Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

In Which We Serve
The Poetry of Propaganda

Although the term “propaganda film” conjures up images of evil geniuses like Joseph Goebbels brainwashing the masses with lies and half-truths, all countries have always used the popular media to win the hearts and minds of their citizens—during wartime as well as peacetime. For the duration of World War II, cinema was both the dominant form of entertainment and the most powerful propaganda tool of governments the world over.  Although most German movies produced prior to and during the war were pastoral melodramas and light comedies, the Nazi party exercised direct control over their country’s film industry in the 1930s and early '40s, and nearly every movie made during that time was a piece of outright propaganda.  Goebbels oversaw production on practically every picture and injected ideological ideas and messages into even the most benign light comedies. These now largely forgotten films arguably had as much of an effect on the everyday German as the grander, more overtly nationalist films like Leni Riefenstahl’s undeniably powerful Triumph of the Will (1935).  FDR didn't wield a correspondingly rigid control over the US movie industry, but Hollywood still cranked out hundreds of propaganda pictures once it became clear America was going to join the war.  Casablanca is probably the best example of a film that, while not directly commissioned or paid for by the government, is clearly designed, at least in part, to bolster patriotic sentiment. 

Somewhere in between the Nazis’ fascistic control over film production and the American government's indirect political pressure on Hollywood lies Great Britain’s approach to propaganda cinema. The day after declaring war, the English formed the Ministry of Information—an office officially tasked with “presenting the national case to the public at home and abroad." The MOI did not regulate commercial cinema, but they did propose, advise, and fund films they felt would help rally support from the citizens of all the Allied countries. While Went the Day Well?, based on a Graham Greene story about a potential German invasion, is a specimen of the fear-based narratives most people associate with the term propaganda, films that celebrated Allied bravery and boosted morale were much more common. George King's At Dawn We Die, about the heroics of the French Resistance in the face of Nazi brutality is an excellent example, as are the Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger collaborations 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, moving stories of cooperation and valour set respectively in Canada and the Netherlands. These films, which take place “over there” in foreign lands under siege, can to this day stir patriotic feelings in even the most ardent pacifist or cynical critic. Some great art resulted from this type of politically infused cinema. Laurence Olivier's wonderful film of Shakespeare's Henry V, partly commissioned and funded by the MOI specifically to rouse the fighting spirits of a Blitz-weary nation, was both the first film version of the play and the first-ever Shakespeare movie to be both artistically and commercially successful.Thumb in which we serve britprop
While the Germans may have made the best documentary propaganda pictures (Riefenstahl’s films are far more dynamic and innovative then, say, Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series), and while Russian directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin were the kings of silent movie agitprop during WWI, the Allies won hands down when it came to producing narrative features to promote specific political ideology during the second world war. Just compare Casablanca or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (both released in 1942) to Titanic, a contemporaneous pet project of Goebbels. 1943's Titanic was the first movie ever made about the famous disaster at sea, and it set the standard for future film accounts by interspersing real characters, events, and subplots with fictional ones. But Titanic is so laughably overt and jingoistic, with its brilliant and selfless German engineer urgently warning the foolish, arrogant, greedy English elites in charge of the ship that their dream of great capitalist power is going to crash into an iceberg and sink, that it plays like Plan 9 From Outer Space.

In my opinion, the greatest work of official cinematic propaganda is Noël Coward's In Which We Serve, about the sinking of a British destroyer and the lives of her crew. Coward had never written or directed a film before, but by 1942 he was one of the most successful actors, playwrights, songwriters, cabaret artists, and raconteurs of all time. He was also fiercely patriotic and a close friend of Winston Churchill, so when the storm of combat began to gather, he dropped out of the theater entirely and sought official work for the war effort. He applied himself at first in the British intelligence service, and while it's difficult to picture the internationally-known bon vivant being very useful as a spy, Thumb in which we serve coward rtCoward capitalized on his celebrity, travelling to America on a mission to secretly assess public opinion about supporting England in the war and using his French literary connections to set up a propaganda office in Paris. (His efforts were apparently successful, as his name appeared on the infamous Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. list of prominent British subjects who were to be killed immediately in the event of a German invasion of England.) But Churchill believed that Coward would be best used as a morale booster, and although he was disappointed to leave the intelligence service, Coward accepted his prime minister's wishes and began touring Europe, America, Africa, and Asia, entertaining the troops by telling stories and singing his whimsical songs with titles like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans.”

It was at the request of producer Anthony Havelock-Allan that Coward would make his first and only film as a director. Havelock, who had previously worked only on small, quick, cheap movies, was now flush with backing from Columbia Pictures and the MOI to make a large-scale propaganda film, and he needed a writer. Coward had been tangentially connected to the movies since 1919 when, at the age of 19, he had a walk-on part in D.W. Griffith’s silent film Hearts of the World. He also starred in an unsuccessful American film by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur called The Scoundrel (1935). But he looked down his nose at the movies, considering them, as many theater people of his day did, a form of low popular entertainment. And while he was happy to accept money from movie studios when they adapted his plays, he was never pleased with the results. After appearing in The Scoundrel, he wrote a letter to his mother in which he said, “I don’t really like movies, I’d rather have a nice cup of cocoa.” Nevertheless, he agreed to write a film for Havelock-Allan, provided that the producer really had the kind of money he claimed to have and that the subject of the film could be the British Navy. Coward was a great friend of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the captain of a destroyer, the HMS Kelly, which the Germans had sunk during the Battle of Crete. The two men often had dinner together, and Coward would press his friend for details about the ordeal. Inspired by the bravery of Mountbatten and his sailors, Coward believed their story could be the subject of his screenplay. He set to work, demanding from his backers absolute control over the film which he intended not only to write but also to direct and star in. 

When he turned in his initial draft, he was informed that the script as written would yield a movie over four hours long. Havelock-Allan convinced the overzealous auteur to limit his story to the events of the ship’s sinking, and then to structure the crewmen's personal stories around that incident. By now, Coward had realized that he would need to find highly skilled collaborators to help him turn his ideas into a worthy film. For the first time in his life, he began watching movies with great avidity, and after consuming countless pictures from England and America, he was most impressed with two names: the cinematographer Ronald Neame and the editor David Lean. While Neame’s accomplished visuals were evident on the screen, Coward had little understanding of the editor’s art. However, he could not help notice that of all the films he saw during this period of study, the ones he liked best had all been edited by Lean. After asking around, he discovered that Lean was considered the best editor in England by his peers and was looking to break into directing. Coward approached the aspiring director to be his assistant on the picture, explaining that while he had plenty of experience directing actors on stage, he had little idea what to do with a camera. Lean agreed to join the project if they could share director credit and, in a rare moment of humility, Coward reluctantly agreed.
Thumb in which we serve lean1
Lean’s contribution to In Which We Serve cannot be overstated. The technically complex, large-scale picture unfolds in a simple and efficient style, perfectly aligned with the matter-of-fact tone of the story. It is a movie about everyday people and Lean’s camera never upstages the actor’s expressive faces or Coward’s exquisite yet plainspoken dialogue. According to most accounts, Coward was so pleased with the collaboration that he turned the picture over to Lean after a few weeks so that he could concentrate on his own performance and those of his fellow cast members. Coward, Lean, Neame, and Havelock-Allan proved a winning team, and they would go on to make three more films together, all based on existing Coward plays. 

With the help of these newfound collaborators, who he called his “Little Darlings,” Coward was able to cut his mammoth script down to a filmable length, but he faced other challenges in pulling off In Which We Serve. For one thing, neither Columbia Pictures nor the MOI were entirely sure that a film about a British ship that gets sunk by the Germans would send the message they intended. Also, Coward’s public and onstage image as an effete intellectual toff, scampering around drawing rooms in a dressing-gown while smoking a cigarette in a long holder and saying, “darling, darling,” didn’t make him the obvious choice to play the battle-hardened destroyer captain he had based on Lord Mountbatten. The editor-in-chief of the UK’s middle-market tabloid, The Daily Express, would even use the pages of his paper to question Coward’s ability to portray a naval commander. But not only did Coward deliver a convincing lead performance in a deeply stirring picture, he also got the last laugh. Two weeks before England declared war, the Express had run a front-page headline stating NO WAR THIS YEAR. The film includes a shot of that particular issue floating in the wake of the destroyer after it is first launched, which serves as a powerful symbol of false confidence on the home front as well as an inside dig at the paper and the credibility of its declarations.

In addition to Coward's performance, the film boasts first-rate turns by John Mills and Bernard Miles, who would both go on to star in dozens of British war pictures, and it also marks the first screen appearance of stage actress Celia Johnson. Johnson, whose conventional English looks make her seem almost homely by movie star standards, became the radiant female lead in all the Coward/Lean collaborations about middle-class life. Thumb in which we serve johnsontoastHere, as the captain’s wife, she delivers one of the film’s best speeches when she toasts the HMS Torrin; her rival for her husband’s affections. Each of the film's major characters gets a moment like this one, where you can almost feel the spotlight hit them, and while these monologues should make the film feel stagey and heavy-handed, Coward’s writing is so effortless and sincere that they play as movingly authentic in the context of heightened wartime emotions.

This aptitude for sentimentality without a mawkish or patronizing tone is what sets In Which We Serve apart from most other examples of state-sponsored propaganda. It is not a film lionizing idolized heroes, but rather a look at the humanity of distinctly unexceptional people. Instead of frightening audiences with tales of a diabolical enemy, it celebrates the ordinary lives of men and women living and working during a time of national crisis. Coward’s ability to depict his country as a whole, as opposed to one narrow subset of it, probably comes from his unique place in society. Because he wrote so well (if often satirically) about high-born sophisticates, he was welcomed and accepted as one of them, but Coward actually came from a working-class background. His understanding of, and affection for, the common Englishman is as clear here as is his amusement at patrician antics in the majority of his plays. 

Coward shows great respect for every character in his film, and this adds a special poignancy to In Which We Serve. England has always been known for its rigid social stratification, and ranks between the classes were rarely breached or levelled; a caste system that was particularly strict in the military environment of the 1940s. But with deft casting and by shifting the film’s perspective through the various characters' flashbacks, Coward imparts a sense of profound dignity to each and every sailor aboard the ship, as well as to their wives and families back home. Even a young seaman (Richard Attenborough, in his screen début) who abandons his post out of fear is shown to be a man worthy of respect.  The fictional captain's final speech to his men is an almost verbatim reproduction of Mountbatten's actual address to his surviving crew. These words, as delivered by Coward, drill right through to the viewer’s emotional core and I can only imagine what it must have been like for audiences to hear them in England during wartime. The film’s unembellished, near-wordless final scene contains the power to make even the most insignificant audience member feel like an important part of the nation’s collective whole.

The third time I saw In Which We Serve was at New York's Lincoln Center, as part of a retrospective programmed by Coward scholar Barry Day.  Day gave fascinating introductions to each picture, providing behind-the-scenes stories as well as screening film and TV clips relevant to the various films. Before In Which We Serve, he showed a promotional short in which Coward and actor Trevor Howard meet up on a film location and discuss how important it is for every English citizen to use all their skills and talents to support their country during the war. I’d seen dozens of American versions of this type of appeal, in which movie stars ask audiences to buy bonds, save scrap metal, or join the army, but none of them ever seemed as straightforward and heartfelt as this one. Perhaps the Hollywood versions all seemed like assignments or easy ways for stars to feel like they were doing something to contribute to the war effort.  But even though the exchange between Coward and Howard is clearly scripted, both men really seem to mean what they’re saying. Like this little short, In Which We Serve demonstrates the vast superiority of English WWII propaganda over any other country's. Rather than empty sloganeering or fear-based drums of doom, it is a genuine work of art, motivated by a genuine, optimistic, and heartfelt belief in the rightness of its cause.