The Second World War proved to be a fertile apprenticing ground for many of Britain’s best post-war directors. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (though they’d both already been making films before the war) started to make films together during these years, and it was after the war’s end that they embarked on their best work. David Lean too, had been working on various films in the pre-war years, mostly as an editor, but he too took until the post-war era to truly find his voice. His wartime films, often made with Noel Coward co-directing or working on the script, represent the first steps of what would become one of British cinema’s most fascinating voices.
Some aspects of that voice are evident in In Which We Serve, his first film as a director, ostensibly with Noel Coward also on directorial duties. Coward’s contributions were mostly towards the script and as a leading actor, his aptitude for directing lacking in comparison. The most striking thing about the film is how strong Lean’s aesthetic eye already was at this point; In Which We Serve is a gorgeous looking film, with some fantastically-composed shots, striking lighting, and smooth camera movements. Sometimes it is relatively ‘useless’ style, in that it doesn’t really match the documentary-style tone of the film, but it makes what is otherwise a rather stale and immobile film a lot more interesting to watch.
There are other interesting characteristics to the film, most notably in its screenplay, which is built on a rather complex flashback structure that certainly brings to mind Citizen Kane, released not long before this film. We follow the crew of the HMS Torrin after they abandon their sinking ship. As the survivors cling onto the lifeboat their memories wander back to their home lives and their time as seamen. Ambitiously, the screenplay often deals with several different characters at once, shifting perspectives from scene to scene. These characters are played by an excellent cast that comprises almost a who’s who of some of the best British talent at the time. Noel Coward is quintessentially English as one would expect him to be in the lead role as the HMS Torrin’s captain, and Celia Johnson is superb as his lonely wife. Further down the ranks are excellent character actors like John Mills as a working-class shipmate, and a small but very impressive and charismatic debut for one Mr. Richard Attenborough.
However, despite all these interesting little aspects, the film as a whole is largely uninteresting and a bit dull. The issue lies again with Noel Coward: it is his quintessential Englishness, not just as a public persona, but as a writer, that creates a dull stasis within the film. In Which We Serve represents a very conservative, safe view of British society, where every man, no matter his class, knows his place and listens to orders from his superiors. In turn, this leads to the film’s drama routing itself out of any potential life and blood; characters retain their stiff upper lip and always accept their lot in life no matter what occurs to them. In a film made for propagandistic, war-effort related purposes this message is to be somewhat expected, but curiously In Which We Serve is actually a rather downbeat film. It is frequently pessimistic and melancholy about the war, to the point where it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how it was to be used as propaganda. This quaint melancholy would be repeated in Lean and Coward’s second film together, This Happy Breed, made in 1944, but that is altogether a much more successful work, primarily because it focuses around family ties and the passing of time; a downbeat melancholy is well-suited to such a work. Here it feels at odds with the film’s purpose as a wartime call-to-arms, leading to a strange disjointedness.
A strange, curious little oddity, In Which We Serve at the very least serves as the first stepping stone for what would become one of the greatest directors of all time, and at the very least the film’s exquisite photography and solid performances keep it afloat to some extent. Realistically, it’s only worth seeking out if you are indeed a fan of David Lean as I am.