While I generally enjoy films about World War II, I have a particular fondness for motion pictures made about the war while it was still being fought. Not only are they entertaining, but as an amateur historian, I find them valuable tools in gaining an insight into the mindset of the time.
Perhaps my favorite wartime motion picture is “The Way Ahead”. This is a propaganda film first released in 1944, and tells the story of typical new recruits coming together to form an infantry platoon.
David Niven portrays Lt. Jim Perry, the young officer assigned as Platoon Leader. Perry had served in the Territorial Army (Britain’s volunteer reserve) before the war. He is very keen on all things military; a more recent generation would call him “Army Barmy”. His Platoon Sergeant is Sgt. Ned Fletcher, played by William Hartnell; he was a pre-war professional soldier.
In contrast to the officer and sergeant are seven private soldiers, who had been called up from civilian life and sent to the Army. They represent very different backgrounds and personalities. The men resent being conscripted; some have families, others feel their civilian jobs were too important to have been taken from them. They complain about their situation whenever they are out of earshot of their officer and sergeant. Based on an early incident, they feel Sgt. Fletcher is unduly harsh to them.
There is tension within the group of conscripts, as well. Pte. Beck, a former travel agent, is very enthusiastic and optimistic, which puts him at odds with the others. Pte. Stainer has a boyish fondness for automobiles, and generally seems less mature than the others; he frequently makes threats and boasts, but does nothing. Pte. Lloyd is reserved but somewhat sour; he gets angry with Stainer and decides to take action himself. He complains to Lt. Perry about Sgt. Fletcher’s supposed unfair treatment. Perry is baffled by the situation; he does not understand the men’s resentment.
Eventually, the men are allowed out of camp on a weekend. They encounter some civilians and learn of their efforts to support members of the armed forces. They meet a pilot of the RAF, who is on medical leave after having been shot down. They also find themselves in a social situation with Lt. Perry; things start off quite awkwardly, but they finally start getting to know one another. This is the film’s turning point; nothing is said outwardly, but the men’s attitudes change. They realize they have been selfish and foolish; they finally become proficient soldiers and learn to work together, and they develop respect for their superiors.
Finally, the platoon completes its training, and is sent overseas to see action in North Africa. After successfully defending against a German attack, the finale shows the men fixing bayonets and taking the fight to the enemy, with rousing music playing.
While some wartime films were made for escapist entertainment, many were made for propaganda purposes, including “The Way Ahead”. While it would seem that the film was intended to teach conscripts what they could expect, by the time it was released in 1944, most young men in Britain were already in uniform. “The Way Ahead” was really intended to bolster civilian morale, to say that the darkest days of the war were over and that final victory was around the corner. It was intended to instill civilian confidence in the Army, its leadership and structure, and its fighting ability. In 1944, everyone knew that the Allies were preparing to invade continental Europe; only the specifics were kept secret. The final scenes highlight the successful Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algiers (Operation Torch) to remind the civilian populace of its success, and to prepare them for the upcoming invasion of Europe. The film closes with the titles, “The Beginning”, likely a reference to Churchill’s speech about the great victory at El Alamein being “the end of the beginning”.
I enjoy the film as a piece of cinematic storytelling; the characters are interesting, and I like watching them learning to become soldiers and overcoming their differences.
As an amateur historian, I appreciate the film for how it depicts training and life in the barracks. The men grumble that they are issued blankets, but not sheets. They are seen cleaning rifles, polishing boots, and peeling potatoes. There are repeated scenes of the men going through an assault course: climbing walls, swinging on ropes, all while small arms are fired over their heads. The men clumsily stumble through the first time, but each attempt shows significant improvement.
The men are in a fictional regiment: The Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry. My favorite sequence is one in which the privates return to barracks after a field exercise; the men had intentionally gotten themselves disqualified so they could leave the exercise early. Lt. Perry, normally calm and reserved, is visibly upset. He explains the history of their regiment and its battle honours in an attempt to instill them with pride in their unit, to motivate them to act honorably and to take their training seriously. It is as good an introduction to the Regimental System as any I can think of.
There is another set of characters, a pair of Chelsea Pensioners; they are former soldiers who live at the Chelsea Hospital, The British Army’s retirement home. Their role in the film is similar to that of a Greek chorus; while they do not influence the plot, they comment on the progress of the war and compare it to their service. They, too, had served in the same fictional regiment as Perry and his platoon, and are keen to see their descendants carry on the glories of their unit.
The film was released in the United States, under the title “The Immortal Battalion”; not surprisingly, I find the British version more emotionally satisfying. The Chelsea Pensioners were edited out of the American version, causing it to lose some of the charm and humor of the original; it also loses some of its sense of continuity and stability, of the ability to ride out the storm. The American title is also troubling to me; after all, it is the regiment that is important, not the battalion. For many years, “The Immortal Battalion” was the only version available in the United States; fortunately, though, there is now a company producing NTSC Region 1 format DVD’s of “The Way Ahead” for the US market.
“The Way Ahead” was written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, and directed by Carol Reed. It starred David Niven, William Hartnell, Peter Ustinov, Stanley Holloway*, James Donald, Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley, and John Laurie.
*George MacDonald Fraser once wrote that all wartime British films featured Stanley Holloway, or at least that was how it seemed.