Film Review: The Way Ahead

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.

Way Ahead Poster

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.

Wm Hartnell Way Ahead

Sgt. Fletcher (William Hartnell) on the parade ground.

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.

Way Ahead Spud Bashing

Pte. Ted Brewer (Stanley Holloway) complains while his comrades peel potatoes.

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.

Way Ahead Bayonets

Lt. Perry (David Niven) and Pte. Beck (Leslie Dwyer) prepare to advance on the enemy during the film’s dramatic finale.

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.

Way Ahead Group Shot

“The Way Ahead”:  the men prepare for their first action in North Africa.

*George MacDonald Fraser once wrote that all wartime British films featured Stanley Holloway, or at least that was how it seemed.

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Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

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An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

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Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

One of my favorite motion pictures is Theirs is the Glory, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and released in 1946.  The film tells the story of the Battle of Arnhem, and it is quite remarkable.  Rather than making a movie in the traditional manner by hiring actors and building sets, Hurst and his team worked in close cooperation with the British Army.  Just over 200 survivors from the British 1st Airborne Division were transported back to the ruins of Arnhem and Oosterbeek to recreate the epic battle.  The movie is also inter-cut with footage from the actual operation.

Early scenes show the troops receiving their final mission briefings, then going to bed for some needed rest.  The sharp-eyed viewer will notice that, in the barrack scenes, the soldiers are wearing post-war wool shirts with collars, rather than the wartime collarless shirts.  One must remember that they were still serving soldiers when the film was made, and simply wore their normal clothing as issued.  They were not actors, and some of the lines are delivered in a rather stiff or subdued manner; but looking closely at their faces as the film progresses, the viewer gets some sense of the horrors these men survived.

Thers is the Glory Map

Lt. Hugh Ashmore of 21st Independent Parachute Company briefing his platoon.

Historical events are inevitably distorted in film, and this is no exception.  Some of the most important figures from the battle, including General Urquhart and Colonel Frost, were unable to appear, and the film makes it seem as though Major “Freddie” Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron was in command at Arnhem Bridge.  However, most of the major events of the operation are portrayed as authentically as was possible.

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Maj. “Freddie” Gough as he appears in the film.

As the story progresses, some civilians appear.  Stanley Maxted, the Canadian journalist who broadcast from the battle, acts as narrator; it is interesting to compare his narration to archived recordings of his original broadcasts.  Kate Ter Horst is shown sheltering wounded men in her home’s basement, including a very moving sequence in which she comforts the wounded by reading from the Psalms; she was known by the troops as the “Angel of Arnhem”.

The level of realism is impressive, but as always, there are some compromises.  Arnhem Bridge was destroyed shortly before the end of the war and had not been rebuilt in time for the film; a large matte painting had to be used instead.  Other locations are easily identified, however, such as the badly-damaged spires of St. Eusebius Church and St. Walburgis Church in Arnhem, and the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, which was used as the Divisional headquarters.  Major “Dickie” Lonsdale recreates his speech to a mixed force of defenders at the Old Church in Oosterbeek, just as he did towards the end of the fighting.

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The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek.  This building was used as Divisional Headquarters, and was still battle-damaged when the film was made.

Most of the vehicles and weapons were real, with little use of props or special effects.  Troops can be seen firing actual flamethrowers, and the careful observer will notice the Bren guns firing real ammunition, including tracer, in a way that 1940’s film effects could not replicate.  However, a number of black powder charges were used to replicate artillery and mortar rounds, which caused a great deal more smoke than the real versions.

Comparisons with 1977’s A Bridge Too Far are inevitable.  A Bridge Too Far is epic in scale, and shows the entire operation, from British, American, and German perspectives.  Theirs is the Glory is more focused as it only shows Arnhem, and only from the British standpoint; Germans are rarely seen, even though their artillery fire is relentless.  However, there are some similar sequences in which the later film must have been influenced by the earlier.  For example, there is a famous scene in A Bridge Too Far in which a young soldier lifts a resupply container, puts it on his shoulder and starts running with it to friendly lines, until he is shot by a sniper.  The original drop containers weighed around 350 pounds when loaded with supplies; in Theirs is the Glory, a trooper attaches his toggle rope to a container and drags it behind him, which is much more realistic, but perhaps slightly less cinematic.  (Note:  for my review of A Bridge Too Far, click here.)

Theirs is the Glory is an extraordinary motion picture.  Anyone who enjoys World War II movies would enjoy it, and anyone with a particular interest in the British Airborne should see it.  It is also a good film for filmmakers to study, as it was made in such a unique way.

Theirs is the Glory is easy to find in the UK on Region 2 / PAL format DVD.  Americans and Canadians are not so lucky, as the DVD will not play in a normal Region 1 / NTSC format player.  Fortunately, Theirs is the Glory is often included in war movie DVD collections; it is currently available through Amazon US as part of a Best of British War Cinema 5-disc set.  It can also be found on YouTube.

There is also a new book that examines the films of director Brian Desmond Hurst and his portrayal of war and other conflicts; the focus of the book is “Theirs is the Glory”.  I have not had a chance to read the book, but I hope to in the future.

UPDATE:  I have just learned that Lieutenant Norman Hugh Henry Ashmore, pictured at the top of this article, died at the age of 95 on November 10, 2017.  Lt. Ashmore commanded No. 3 Platoon, 21st Independent Parachute Company (“The Pathfinders”) during the Battle of Arnhem, and recreated his role for Theirs is the Glory.

Theirs is the Glory: UK DVD through Amazon

Best of British War Cinema: US/Canada DVD set

Theirs is the Glory:  Arnhem, Hurst, and Conflict on Film

Theirs is the Glory UK DVD

DVD cover from the UK release; this version will not play in most North American players.

Theirs is the Glory Book

Cover of the recent book on Brian Desmond Hurst, focusing on his film about Arnhem