In their own ways, the WWII propaganda movies of America and Britain reflect a national image. American dramas are about fighting units of democratic individuality, as expressed by various (white) ethnicities, united for a common goal. British films emphasize the stiff upper lip of little people unfussily carrying on in the face of death and destruction. The commanders are upper class types with the proper accent, while those supporting them have comic-relief working class tongues. The Way to Stars, written by Terence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith, offers both types in the same movie by telling the story of an air base that in turn serves both the RAF and the USAF.
First comes the English newbie pilot (John Mills), whose commanders are Trevor Howard and Michael Redgrave. We never see what happens on their bombing missions, since we never leave the base or the village. But we hear about those who never come back, and then everyone shows great restraint and utters such lines as “Terribly sorry” and “Bad show.” To shed a tear would be indecorous and in frightfully bad taste. Then the Yanks arrive, stereotypically loud and cocky, led by the quiet Douglass Montgomery and the brash Italian Bonar Colleano Jr. There are also the women (Rosamund John, Renee Asherson) who quietly do their duty and wait for the men to pluck up the courage for a kiss. Young Jean Simmons appears to sing a lively song at a dance.
The whole thing is presented as a flashback from war’s end, when the base is a collection of abandoned buildings and the airfield is a sheep meadow. The camera shows us what’s left behind, and we travel back to witness the fleshing out of details. The film is proud and elegiac in its nostalgia for rural England, its quirky characters who can even be tiresome (Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey), and the quiet resolve of its modest folk who never beat their breasts or toot their own horns. I rate this exercise in restrained sentiment below David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, though not far below.
This United Artists print looks very sharp. It’s 104 minutes, not the 109 minutes stated. Maybe nothing’s missing, and that’s the difference of conversion from PAL to NTSC, or maybe it was always 104 minutes. However, apparently the film’s original title was Johnny in the Clouds, so perhaps this is a reissue version. Since Felix Aylmer’s Reverend is prominently credited for a role that’s only an eye blink, and yet the character is referred to several times, I wonder if he once had more scenes; it’s a topic for further research.