantinople suited me better,” which is where the narrative of Mask of Dimitrios begins also.

On a visit to Turkey, a university lecturer in political economy and writer of popular detective novels such as The Bloody Shovel, Charles Latimer is introduced to an admirer of his, the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who wonders if he is interested in real murderers. He starts telling him the story of a man named Dimitrios, whose murdered body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus and who, for the last fifteen years or so, had been an international criminal of legendary status for his involvement in crimes ranging from robbery, murder and drugs smuggling to sex trafficking, spying and political assassination. Latimer becomes obsessed with finding out more about Dimitrios and, to this end, begins to track down and interview people who knew him and, in some cases, were former associates. The structure has sometimes been thought to have influenced that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which has also begun with the death of a larger-than- life character and which has then been followed by an investigation and interrogation of people who knew him, gradually building up a character portrait based on the sum of their different perceptions and perspectives. As Latimer proceeds, he keeps encountering an individual called Peters who seems to have his own agenda regarding the investigation into Dimitrios’s past. There is something disquieting about Peters. On their first meeting, Latimer is reminded of “a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund”.20 On further acquaintance, he will notice “an edge to his husky voice that made Latimer think of a small boy pulling the legs off flies”;21 and Peters’ smile with his brilliant false teeth is “as if some obscene plant had turned to the sun”.22 It will transpire that Peters is seeking revenge on Dimitrios and knows something that Latimer does not: namely, that the body in the morgue which Latimer saw was not that of Dimitrios and that Dimitrios is still very much alive.

When one recalls Greene’s high praise for Ambler, it seems certain that he would have read The Mask of Dimitrios and inwardly absorbed some of its contents, for, as well as the central twist, there are incidental details which will occur in modified form in The Third Man. Indeed, Ambler even uses the phrase “the third man” at one point about one of the intermediaries involved in a drugs operation that had been masterminded by Dimitrios.23 The babble of foreign languages around Latimer, which sometimes confuse him, anticipates similar situations experienced by Holly Martins during Greene’s story. One of the characters whom Latimer locates, Grodek, is identified by his inordinate fondness for cats;24 and, of course, it is a favourite cat that will first disclose the presence of Harry Lime in The Third Man. “I have, I know, done things of which I have been ashamed”, Peters tells Latimer at one point;25 one of Lime’s associates, Kurtz will make a similar disclosure when he first meets Holly Martins (“I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”). Ambler’s imagery sometimes has the evocative pithiness of Greene. The “watchful repose” on Colonel Haki’s face reminds Latimer of “a very old and experienced cat watching a very young and inexperienced mouse”.26 One of Latimer’s contacts, Irana Preveza tells him that Dimitrios’s eyes “made you think of a doctor’s eyes when he is doing something to you that hurts.”27

The central comparison is that between Dimitrios and Lime. If Lime is the logical and consistent product of a fallen post-war world (amoral, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of humanity, governed only by motives of self-interest and greed), Dimitrios is similarly representative of the spiritual, moral and political degeneracy that has led to this genocidal war in the first place. (Ambler will even deploy the word “holocaust”.28 ) There is an extraordinary passage in Ambler’s novel when Latimer is still absorbing the news that Dimitrios is alive; and aligning this information with what he has learnt about the man. “If there were such a thing as Evil,” he reflects, “then this man…”; but he stops this thought in mid-flow and carries on:

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements in the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent: as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics have been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.29

In its way, and for its time, Latimer’s reflection seems to me as remarkable as Harry Lime’s immortal “cuckoo-clock speech” in The Third Man in its attempt to define the cock-eyed state of the world. When Latimer later communicates what he has learnt from his quest to his journalist friend Marukakis, the latter wonders whether it is possible to explain a character like Dimitrios or simply turn away disgusted and defeated. “Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified,” he suggests. “All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.”30

Do those words resonate today? I found re-reading The Mask of Dimitrios a rewarding but unnerving experience, partly because Dimitrios now looks such a modern figure. Harry Lime might have been, in Major Calloway’s words, “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, but Dimitrios is an insidious international bandit; an entrepreneur and puppet-master behind the scenes who manipulates the links between businesses and politicians; a man who “could preserve a picture of distinguished respectability”31 and is on the Board of Directors of an organization called the Eurasian Credit Fund (the equivalent of a multi-national corporation of today) whose reach and influence extend world-wide into all kinds of significant and murky spheres and events. Anton Karas could write a jaunty theme to capture the sardonic swagger behind the villainy of a Harry Lime, but I think he would have been hard pressed to come up with something similar for a sinister character like Dimitrios. His actions have no boundaries of shame or conscience or moral integrity, and adherence to the law is something entirely outside of his consideration. He knows exactly what he is doing and, because he is doing it, he reasons it therefore cannot be wrong. What motivates him? Peters will have the answer to that. “He wanted money and he wanted power,” he tells Latimer. “Just those two things, as much as he could get.”32 One would not need to look very far for contemporary equivalents nor be surprised by his explanation for what finally brings about his downfall: in a word “stupidity”; as he says, “If it is not one’s own, it is the stupidity of others”.33 In his final communication with Latimer, Marukakis is describing political tensions between his country Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which seem to him utterly absurd but, because of the stream of propaganda, could lead to war. ”If such things were not so dangerous one would laugh,” he says. “But one recognizes the technique. Such propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made.”34 For me, that last sentence is redolent of the politics of 2021, never mind 1939.

Conclusion

Although Ambler’s post-war novels do not achieve the same level of literary eminence as Greene’s, they are still well worth investigating, not least because of their Greene connections. There is an explicit reference to The Quiet American in Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959) when a guide says to the hero, an American engineer Greg Nilsen, “Now I show you where Quiet American makes bomb explosion”,35 and is not to be dissuaded even when it is pointed out to him that Greene was writing a work of fiction not fact. In his fine critical study of Ambler, Peter Lewis has pointed out more parallels between the two novelists, as, for example, in a later novel like Ambler’s Doctor Frigo (1974), which reminds Lewis of The Honorary Consul (1973) in terms of setting and seems to anticipate The Human Factor (1978) in terms of theme. Ambler’s droll essay ‘Spy-Haunts of the World’, which includes a list of ten questions which could help one identify a spy, would make an amiable companion piece to Our Man in Havana.36 My impression is that they never saw each other as rivals so much as literary practitioners working within a tradition laid down by John Buchan and later pursued by writers such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, and which they pursued in their own distinctive and individual ways.

Reviewing Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) in the Washington Post, the critic J. W. Anderson wrote that “Ambler deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standard; had he chosen another subject [i.e. something other than the thriller], he would no doubt have been installed long since in the required reading lists for college English majors.”37 As David Lodge pointed out in his Foreword to the collection of essays, Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, the same situation seemed until recently to have been true of Graham Greene, who, though widely read, was rarely considered to be of sufficient stature to figure on the syllabus of a University English Department: too accessible perhaps, and working in a popular genre that was not quite academically respectable.38 A Festival in celebration of his work, that is still going strong after more than twenty years and has attracted leading scholars from all over the globe, has knocked that perception of Greene’s literary status on the head. Has a similar commemoration been created for Eric Ambler? I don’t know, but I would like to think so; and a festival devoted to his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios would be a thrilling place to start.

Neil Sinyard


  1. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, p. 415. 

  2. Quoted in Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1975), p. 121. 

  3. Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland, p. 69. 

  4. I elaborate on this comparison in my chapter ‘Poets of Criminality and Conscience: Greene and Hitchcock’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 96-108; and in ‘The Strange Case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock’ in Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2004, pp. 44-48. 

  5. For a full account of the incident, see Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie (Simon & Shuster, 2005), p.233. Hitchcock had arranged an elaborate reception for the married couple at Chasen’s, which featured an 18-course dinner, with food flown in from all corners of the world and drinks to accompany every course. By the time he was due to deliver his best man’s speech, Hitchcock seemed thoroughly inebriated, swaying from side to side, almost falling over, and speaking incoherently, to the embarrassment of the guests. Suddenly at the very end of the speech, he stood up straight, looked at the audience, and said in perfectly spoken English without a hint of having had a drop to drink, “I do hope they’ll be very happy.” In this context, it might be remembered that another thing Greene and Hitchcock had in common was a fondness for practical jokes. 

  6. Eric Ambler, Here Lies (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985), p. 18. 

  7. Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. 

  8. Eric Ambler, The Ability to Kill (Bodley Head, 1963), p. 81. 

  9. Lambert, p. 116. 

  10. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 128. 

  11. For an elaboration of this idea, see my chapter ‘The Green Baize Door’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life, pp. 86-95. 

  12. Quoted in Lambert, p. 119. 

  13. Cited in Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 75. 

  14. Cited in Peter Lewis’s Eric Ambler: A Literary Biography (Continuum, 1990), p. 50. 

  15. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 199. 

  16. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 179. 

  17. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 187. 

  18. Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader edited by David Parkinson (1993), p. 445. 

  19. As a counter to Greene’s opinion, it is perhaps worth mentioning that John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that The Fugitive had “come out the way I wanted” and was “one of my favourite pictures – to me, it was perfect.” – John Ford (Studio Vista, 1967), p. 85. 

  20. Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios, p. 43. All quotations from The Mask of Dimitrios are taken from the Omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels, published by Heinemann/Octopus, 1978. 

  21. Ambler, ibid., p. 67 

  22. Ambler, ibid., p. 100. 

  23. Ambler, ibid., p. 23. 

  24. Ambler, ibid., p. 77. 

  25. Ambler, ibid., p. 119. 

  26. Ambler, ibid., p. 19. 

  27. Ambler, ibid., p. 60. 

  28. Ambler, ibid., p. 27. 

  29. Ambler, ibid., p. 130. 

  30. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  31. Ambler, ibid., p. 139. 

  32. Ambler, ibid., p. 105. 

  33. Ambler, ibid., p. 152. 

  34. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  35. Eric Ambler, Passage of Arms, p. 628. 

  36. Reproduced in Ambler, The Ability to Kill, pp. 139-56. 

  37. Quoted in Lewis, p. 248. 

  38. See Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, edited by Dermot Gilvary and Darren J Middleton, Continuum, 2011, p.xiii.