by Harlan Kennedy



Geopolitical musical chairs is a game played across the world today. Nations we've known for decades as we thought we knew their national characters suddenly vanish into thin air and the history books. Blocs dissolve into bickering neighbors; neigh­bors coalesce into bickering blocs (vive la communité Européenne). Who's next? And while we're at it, who in modern times was first?

Fifty years ago Britain won a war and lost a cinema. In 1995, as if to remind us of the glory that was big-screen gung-ho and of that turning point when a country lost not just a style of moviemaking but, it almost seemed, a style of being The Way to the Stars was wheeled triumphally from the TV hangar again. So were a dozen other beloved bone-shakers dusted off by World War II jubilee mania in the U.K. and discovered, like old planes, to have taken on the spell of the exotic.

The Way to the Stars, directed by Anthony Asquith in 1945 and regarded by some (then and now) as Britain's best wartime screen drama, is still moving, still powerfully effective in both structure and sensibility. At the same time, it seems to have come from another dimen­sion. Rubbing our eyes, we 1995 viewers also kept cupping our ears: what were these characters talking about? Michael Redgrave, John Mills, and Trevor Howard were up there in the skies over England fighting the "Jerries" (Germans) while trying not to "prang" (crash) their "kites" (planes). Down on the ground, widows choked back tears while surviving flyers comforted them with demented under­statement: "Bad show ... jolly bad luck." Occasionally, in the one bit of slang with a modernist ring, a deceased pilot was said to have "bought it"; but as delivered by a mid-century British actor, this does­n't sound hardboiled or quasi-Ameri­can it sounds as if someone were being commiserated for having made a purchase of defective goods at Harrods.

We could see and hear this lost culture in other pix exhumed for the hullabaloo: The First of the Few, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, In Which We Serve, The Way Ahead.... As we were bombed, strafed, and thrown overboard, pushed off one stretch of sand (Dunkirk) to triumph on another (El Alamein), we heard noble men and women sum up death and injury as-if they were pinpricks in the Scheme of Things, mere accidents on the cosmic croquet lawn. Playing down tragedy seemed to be part of God's law for island Anglo-Saxons in the Forties.

The nation's reputation for daft sangfroid goes back at least to Sir Francis Drake and his battle-postponing game of bowls ("I will finish my game and then the enemy," he said or is said to have said – as the Spanish fleet sailed into view off Plymouth), and encompasses the likes of Dr. Livingstone and General Gordon on the way to the London Blitz and the Battle of Britain. But by World War II the stiff upper lip had become an all-defining heraldic emblem. That odd area of rigor vitae between an English­man's nose and mouth was an advertise­ment for the superglue of Empire, or for the entire long history of Britain's twofold flair for bloody battle and lofty prattle. Take a nose for conquest and a mouth for presumptuous triumphalism, then join them by the firmest, straightest route.

Since 1945, though, Britain's upper lip has become as sloppy as most other nations'. Lulled by political decline, the country can now giggle at its celluloid wartime past. Yet if the first reaction last year to seeing itself again in the movie mirror was "Were we really like that?" (titter titter), reaction two was a more thoughtful "When, how, and why did we stop being like that?" The third stage I witnessed it myself – was an almost emotional rebonding with the pathos that had once been British patriotism.

The Way to the Stars is a filmic gate­way between the war and the after-war – and arguably between Britain's past as a nation with clout and confidence and its future with neither. Made in 1945, under the direction of Anthony Asquith from a script by Terence Rattigan, it looks back over five years of a Royal Air Force station's history, and forward to a postwar age when men and women must pick up the pieces of a troubled, orphaned peace. The film's transitional power is both social-historical and cine-historical. Like the neck of an hourglass, it holds and concentrates all that is best about pre-'45 British movies, while anticipating the descent into plural styles and insecuri­ties that came after the war.

Wartime British cinema's strength and fascination is its seriousness – moral seriousness about emotion. Feelings are the more moving because they cannot be fully expressed. In The Way to the Stars the deaths of three key characters serve as narrative marker-stones. The station's first Commanding Officer, Trevor Howard, is shot down near the film's beginning in 1940. Two years later, newly married flying ace Michael Redgrave dies in action. Finally, in 1944, the American airman, Douglass Mont­gomery, who has befriended Redgrave's widow, Rosamund John, dies heroically in a blazing crash landing after saving his crew. After each demise, life goes on in the main setting, which is not the airbase itself but the hotel and saloon bar of the nearby village. Rosamund John's bereaved hotelier glides ever gracious, ever stoical, through the rooms, a figure who attracts tragedy yet seems to deflect or sublimate for others its worst effects.

Human feelings and life's continu­ities, the film suggests, are not denied indefinitely-they are on wartime hold ("Think of others before you weep or break down; think of others before you fall in love or marry"). And in some cases the film questions whether they should be. John Mills plays the young airman who loses his two best friends (Redgrave, Montgomery) and who, in the film's most harrowing scene, has to tell Rosamund John of the first man's death. As they utter stricken banalities ("I know what you've come to tell me"), we could be looking at British reticence gone patho­logical. But Asquith locks in on the two actors' faces marooned amid the de­focused, seemingly gravity-free memen­tos on the new widow's office wall and desk and watches the glow of unspoken feeling.

Alone among the movie's leading males, Mills survives. But he too has made a sacrifice. Shaken by Redgrave's death and the tact that his friend left behind a wife and newborn child, Mills breaks off his own romance with a young hotel guest (Renee Asherson): "No right to get married while this is going on," he mutters to a pal. But the film fixes on this as one emotion-denial too many. Before war's end he has been pushed back by friends into the girl's arms. The movie ends with lines from a poem Redgrave left for his widow, urging the continuities of love and life: "Better by far for Johnny the bright star / To keep your head and see his children fed."

The "way to the stars" is through hardship, in accord with the Royal Air Force motto – Per ardua ad astra from which the title is taken. And hardship may involve taking a coura­geous step to feel emotion as well as taking those steps to deny or control it.

The tension between expression and suppression fills the best Forties British movies with their almost lyrical mixture of pain and transcendence. The Way to the Stars contributes its own perspective: every individual tragedy is part of a vast, felt communal loss. Asquith prepares us for Redgrave's death with a montage of faces turning to the sky as the roar of a returning fighter squadron – minus one plane – swells overhead. Each closeup dissolves into the next, in virtually the same frame position and angle of head. By making a chorus out of imminent grief and bereavement, and by emphasizing the characters' response in a wordless know­ingness, the film evokes a nation whose stored-up heritage of shared historical extremity runs so deep that words are not needed. And even when they are, short-change phrases like "Bad show," under­pinned by that antiquity of sensibility, can have the eloquence of a requiem.

Asquith's film is also shaped and informed by the whole canon of British war cinema preceding it. The movie's haunting quietism can and should be seen as the resolution of a warlong strug­gle in British movies between conflicting styles, attitudes, and even classes: a struggle concerned with Britain's feelings about herself at home as much as about her enemies abroad.


The shadows that fell over British stiff-upper-lippery are at their darkest and most moving in The Way to the Stars: the film begins in bright sunlight and ends in chastened midnight, with the frequency of nocturnal scenes increasing as the story proceeds. Yet before this movie, the whole war and its reenactment on film could be seen as variations on that theme of emotional suppression or sublimation. Even early WWII cinema, with its full-mobilization propagandist chirpiness, made good cheer seem a mask clapped over national fore­boding. From Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel to Leslie Howard's Pimper­nel Smith, the sound of a call to arms can be heard in the hyperkinetic plotlines and urgently heraldic characters.

Patriotic chivvying was the order of the day, but done with the debonair, stoic bravura we expect from Drake's descen­dants. Howard was the country-at-war's perfect early star. His heroes were pipe-smoking idealists with a permanent Holy Grail glint in their eyes. Though born Hungarian, amaz­ingly enough, he became an ambassador of the British spirit to both Europe (in his own modern variant on the French Revolutionary swashbuckler, The Scarlet Pimpernel, he had made in the Thirties for fellow Hungarian-become-British Alexander Korda) and North America (as the philosopher-king of outdoorsmen in 49th Parallel).

But Howard, who died a war martyr's death when the plane he was travel­ing in "disappeared" in 1943, was a screen figure to look up to rather than identify with. The first collective shift in wartime British filmmaking came around 1942: towards a democratization of cinema. Films like Millions Like Us (factory life and working-class romance under the shadow of war), The Foreman Went to France (Welshman, cockney, and Scot team up to rescue arms-making machin­ery from occupied France), and The Way Ahead (mixed-class squaddies unite under David Niven) took the war iconog­raphy down a class peg. The camera swept across Britain peering into Poverty Row as well as Pall Mall, conscripts' canteen as well as officers' mess.

The apparent diversification, though, only revealed a more powerful unity. Wartime British stoicism was common at least in the filmmakers' vision to all classes. It wasn't just RAF chaps with moustaches like overgrown shaving brushes who countered crisis with self­control. Stiff upper lips could be displayed even more explicitly, since hairlessly by plain folk, too: by the northern factory girl (Patricia Roc) in Millions Like Us who loses her new airman husband and chokes back tears as the planes roar overhead during the last-scene singalong, or by the Chief Petty Officer (Bernard Miles) who learns he has lost home and wife to the Blitz in In Which We Serve ('42).

This, the most popular film of the midwar years, was a flagship for the changing mood of British movies. It blends public service filmmaking in the early war style much puffing of the Navy; Leslie Howard providing the clos­ing voiceover with the new Demotic touch. Both the Bernard Miles character and the young seaman who breaks the news to him (played by a John Mills limbering up for death-messenger duties in The Way to the Stars) are cockneys. In this socially cross-sectioned movie pic, they constitute the warmer subplot filling beneath the upper-crust pastry of Captain Noel Coward and his wife Celia Johnson.

Coward and Johnson seem to be the only ones, at first, suffering from stiff-lip syndrome. They live in what looks like Blenheim Palace after minor scaling-down, and they speak ever so precisely. She: "Is there going to be a war, d'you think?" He (very clipped): "Yes, I think there is." And they close off emotion with another sip of dry martini.

We would expect the working classes to be more liberated than this. But no. At crunch time, seaman Mills forms his voice and features into a mask no less impenetrable than Coward's. His corru­gated brow and chipmunk face are set in grim determination as he delivers his heartbreak news to Miles. That newly widowed sea salt's reaction to tragedy is as stoical as his informant's: a moment's dazed silence; a polite word of thanks; a slow, matter-of-fact walk to the deck, and the mute pitching overboard of his last, unfinished letter to his wife.

If the proletariat can't be emotional in a crisis, and if the middle and upper classes don't allow themselves to be emotional, who is emotional? Is there life after or beyond – the Englishman's stiff upper lip? By 1944 in British war cinema one answer is becoming clear: Ameri­cans. "Overpaid, oversexed, and over here," as Britain's contemporary quip put it, and definitely overarticulate. Late-war films ushered them tardily but impactfully into view, from Powell-Press­burger's A Canterbury Tale to The Way to the Stars. Their filmic role was less to rescue Britain from the Nazis than to save her from drowning in her own historic but increasingly fatigued tradition of coura­geous reticence.

In Powell-Pressburger's A Canter­bury Tale a young GI played by a real GI (Sergeant John Sweet) chatters away endearingly during most of the film, as if he alone in the dramatis personae were licensed to express his wonder at life's continuance amid death. He also incar­nates the principle of renewal in an almost terminally fuddy-duddy England. Around him are the repressive standard-bearers of "traditional" values: notably the loony justice of the peace (Eric Port­man) who pours glue into girls' hair to stop them distracting young men from attending his local history lectures.

A Canterbury Tale is a mischievous curtain-raiser to The Way to the Stars. It suggests a growing awareness of the limitations of the country's England-for-the-English crowd, with its baggage of masonic, impenetrable, keep-out emotions. Island race, island feelings.

In the later film, the playoff between British repression and American open-heartedness is unprecedentedly many-leveled. The Way to the Stars shifts about between distaste and admiration for the "Yanks." The RAF station and nearby village burst open first with the bruising ebullience of Bonar Colleano's young airman, a loudmouth who horrifies hotel guests with his gale-force prattle; later with the candor and bright wryness of Douglass Montgomery, whose large-spiritedness alone wakes the widowed Rosamund John from her coma of bereaved politeness.

For British audiences the John Mills character, positioned gnomically at the story's center, becomes our identification figure and the stalking-horse for our nervous curiosity about this brash, unphlegmatic race from across the sea. We interact with each new interloper through this hero's tiny flickers of distaste, confusion, satire, or approval. In the scene of him and Colleano contin­ually getting in each other's way in the bunkroom brilliantly timed and blocked by Asquith, with the tight-in camera seeming to close off the "fourth wall" and make the comical pas de deux more confined Mills's patience suggests all at once irritation, amusement, and an honest will to rapprochement. The plural responses of the audience are poured into a single character.

By evolving into a study of Britain's ambivalent relationship with its friends as well as its foes, The Way to the Stars seems doubly prophetic. It presents without ever spelling out a kind of "last stand" for British emotional closedness and self-control, with the Americans personifying the fresh west wind of candor and spontaneity. And its larger picture of America as a benign occupying force prefigures the drift of British culture, society, and economics in the decades after D-Day.

Shot during the war, The Way to the Stars was postproduced after the war, so the film itself swings on a hinge in time. A late addition was the flashback struc­ture, which has the movie opening with a camera tracking/dissolving through the abandoned base and spying the "forgot­ten" objects and graffiti whose meaning will become clear as the film unreels. Even the setting "Halfpenny Field," which the Americans can't pronounce (it should be "Haypenny") and which the British point out goes back to the Domes­day Book becomes part of the push-pull panorama of time.

After this movie consummation, the post-1945 British war drama a theoret­ically redundant genre that proved as stubborn as a non-departing party guest seemed ever more bizarrely regressive. Since no one wanted tears in a new dawn, Fifties films like The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story, Above Us the Waves, and Dunkirk cranked out a prolonged, pin-brained triumphalism. They were action high­lights of a bygone contest that you could swear was more interesting and more interestingly downbeat when you watched it live and complete.

The final, death-rattle year was 1958. Three films, all featuring John Mills (or was Britain's favorite war actor being cloned by this point?), effectively comprised the last gasp of British war cinema and the last word on the stiff-upper-lip spirit.

Dunkirk, a dull, hopelessly confused epic about the small boats' rescue of British troops from France in 1940, makes Mrs. Miniver look like War and Peace. In I Was Monty's Double, Mills dashes round the Near East escorting Field Marshal Montgomery's lookalike in a decoy spree designed to fool the Jerries into expecting a Mediterranean D-Day. (Some such scam actually happened, and Monty's double is played here by the real wartime double.)

Only Ice Cold in Alex approaches the war experience with some kind of post-war, even postmodern, irony. Like David Lean's Hollywood-produced The Bridge on the River Kwai of the previous year, it kicks some sand into the machinery of war nostalgia. Where Lean gave us Alec Guinness deconstructing military hero­ism as a poker-backed Colonel whose "good soldier" qualities are put down to a mixture of jingoist brainwashing and personal madness, director J. Lee Thompson gives us three chaps in an ambulance (plus Sylvia Syms), slogging it from Tobruk to Alexandria with Germans in their wake.


Ice Cold in Alex is a wake dancing on the corpse it is mourning. Yet there had been a kind of bravery even in those latterday rally-to-the-Union-Jack pictures Alex derides.

They saw that Britain had created something unique – a cinema of class-crossing stoical heroism – and they kept trying to pump the iconography into the unyielding Fifties. But the decade was already using the new British affluence to facilitate the movement towards a new British cynicism, or at least free-think­ingness. The idiocy of all that Silver Age flag-waving, plus the loss of empire, plus a dithering Conservative leadership that would lead to the fiasco of the Suez Inva­sion, inspired the tirades of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger on stage ('56) and later on screen the blood'n'sex revolution of Hammer horror, Peeping Tom, and Room at the Top: all those walpurgisnachts that would trailer the Sixties sunrise.

In that decade the revolution became complete and spectacular. From a Sixties vantage, even the enlightened parts of the Fifties are unrecognizable. Nowhere is the change more apparent – likewise young Britain's final rejection of the values prevalent during and after the war years than in the matter of accent.

The Sixties' emphasis on working-class heroes dug a grave for the "posh" voice that had served as exemplar and main instrument for the stiff-upper-lip manner. You can hear that accent (which almost requires a stiff upper lip) through­out the Forties-Fifties cinema. It says "cheps" and not "chaps"; "hice," not "house." Soon it became the plain-speak­ing norm for early TV broadcasters, too.

This accent had escaped unscathed from the first Demotic revolution after the war: the election of a Labour government in 1945 to sweep the military hero Churchill from power and to build on the egalitarian yearning implicit in films like Millions Like Us and The Foreman Went to France. But a second cultural putsch by the working class in the Sixties the ascension of "kitchen sink" directors like John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz and actors like Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay was too much. "Cheps" was ironed into "chaps," "hice" into "house."

Listening to those Fifties voices today, we can hardly believe our ears, or credit that a country's whole style of locution could change in the turn of a decade. No other modern nation has gone through such a high-speed idiomatic rewiring.

But the accent revolution wasn't just phonetic, of course it was social and moral. The new Britain was rejecting an Old Britain in which behavioral prescripts descended from on high like papal decrees. Precious vowel sounds, however trivial in themselves, were seen as part of the weaponry of social oppres­sion. Beginning with the way Britain sounded, Sixties movies like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, and A Kind of Loving went on to change the country's whole postimperial value system. Everything associated with the stiff upper lip was swapped for its oppo­site: insularity for cosmopolitanism (the eclectic evangelism of "Swinging Britain"), reticence for outspokenness (working-class characters give short shrift to verbal delicacy), fastidiousness for appetite (see Tom Jones's eating-as -sex scene), self-control for passion, emotional hypocrisy for emotional honesty. For in the last accounting, couldn't the stiff upper lip be seen as merely one more insignium of "Perfidious Albion"?

It was essential for this new Britain to deride the old one, just as it is vital for a nation at war to motivate itself by "hating" its enemy. The gung-ho precios­ity of the war years was target number one in a slew of Sixties comedy shows, from "Beyond the Fringe" to "Monty Python" (where Graham Chapman's Colonel is forever shaking his swagger-stick at "silly" sketches), and also in prominent pop-culture movies like the Dick Lester-John Lennon How I Won the War.

Britain did not revolutionize itself unaided, even in the helpful democratic climate of a seven-year Socialist govern­ment (1963-70). America had begun its own cultural colonization. As well as blowing New World values across the Atlantic-Britain's entire self-emancipa­tion into a multicolored, multi-accent pop culture could be called "Americaniza­tion" Hollywood itself arrived in London to plant movie studio outposts, through which it would assist and exploit the Swinging Sixties.

Twenty years after Victory Day, a Britain that had needed American help to achieve its victory found itself in hock to the ex-colony for far, far more. The Yanks had taken over the flying station in The Way to the Stars; now they were threaten­ing to subsidize or supervise the whole runway of British cinema – not least, and with pluperfect irony, its old monopoly on "British" war movies. After the triple-film whammy of 1958, barely a single self-financed film about Us versus Hitler was made in the U.K. Hollywood called the tune, recycling the likes of David Niven and Richard Attenborough in League of Nations blockbusters such as The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape, and Britain sat back in recogni­tion of its impotence, swapping the stiff upper lip for a stiff scotch and soda.

A nation that for centuries had bred assumption in its bones the assumption that the right word or shrug could command the world won the war but collapsed with the peace. The "Bad shows" and "Oh I says" could defeat another old-breed empire-builder across the English Channel. But they could not restabilize a country losing its grip on its culture and dominion in a postimperial age, and on those once-subject nations woken by a glimpse of the monarch nation's fallibility.

In an early scene of The Way to the Stars, the camera performs a strange "dance" while holding the Michael Redgrave character in frame. Standing silently in front of a pillar in the airmen's mess, as the pilots return from the mission that has cost the life of their C.O. (Trevor Howard), Redgrave's char­acter seems lost in musings. The camera pulls back to allow the trooping airmen to thump slowly past him in their own booted silence. Then it dollies in again on his face, posed in stillness against the pillar's one decoration: a photo of fighter planes that seem to be issuing, like thoughts, from Redgrave's troubled head.

Not a word is said, not a note of music sounded in this one-shot sequence. Yet in a single continuous movement it seems to hold all the silent courage of Britain's war years, and to anticipate all the pained, unassuageable, memory-buzzed defeat of its after-war years.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.