The Way to the Stars
The Way to the Stars (1945) For some reason this was re-titled Johnny in the Clouds for American release. It was Trevor Howard’s first real film role (his first was uncredited) and an early bit part for Jean Simmons. The cast is a roll call of some of the best British stars and character actors of the day: Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Stanley Holloway, Basil Radford, David Tomlinson, many of them early in their careers. It was adapted from a play by Terrence Rattigan.
It begins in an abandoned RAF field, Halfpenny Field (pronounced, with typical British illogic, “Haypenny,” or even Hayp’ny”) showing us leftover things that will become important later on. It chronicles the life of the airfield starting in the desperate days of the Battle of Britain, in 1940. Every mission you returned from in the crappy little British kites of the day (Bristol Blenheims at first), you would find empty bunks when you got back. Then the Americans arrive with typical American bumptiousness, their higher pay, Hershey bars and nylons, and their better (but still very vulnerable) B-17 Flying Fortresses. As the Brits said of the Americans at the time, “They are overpaid, over-sexed, and over here.”
It’s all understated and very British. “Bad show,” they say, when a plane fails to return. What I like about it is that it takes place entirely on the ground. There is not a single scene of combat—though the field is bombed early on. It’s all the tensions that happen when men go to war and the women they love are left behind. You watch them take off, and you count them when they return, and seldom do the two numbers match.
As an airplane buff I note that the Brits soon switched to Douglas A-20 Havocs, a much better plane. And of course there are some good scenes of B-17s taking off and landing. There were still a lot of them flying when this picture was made. Damn few of them around now.