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)


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)


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)


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.


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: .

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


“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.


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.


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.