The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

The Cruel Sea (1953)

The Cruel Sea.jpg

No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.  Despite his guilt over a recent harrowing sea battle in which many of his men were lost, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is assigned to helm the new H.M.S. Compass Rose with the help of steadfast seaman Lt. Lockhart (Donald Sinden). When the small vessel (a corvette) is sent to escort convoys of ships fighting German U-boats in the North Atlantic, the mettle of the novice crew is tested by the weather, the turbulent sea and enemy attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic, one of which nearly destroys the Compass Rose… Nicholas Monsarrat’s book was hugely meaningful to seafaring folk (like my grandfather) especially if they’d had experiences during WW2. Eric Ambler’s adaptation takes what the author described as ‘a story of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men’ and inscribes more character psychology to make the plot turn. This does not shirk from the terror that invariably affects the men, with Hawkins’ stiff upper lip quivering more than once in the onslaught. The decisions that are made – such as whether to launch depth charges – tear at him. His relationship with Lockhart is the story’s fulcrum: Monsarrat based that character on himself. He had been a journalist before the war and served for four years in the Royal Navy.  Stanley Baker (as cowardly Australian Bennett) and Denholm Elliott (as Sub-Lieutenant Morell) have crucial supporting roles, while Virginia McKenna makes a striking appearance as Julie Hallam, a WRNS officer. There are other well-known faces down the ranks and on land: Liam Redmond, Alec McCowen,  Sam Kydd, Megs Jenkins. The Fifties British war film had a difficult job:  to serve up the realism that the audience deserved while also being mindful of the tricky area of censorship. This is a superb example of a film that does justice to its subject while avoiding some of the book’s elements (sex scenes;  precise details of what happens to bodies split by explosives) that would never make it past the censor’s scissors. Produced by Leslie Norman, Norman Priggen and Michael Balcon and directed by Charles Frend, this is a spirited, harrowing depiction of six years at sea in a war of utter futility that the U-boats were slated to win, a tragic tale of bravery that does not glamorise the combat scenes which end so cruelly for so many. Tremendous.