Film

Films from the Long War: 'Their Finest Hour' Offers Five British WWII Classics

Elizabeth Allan and Thora Hird in Went the Day Well? (1942) (© Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal / IMDB)

These WWII films from directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Guy Hamilton, Michael Anderson, Leslie Norman and J. Lee Thomson are excellent studies in history, filmmaking, and wartime propaganda.

Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics
Various

Film Movement Classics

31 March 2020

Other

Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics, a Blu-ray set from Film Movement Classics, collects five movies produced in England from 1942 to 1958. Two of them were made by Ealing Studios under the reign of owner-producer Michael Balcon, so this box belongs to the string of Ealing restorations released this year by two companies, Film Movement and Kino Lorber, who seem to be dividing the swag between them. Well, the more the merrier, as some of these releases are long overdue in the US, and some of them weren't even released on VHS. Let's take a look at the films in the order they're presented.

Went the Day Well? (1942) Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

This film is a masterpiece of excitement, suspense, and wartime propaganda, and it constitutes one of Ealing's finest hours, or rather hour and a half.

Went the Day Well? opens with a crossroads sign indicating the (fictional) village of Bramley End. Then the camera, which must be perched rather high, travels gracefully forward into the tree-lined lane of a bucolic English countryside. We don't see the vehicle it's traveling in or any shadow of it, only the relentless forward motion that, among other things, symbolizes how this film's plot moves like gangbusters.

When we arrive at a church cemetery, an old-timer (Mervyn Johns) greets the camera directly and says he knows why we've come. He points to a marker for German soldiers and marvels that such a thing should be found in an English village. He remarks that the Germans wanted all of England but that spot of ground was all they got, after "the battle of Bramley End", as the newspapers call it.

"Nothing was said about it till after the war was over, and old Hitler got what was coming to him," he says with satisfaction, and that's how English audiences in the depressing slog of war, sitting in theatres when this film was new and the memory of air raid sirens still fresh, first realized with a delicious shock that this movie was set very discreetly in the future. It promised a gentle future they could then only imagine and hope for, and this future was where that mysterious camera had been gliding, taking us along. What a magical touch.

The codger now informs us that the events took place on the Whit-Sunday of April 1942, also known as Pentecost, a weekend of post-Easter celebration marking the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the celebrating Apostles. The action begins as trucks full of apparently British soldiers ("tommies") arrive in the village, identifying themselves as sappers (engineers) here to do a quick job. They're spotted by two young women, "Land girls" acting in wartime duty as milk delivery, dressed in trousers and all. They'll prove a dab hand with rifles.

At this point, the plot follows bluff, efficient Major Hammond (Basil Sydney, English as kidney pie) as he goes about contacting and charming the elderly vicar (C.V. France) in order to billet the bulk of his men inside the Catholic church for the weekend, and then speaks to the local squire, Wilsford (Leslie Banks). Their conversation makes it clear that Wilsford is a traitor or "fifth columnist" and the "tommies" are German soldiers here to make preparations for a full-scale German invasion of England on Monday! There's no time to think about such an unlikely whopper. Such thoughts were in the air and it must simply be accepted for the action to get underway. Now we can see how trusting and naïve the villagers have been, how easily they've given away basic information.

For a while, the viewers dwell in a state of agonized irony as only we and the Germans share knowledge of the reality of the situation, and the film keeps teasing us by dangling clues and conversations that have the villagers almost figuring it out. The next stage of suspense involves how they try to fight back. The opening scene has already assured us of their victory, but every trick they try and every step forward is foiled by multiple ironies and accidents of the type to make Alfred Hitchcock lick his lips.

One of the key elements of Ealing films is the sense of community. That sense would define the heavily populated comedies that made the studio's name and it already defines this suspenseful propaganda, as Bramley End is the type of eccentrically and stereotypically peopled village we'd see in later Ealings.

One way in which wartime propaganda melodramas, whether in England or Hollywood, differ from standard fare is the suspension of the rule that positive, likable characters are safe. The shock factor is heightened, and patriotic impulses stirred, when we witness deaths committed brutally or heroically, the audience now groaning, now cheering. This film provides the strange frisson of watching what's in many ways a typical Ealing setting, but one in which even comic-relief eccentrics may die gruesomely--or kill.

Films of this genre require a local quisling, and it's very interesting that the squire is that figure. Before we read too much politics into that decision (though we will anyway), he's counter-balanced by the story's other upper-class type, a bosomy busybody (Marie Lohr) who steams around like an arrogant tank, and one of the film's surprises is how she shows her mettle. In fact, the general behavior of the women is among the film's most pleasant surprises.

Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti had been hired by Balcon in 1940 and in turn hired several of the creative personnel who would define Ealing. He only had a few outings in the feature director's chair at the studio; this is one of them and he's brilliantly in control. We hope that his Champagne Charlie (1944) and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) are wending their way to Blu-ray.

Muriel George and Patricia Hayes in Went the Day Well? (IMDB)

The script is credited to John Dighton, Diana Morgan, and Angus MacPhail, while the title card proudly announces that the story is by Graham Greene. Well, yes, "The Lieutenant Died Last" (Collier's Weekly, 29 June 1940), a story about a drunken poacher published the same year that Greene's important novel The Power and the Glory featured a drunken martyred priest. What's remarkable about the adaptation is that the screenwriters took Greene's idea more seriously than he did, for they constructed a film full of "Greenian" elements that don't appear in his story, from the Whitsun setting to major plot twists.

Greene's sketchy anecdote keyed into British fears of a possible German invasion of England and promised that any such violation of England's green and pleasant land would be foiled by the pluck of the people, or in this case by a poacher who single-handedly and almost incidentally liberates the village. Only two other villagers have minor appearances, certainly not the richly populated canvas seen in the film, nor does Greene's story have any business about a martyred vicar in the church ("We can't go to church, we're chapel," explains one man in the film), nor does Greene's story ever follow the POV of the bad guys. On the other hand, Greene injects a note of war-is-hell sympathy for a dying German, which the film never indulges.

In truth, the only points of comparison between story and film is that there's a village, Germans and a poacher. The film's poacher is a minor figure among many, and his contribution and fate are very different. Well, both versions do have a boy getting shot in the leg and a nod to the idea that misbehaving rascals may save the day more than polite and tidy people.

Also appearing in the large cast are Valerie Taylor, David Farrar, Harry Fowler, Elizabeth Allan, Thora Hird, Frank Lawton, Muriel George, Patricia Hayes, Norman Pierce, and men of the Gloucestershire Regiment. As with all the films in this set, this 2010 British Film Institute restoration is visually and aurally excellent. Cavalcanti directed an anti-Mussolini short for Ealing that would have made a nice extra, Yellow Caesar (1941), but it's not here; the disc has no extras. We must be content with a singular film.

If Went the Day Well? traveled into the future for a look back at an alternate history that never happened, doing so from the perspective on an ongoing war, the next three films in the set look back at dramatizations of real-life events from the perspective of more than ten years later

In the mid- to late 1950s, England still suffered an existential hangover from the war in the form of austerity, rations, and rebuilding. The new retrospective films about WWII served as morale-boosters of self-mythology, giving viewers a satisfying reminder of what they'd survived and victories along the way, although the films do become increasingly ambiguous. Perhaps these films also tap into a lingering feeling that's kind of the opposite of PTSD.

That is, wartime carries the drug of adrenaline, which gives a sense of meaning and import in one's actions (and the opposite in times of failure). Some people had "a good war" marked by responsibility, independence and self-validation that were sometimes removed in peacetime, leading to its own form of depression. For example, David Hare describes this condition with the heroine of his 1978 play Plenty, filmed by Fred Schepisi in 1985. It could be called disillusion; you've won and this is all there is, and you're supposed to be happy with it but somehow you're not. The essentially nostalgic war docudramas of the 1950s functioned as therapy for all these blues.

The Colditz Story (1955) Director: Guy Hamilton

John Mills and Eric Portman in The Colditz Story (IMDB)

Produced by Ivan Foxwell for Eagle Lion Films, this story comes from the memoir of Pat Reid (played in the film by John Mills), a British Army officer who escaped from Colditz Castle, a supposedly escape-proof POW camp especially designed for soldiers who had tried to escape from other POW camps.

The opening legend insists that all the incidents are true although names have been changed and some events re-arranged out of their context. (The one-hour bonus documentary explains, for example, that Reid didn't escape in the particular plan shown in the movie, but later.) The opening shot tracks downward from a high angle on the Frankenstein-like castle, down what seems to be a painting to ground level, where Reid and an exceptionally tall Scots chum, McGill (Christopher Rhodes), enter the huge Gothic premises to the thunderously ominous music of Francis Chagrin.

They learn that the camp is occupied by Polish, French, and Dutch prisoners, but now a British contingent arrives to be commanded by the careful, stolid, older Col. Richmond (Eric Portman). The first major development is that these dis-united nations form factions that cross up each other's plans until Richmond persuades them to organize and liaise with each other via designated "escape officers". This model of trust and diplomacy enables each "country" to pursue its goals, and everyone's goal is the same.

The claustrophobic (though huge) environment provides an extreme all-male situation in which the inmates have only a single job: to plot escape. The anecdotal script by Foxwell and director Guy Hamilton simply catalogues one attempted escape after another, all of varying degrees of ingenuity and virtually all failures for different reasons at some point along the line. This means the audience's suspense is continually teased and frustrated until we're good and ready for the most literally theatrical attempt at the film's climax. In a refreshing detail that reveals the methodical, workaday nature of this unnatural existence, only one character dies in the story.

POW escape movies are an off-shoot of prison movies, where escape also drives the plot. The difference is that the audience of POW dramas usually has no moral ambiguity in identifying with attempts to circumvent the proper authorities. Indeed, the unique aspect of POW films is that it becomes one's patriotic duty to escape, and those who do so are heroes, not anti-heroes and criminals. Their "selfish" goals are valorized so that we're encouraged to applaud these "malcontents", which we might not in another context. This implies an existential theme: Humans are discontent and constantly seek escape, and the liberty we seek, ironically enough, is freedom from our mortality.

Made a couple of years after Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953), this was the most prominent and reasonably accurate "POW escape" picture, released long before John Sturges' The Great Escape (1963). Sturges introduces ambiguity via one particular egocentric malcontent among the malcontents. Steve McQueen's character serves as the "rebel" instead of joining his place in a society of rebels in a context demanding rebellion. That's from the 1960s trend, 20 years after WWII, to begin constructing heist or caper-like war operations as action-adventures with a touch of James Bond.

Alex Vetchinsky's art direction looks especially impressive in Gordon Dines' black and white photography. Shadows are used to good effect within a design that can't help looking Gothically oppressive, while Hamilton does a good job of conveying a continually busy "international" bustle to the proceedings as enacted by a large cast. That cast includes excellent work from Frederick Valk, Denis Shaw and the skeletal Anton Diffring as typical yet differentiated German officers, with Bryan Forbes, Lionel Jeffries, Ian Carmichael, Richard Wattis, Theodore Bikel, Peter Swanwick and an athletic Eugene Deckers among the prisoners.

British war films were coming thick and fast at this time, and several were about prisoners. Virginia McKenna played women taken prisoner in two films: Jack Lee's A Town Like Alice (1956), based on Nevil Shute's novel of a camp run by the Japanese in Malaya, and Lewis Gilbert's Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), about real-life heroine Violette Szabo. David Lean overwhelmed all with his adaption of Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), though virtually everything in it was fiction.

Other films were careful accounts of British triumphs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made two good semi-documentary examples: The Battle of the River Plate aka Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956) and Ill Met by Moonlight aka Night Ambush (1957). Our next film, The Dam Busters, falls into that tradition.

The Dam Busters (1955) Director: Michael Anderson

Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd in The Dam Busters (IMDB)

This blockbuster for Associated British Pictures was as responsible as any other for the bonanza of WWII nostalgia at the British box office, and it proved popular in the US as well. The subject is one particular 1942 operation to destroy German dams by designing special bombs that skim across the water's surface if dropped at precisely the right angle and altitude. So it's a problem of working out both theory and practice, all of which require their own rehearsals.

By the time the film is over, viewers could take a test on the procedure, because more than half the running time is devoted to laying out the nuts and bolts of meetings and testings in an unfussy docudrama manner, shot bright, clear and flat. The movie runs longer than two hours, and according to Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Plume, 2005), the US release was only 102 minutes; we'll lay odds that much of that detailed first half was chunked right out. IMDB claims that the US version added one more plane crash from another movie.

We see the inventor of the process, Dr. Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), presented as one of those archetypal rumpled boffins whose ahead-of-the-curve too-smart-for-the-room-ness makes him appear a crackpot to mere bureaucratic types whose approval he needs. Other examples of this driven English type were portrayed in David Lean's Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952) and Henry Koster's No Highway in the Sky (1951), and for that matter in the Frankenstein movies, less happily.

The quiet aviator hero put in charge of the mission is Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd). He and Wallis are real-life people, listed in the credits with their full array of ranks and honors. This is a film that intends to impress without melodrama, just simple reality and gravity, until the last part of the film finally indulges in the suspense of the actual raid, and it's still presented as a kind of training film dominated by the aerial and effects photography of Gilbert Taylor, complete with models and bursts of flak no less harrowing for being animated. Seen today, some of these sequence's first-person perspectives uncannily resemble video games. Taylor would famously shoot George Lucas' Star Wars (1977), whose climax owes something to this film.

By this time, the audience is just as antsy as the pilots who've been training for weeks without a clue about their top secret mission. Even so, the raid is presented as a model of self-effacing professionalism, men doing their duty -- and sometimes dying horribly -- without any more histrionics than a grim breath through gritted teeth. Many of us would like to believe we could be such just-doing-our-jobs heroes with steel nerves.

The meticulous nature of inventing new methods for an audacious act of destruction, with its endless dress rehearsals, is likened to the professionalism of making a film, everyone doing their unfussy part in a job of work. Indeed, shooting film is part of the operation, and one of the several documentary extras about the film, the real event, and the career of Wallis (fascinating interview clips) is the lyrical test shots of the bouncing bomb. Similarly, theatrical rehearsal and acting are crucial to the plot of The Colditz Story, and the German invaders of Went the Day Well? also act our roles, as does a major character in one of the set's other films. A thesis can be written on "the theatre of war" from these movies.

British audiences knew that Gibson survived the event to become a celebrated hero and write a book about it, which is the basis for the screenplay along with Paul Brickhill's eponymous 1951 bestseller, and audiences also knew that the baby-faced Gibson was killed at 26, one year after these events. Brickhill also wrote the book The Great Escape (1950), so he cornered a market on war stories turned into films.

The script is by playwright and novelist R.C. Sheriff who became famous for his autobiographical WWI drama, Journey's End (1928). That led to a Hollywood career that included an Oscar nod for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939, directed by Sam Wood). In the same year as The Dam Busters, he wrote a different aircraft tale for Ealing Studios, albeit one of supernatural suspense, Leslie Norman's The Night My Number Came Up. We're hoping to see it on Blu-ray soon.

Signs of the times include the minor background presence of women as quietly knitting wives, although that's more a sign of the 1950s than 1942. We do see a chorus of showgirls whose function is to give Gibson an idea about spotlights, so the subtext of the scene is that sex is sublimated to science and duty.

The Blu-ray opens with a warning about language because of the name of Gibson's black Labrador retriever; in fact, the US version looped dialogue to rename the dog as Trigger. The dog was named "Nigger", which everyone pronounces with blithe unconsciousness, and it was used as a code word during the bombing in the dog's honor. As Wallis' interview confirms, this is a historically accurate detail. Gibson's withheld, internal response to the dog's death foreshadows his response to the death of his men, and perhaps a parallel could be drawn to a system that uses people as expendable commodities to be worked to death. The filmmakers are unlikely to have intended that implication, but that needn't stop us.

Director Michael Anderson followed this thundering public and critical triumph with the first film version of George Orwell's 1984 (1956), again starring Redgrave. Thanks to Orwell's estate, this is virtually a lost film. In the same year, Anderson's Around the World in 80 Days became a huge marketing spectacle that won the Oscar for Best Picture. In many ways, it's the complete antithesis of The Dam Busters, so it's ironic that the one job led to the other.

Dunkirk (1958) Director: Leslie Norman

Dunkirk (IMDB)

Speaking of huge undertakings: Dunkirk is, of course, literally a town in France, the northernmost port. Its name has come to symbolize, for the English, the inspiring coda to a great military disaster: 400,000 British and French troops retreated to the town in May 1940, marking the failure of the battle for France and its conquest by Germany. Over a few days of beach bombardment, most of the soldiers were evacuated to England by anybody with a boat.

More than 900 vessels responded in what Winston Churchill labeled "the miracle of Dunkirk". The act recalls David vs. Goliath, with David represented by ordinary citizens coming forth at great personal risk, and the contemplation of it can restore one's faith in the power of "the little people" or "the masses". If there's anyone for whom it raises no lump in the throat, perhaps they're dead.

Each side of this vast enterprise is represented by a small core of characters. The dual narrative path follows them to express the idea that the previous division between soldiers and civilians became erased with this event and going forward into the English Blitz, when London and other cities would be pounded by bombs every night.

The script by David Divine and W.P. Lipscomb opens with both sides rankled with discontent, even disgust. In northern France, a handful of soldiers unwillingly led by Corp. Tubby Binns (John Mills in his second film of this set) find themselves lost and abandoned when their company retreats without them. Their odyssey of attrition towards Dunkirk comprises part of the film's first half and provides most of the standard war action.

The other storyline concerns a downbeat vision of the home front, where people talk of "the phony war" and listen to the radio propagandist Lord Haw-Haw in comfort. These citizens are represented by two middle-aged men. John Holden (Richard Attenborough) owns a garage and buckle factory that's doing well, but he feels guilty for profiting and not doing more. The angry journalist Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) fumes at everybody, mainly because he can't get straight answers at the daily stonewalling press conferences (hmm, nothing dated there).

When their private boats are requisitioned by the Navy and they witness straggling wounded soldiers debarking on shore, they comprehend what's happening and volunteer to cross the Channel in their own boats. The mousy Holden is accompanied by an eager teenager (Sean Barrett). The fusion of their fate with Binns' men, when the two strands meet at Dunkirk halfway through the picture, seals the sense that everyone must pull together in a new direction in response the colossal disaster caused by a long series of blunders.

While Christopher Nolan retold these events as a kind of grandiose visual symphony in his 2017 film of the same name, Ealing Studios handled the events in the unobtrusive, self-effacing, stiff-upper-lip manner of the era's docudramas like The Dam Busters, hammered together with quiet pride.

Again, the results are very English, although these characters are permitted to get highly emotional and vent contradictory frustrations and arguments over what's happening. "Sometimes there's a lot to be said for not being too much of a realist," says Foreman in a moment of paradoxical bleak hope. When he stands on the beach at Dunkirk, he'll declare, "What a mess. What a shambles we've made of this whole rotten affair."

What's unusual is how sour, grim, and unpleasant are the initial situations on both sides of the Channel, the better to imply that a new resolve and even a new English character get forged from the sacrifice. The film finds affirmation in the "miracle" of what's largely depicted as sheer pounding hell, and on a grand scale with thousands of extras. This must have been one of England's largest productions, and certainly Ealing's. The studio had moved to MGM's Borehamwood lot by this time, and Balcon was about to shutter it.

Dunkirk (IMDB)

The element of grim restraint is expressed in technique. Paul Beeson's black and white photography incorporates some newsreel footage. One of the more unusual decisions involves the sparseness of Malcolm Arnold's score in favor of a detailed naturalistic sound mix, whether in home front scenes (with radios playing in the background) or full-scale attacks. Only rarely does the score show up to underline anything, such as the rousing shot of boats along the Thames.

An especially modern and cynical touch is provided by having vaudeville comics Flanagan and Allen, as themselves, performing their supposedly rousing song "We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line" during a montage of failure that includes arrows advancing on an animated map, giving ironic emphasis to the line "if that Siegfried Line's still there". The film airs all kinds of sentiments that would once have been criticized or forbidden as damaging to morale. It's a sign of how much time had passed since the war.

Director Leslie Norman certainly made no shambles of the mess. This former editor, who'd co-directed a quota quickie in 1939, made a significant solo debut at Ealing with the above-mentioned aircraft thriller The Night My Number Came Up (1955) and now he was returning to Ealing after an important sci-fi horror for Hammer, X the Unkown (1956). He'd settle into TV thrillers but his handful of remaining features includes one more war film, The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961) with Richard Todd and Richard Harris.

As with the other films in the set, the digital restoration is all one could wish for visual and audial clarity. Like The Dam Busters, this disc comes with a few contextual extras, including an interview with Barrett and, most intriguingly, Mills' 16mm home movies of the production, which show how some of this gigantic staging looked in color (impressive). Thrown in for good measure is one of Ealing's propaganda shorts, Young Veteran (1940), assembled mostly from found footage that includes Dunkirk. It's the work of Cavalcanti, assistants Basil Dearden and Monja Danischewsky, and editor Charles Crichton -- a galaxy of names important to postwar British cinema.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958) Director: J. Lee Thompson

Harry Andrews, John Mills, Anthony Quayle, and Sylvia Sims in Ice Cold in Alex (IMDB)

Earlier we referred to the 1960s trend in presenting WWII action as a kind of James Bond thriller. Director J. Lee Thompson virtually defined that mode with the enormous 1961 hit The Guns of Navarone. In Ice Cold in Alex, almost as a trial run, he's working out the combination of intimate human interaction against an epic-scale background. The story turns into a kind of existential statement about a four-person microcosm more or less lost in the North African desert, a stripped-down metaphor for survival in a deadly war and a hostile universe.

John Mills stars in his third film of the set, looking older and less heroic than ever as weary, battle-scarred Captain Anson, who depends on alcohol to get through the day. Once again, a 1958 film is distanced enough from the war to indulge problematic elements, like vulgar humor about bodily functions and a superior officer's bathtub nudity.

As the Germans take over Tobruk in 1942, a variety of circumstances conspire to throw Anson into a rickety ambulance with robust Sergeant-Major Pugh (Harry Andrews), pretty young nurse Diana (Sylvia Sims), and a tall, strong, overbearingly self-confident South African, Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle). They share an odyssey in which appearances are deceptive, whether of the sand or the people. One lighter example is a seeming desert Arab who reveals an old-school-tie accent under his disguise, possibly to remind the audience of T.E. Lawrence.

As the party tries to find its way to refuge in Alexandria (called Alex), some problems they face are external, and not only the German troops surrounding them. Unbearably tense and suspenseful scenes about land mines and quicksand recall scenes and images from Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953), which seems very much on Thompson's mind.

Some problems are brought with them, such as the truck's tendency to need repair, as realized in one especially vivid, nail-biting scene. Anson's thirst for booze and the self-laceration it leads to can be seen as parallel with the truck's issues. When he fears that his addled judgment has caused a death, he announces his plan to concentrate on the ice-cold lager waiting for him at trail's end. This delicious goal is early planted in viewers' minds, and we wait for it.

The biggest internal problem and the continual source of suspenseful interest for the viewer is the questionable status of the Afrikaaner, who gives mixed signals on his trustworthiness. As historian Melanie Williams remarks in a bonus interview, this element reflects the era's thoughtful, less jingo-istic approach to war films in response to Britain's humiliation in the 1956 Suez Crisis (which happened next door to Libya, where the movie was shot), and Steve Chibnall observes that it's almost not a war film and more of a mythic survival-suspense quest. Dunkirk has a similar "pulling together" theme while remaining solidly in the good/evil dichotomy of war films, while Ice Cold in Alex reaches for broader survival against the indifferent elements.

The script by T.J. Morrison and Christopher Landon, based on Landon's 1957 novel, seems to throw in Diana just to have an attractive woman and her attendant romantic redemptive interest in the psychologically wounded Anson. She's made acceptable by her quiet competence and cool logic, in contrast to her colleague who's caused them to be separated from their convoy and who's not long for this plot, and also by the fact that she takes the initiative romantically in response to her own desires. We can surmise that her experience of war has encouraged this dispensing with passivity.

This restoration is an important release for several reasons, not least for being, at last, the full 130-minute version shown in Britain by Associated British Pictures, not the truncation shown in the US as Desert Attack with about 50 minutes missing. Here we enjoy the sun-scorched black and white photography of Gilbert Taylor (responsible for the aerial climax of The Dam Busters) and Richard Best's crisply suspenseful editing as Thompson marshals these elements around his actors. As a bonus, we get more of Mills' home movies.

Other British war movies, some of which we've named, deserve the Blu-ray treatment as well. This box provides an excellent primer of major films that, as Cullen Gallagher writes in the booklet, "show that in a decade and a half, the way that England remembered -- and filmed -- the war had changed dramatically."

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