Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

In Which We Serve

(1942)

… is the story of a ship, a destroyer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy from shortly before the war to somewhere in 1942. In the first 15 minutes we see her built from the keel up, launched, fighting in her last combat engagement, and sunk. The rest of the movie is the recollections of a few men clinging to a life raft as the goddam Nazis strafe them every few minutes. This is a very effective way to tell the story, as we see the quiet heroism of the men at war, and the quiet heroism of the women on the home front. It was written, scored, and co-directed (with David Lean) by its star, Noel Coward. In fact, Mr. Coward’s name shows up so often in the credits that I thought they might name the ship the HMS Coward … but somehow, that doesn’t sound like a great name for a warship, does it?

When you watch a film like this or Mrs. Miniver, made as it was all happening, or a later one like Hope And Glory, which show the hardships the British people endured when Hitler made Piccadilly Circus one of the war’s front lines, I’m always reminded of what an incredibly easy time of it we Americans have had in our wars. If you don’t count Pearl Harbor, there has been no combat on our shores since 1865. Sure, we sacrificed big-time during World War II, even a bit on the home front—gas rationing, rubber and steel drives—lost many lives (actually, a fairly small number compared to China, the Soviet Union, Poland, and many other countries). but after Pearl Harbor no civilians were bombed. Not once. Our families never cowered in basements or tube stations, no incendiaries fried our children in their beds. The war in Vietnam took a terrible toll on our soldiers, but we civilians slept safe every night, never had to listen for the sound of Viet Cong helicopters in the night. As for our recent wars … other than a bunch of money (most of it going to war profiteers like KBR and Blackwater) and the blood and bones of the mostly poor young men and women who make up our military, we have been asked to sacrifice nothing. What was George W. Bush’s advice to us, the way we could do something to help the effort for his war of choice in Iraq? Go shopping. Spend money. Gee, Monkey Boy, do I have to?

So we are attacked on 9/11, and what is our response? We squealed like the spoiled pigs we are: Keep us safe, Mr. Bush! Fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight ‘em over here! Here, tear up the Constitution, bomb civilians, torture prisoners. Do anything, Mr. Bush, but don’t let them scare us like that again! My fellow citizens, if Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Afghans, Sunni or Shiites Iraqis had been able to drop one single bomb on us, if one remotely-controlled Predator drone had penetrated our shores, both of these wars would have been over in ten minutes. We would have been begging for surrender terms. We have become a nation of cowards, a fat, spoiled, degenerate nation of indulgence, and it makes me sick. We have fallen so far from the people who endured the Civil War, fighting for a cause (yes, the cause of the South was evil, but it was a cause), who stopped the evils of Hitler and Tojo in their tracks. We have become a people who go to war to keep the price of gas down at the pump, so we can feed our monstrous vehicles, and so long as all the damage is done far away from here. We will suck up every drop of oil, no matter what the cost, and then throw a tantrum because it’s all gone. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be an American.

Enough. My movie reviews often veer off into rage. I’m not going to stop doing it. You don’t like it, don’t read them.

I love this little movie. It is a sharp departure for Noel Coward, who previously had chronicled the foolishness of the British upper classes with frothy, witty little plays. There’s nothing frothy about this movie. He is very good at portraying the stiff-upper-lip Captain of the destroyer. And once more I must sing the praises of the IMDb. No telling what you’ll learn if you browse through the Trivia section on a movie. Here, I spotted a rather familiar name in the end credits: John Varley! All I know about him is that he played very small parts in half a dozen movies, and stopped as I was being born, in 1947. Also, there was a small but important part played by someone who looked a little familiar. I mean, could that be little Dickie Attenborough in that sailor hat? Naw, I don’t think so, and his absence in the end credits seemed to confirm it. But wait! It was! The IMDb says his role was uncredited through an oversight. It was his very first screen appearance! And by golly, here’s another familiar name: Michael Anderson. He was the First Assistant Director, and then was dragooned into playing a small part. Now, that’s a pretty common name … could it be …? Yes! It is my friend Michael Anderson, director of Around the World in 80 Days, The Dam Busters, Orca, and … wait for it … Millennium! I spent a fun 6 months at his side in Toronto, doing re-writes, and I’m happy to see that he’s still alive, at 89. In fact, he has a movie coming out this very month, September 2009. Bravo, Michael!