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 World War II. Flashbacks reveal personal details of the crew and their family members.

Reaction & Thoughts:

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

Released at the height of World War II, acclaimed British actor, playwright and filmmaker Sir Noel Coward’s (Private Lives and Blithe Spirit) poignant flag-waver quickly became a runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic. Wartime audiences ate it up, and it’s easy to see why — In Which We Serve makes astute observations about heroism, bravery and sacrifice. It’s extremely well-acted and directed, and it has a lot of heart.

In Which We Serve is based on Coward’s friend Lord Mountbatten’s wartime 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. Allegedly, he created the much-celebrated fragmented structure after seeing Orson Welles’s nonlinear classic Citizen Kane (1941).

After completing the script, Coward set out to produce, direct and star in the film as well (he also wrote the music score!). Recognizing that he was unfamiliar with the film medium, Coward hired editor David Lean to assist him with the technical stuff. But Lean cunningly demanded he be credited as co-director. 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 actors at the beginning of their careers: Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter), Michael Wilding (The Glass Slipper), Bernard Miles (1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter), Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape) and Kay Walsh (The Horse’s Mouth).

Future director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days and Logan’s Run) plays Albert. Actor Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest), in one of his last movies, is the narrator. That’s Mills’s real-life daughter (and Haley’s sister) Juliet Mills (Avanti!) as his little daughter. Daniel Massey (Raymond Massey’s son), who was Coward’s godson in real-life, plays his son in the movie (Massey would later receive an Oscar nod for portraying Coward in the 1969 musical Star!).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In Which We Serve was nominated for two Oscars (Sir Noel 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 as William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca. The movie still holds up after all these years.  In Which We Serve is more than mere propaganda; it’s a well-crafted, poignant and very entertaining war drama. B&W, 115 minutes, Not Rated.

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