Tuesday 2 June 2015

On DVD (8) - They Were Not Divided - Max Berghouse reviews Terence Young's wartime-set drama

In continuation of my prior post reviewing Thorold Dickinson's The High Command  in which I discussed subsequent understanding and perhaps enrichment, of a film of prior vintage, I saw more or less contemporaneously They Were Not Divided  (Terence Young, UK,1950) and starring as joint leads, Edward Underdown and Ralph Clanton with Helen Cherry and Stella Andrews as female "consorts".

Its general theme models to some extent the far superior The Way Ahead (Carol Read, UK, 1944), starring David Niven. That, albeit commercial, film was based on a prior similar straight propaganda film with much the same plot: a group of completely disparate draftees join a (fictional) British regiment in the Second World War and in particular through the encouragement of their officer, are able to do "their bit" for the war effort. Despite its initial utilitarian purpose, the film quite transcends its origins and is a deeply engaging film, ultimately energised by the democratic notion, that "we" are all in this together. It should be remembered that from the beginning of the Second World War, Britain was a deeply class stratified society and government was at great pains to redress and limit this for the purposes of the war effort. I can't say whether this film is the genuine precursor of the "band of misfits coming together" which is so common in war films, but it is certainly one of the best.

Superficially They Were Not Divided is similar but: it does not concern a fictional British regiment, instead, it concerns The Guards Tank Division. The five regiments of the Guards were and are primarily infantry regiments. During the war a "Guards Tank division" was formed and the film's director served in what could only be described as an absolutely elite serving unit. Again it traces the induction of disparate men into the forces, sees them being trained, and subsequently sees them in action. This particular division did not see action until D-Day, but continued in action until the very end of the war.

The film commences with newsreel footage (presumably 1949) of trooping of the colour before the King – George VI. It is trooping of the colours of the Welsh Guards and as we learn subsequently many of the troopers in the Tank Division are of Welsh background. Newsreel photography was very respectful at that time, so the King (I think it's the King), in his Guard' s uniform, including enormous bearskin hat, rides in an open landau and it appears that Princess Elizabeth is behind him on horseback.

Most people at the time knew that the King was seriously unwell, but no one, at least publicly knew that the King was dying from cancer and was in fact gravely unwell. Presumably that is the reason he is not riding a horse. That he would be dead within two years adds in a special frisson to us in current day, because, the following scene is of a quite gaunt, indeed desperate, Wilhelmina (whom we subsequently learn is the wife of the Second Lieutenant played by Edward Underdown). Her face carries an image of utter loss and devastation. At the very end of the film – quite long at 97 minutes, her husband is dead. So we are aware that she is attending this military parade in some attempt to find demeaning and continuity in her life. This is something that comes to is only in reflection because it is handled with very considerable taste and discretion.

Knowing of the imminent death of the King, and from the very beginning seeing something deeply apprehensive like Wilhelmina's face, amplifies our modern sensibility as to the general futility and waste of war and discounts dramatically the pomp and ceremony of something like the trooping of the colour, which seems to indicate continuity and indeed success. Early 1950' s Britain was still a country in deep recession and food rationing.

Thereafter we observe Philip Hamilton (Underdown), an Englishman and presumably draftee, David Morgan (Ralph Clanton), an American and presumably volunteer and "Smoke O'Connor" (Michael Brennan), an Irishman and again presumably a volunteer, in their training. Little attempt is made to disguise the class hierarchy within this elite division: Hamilton and Morgan become officers whereas the Irishman remains a noncommissioned officer. This seems very much like the natural order of things. Underdown was almost certainly of the "right" background and Clanton, an actor of whom I know very little, speaks in an increasingly north-eastern American accent which I think is meant to identify him as also, a gentleman.

There is a very significant use of documentary footage and subsequent credits thank the War Office and the British Army on the Rhine. Most of it seems very accurate to me and I hasten to add that I am no war obsessive who knows the difference, for example, between a Lee Enfield and a Mauser! A significant amount, at least in the early part of the film, shows the training with the actors actually involved in what would certainly be second unit work. However even I can be pretty confident that the tanks shown in exercises are post-World War II Centurions and not appropriate British vehicles of the period. Subsequently there are a number of shots of US Sherman tanks with American insignia, apparently masquerading as British tanks. This certainly doesn't hinder continuity but the audience of 1950 must have been much more acutely aware of the discrepancies and I wonder how all this got through.

Real action doesn't commence until about 50 minutes in. Thereafter it seems to me to display real accuracy in contrasting the boredom of inaction with the intimate terror of engagement. Finally the two protagonists are killed, within Germany itself, when victory is in hand. It pretty much ends there and I think it's a tribute to Terence Young that he doesn't try to gloss over things or tidy them up.

This film is a parallel to quite a number of "novels" of the 1950s – what we would now call "faction" which detail the experiences of war in an objective and non-personal sense. It is not a great film but then again Terence Young was not a great director. But he was an extremely competent professional journeyman.

A Two Cities Film, distributed by the Rank Organisation, Produced by Herbert Smith. Available from Amazon UK or  you can watch it on Youtube here

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