Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942)


This is the story of the British warship HMS Torrin, commanded by Captain Kinross (Noel Coward, The Italian Job), and its exploits during WWII. Flashbacks reveal personal details of the crew and their family members.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“God bless our ships … and all who sail in them.”

British actor and playwright-turned-filmmaker Noel Coward’s (Easy VirtuePrivate Lives, Blithe Spirit, Cavalcade, etc.) poignant flag-waver quickly became a runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic. Wartime audiences ate it up and it is easy to see why — In Which We Serve offers astute, if familiar, observations on heroism, bravery, and sacrifice. It’s extremely well-acted and directed, and it has a lot of heart.

Coward’s screenplay was based on his friend Lord Mountbatten’s experiences. Once he heard Mountbatten’s war tales, Coward knew that he had found the perfect material for his next movie. The original script was too long and Coward didn’t know how to trim it down. It has been said that he created the much-celebrated fragmented structure after seeing Orson Welles’s nonlinear masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941).

After completing the script, Coward set out to produce, direct, and star in the film as well (amazingly, he wrote the music score too!). Recognizing that he was unfamiliar with the film medium, Coward hired David Lean — England’s highest paid editor — to assist him with the technical stuff. But Lean cunningly demanded to be credited as co-director (he also edited the film, with Thelma Connell). The idea was for Lean to direct Coward’s scenes, and provide assistance only when needed. Coward allegedly got bored with the film process, and Lean ended up directing most of the movie.

In addition to Coward, the cast includes several future stars of British cinema: Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter), Michael Wilding (Under Capricorn), Bernard Miles (Hitch’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much), John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter), Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park), and Kay Walsh (Mrs. David Lean). Future Oscar-nominated director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days) plays Albert. Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind) narrates. Juliet Mills (John’s daughter) and Daniel Massey (Raymond’s son) play the children.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In Which We Serve was nominated for two Oscars (Coward received an honorary award “for his outstanding production achievement”) and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards selected it as the best film of 1942, over such perennial favorites like Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca. This movie still holds up after all these years.  In Which We Serve is more than mere propaganda; it’s a well-crafted, poignant, very entertaining war drama. B&W, 115 minutes, Not Rated.


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