Winston Churchill thought Noël Coward could best serve his country during WWII by singing ‘Mad Dogs and Englishman’ to the troops. But Coward had a better idea after his close friend Lord Mountbatten told him about the ship he had commanded and lost early in the fighting. Like John Ford in his WWII masterpiece, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45*, Coward instinctively knew that a story of determination & defiance in the face of defeat was exactly what he had been searching for. The fact that he’d never made a film before (others had adapted his plays and he’d acted in a mere handful) didn’t stop him from writing, co-directing, starring & composing the score for what would turn out to be one of the largest productions ever made in Britain. David Lean got bumped up from crack editor, to co-director, and future directors like Ronald Neame, Michael Anderson & Guy Green were also behind the camera. The cast is similarly filled with future stars including John Mills, Michael Wilding, Kay Walsh, James Donald, Richard Attenborough, Celia Johnson, even Juliet Mills & Daniel Massey as kids. (Massey would get to portray his godfather in STAR/’69). Critical & academic esteem toward Coward & Lean have known their ups & downs over the past decades, but in general, the film just looks better than ever. And the old canard about Coward’s condescending views toward lower-middle-class types seems more than ever a shibboleth of outdated academic thinking.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Coward declined the Alec Guinness role in Lean’s BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, but you can see what might have been in a scene here which shows Coward coming aboard a rescue ship. He’d have been veddy, veddy good.
DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, Ford’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE has an American story of defeat from the early part of the war. Alas, Ford’s film came out just after the war ended, flopped at the box-office and has never gotten the attention it deserves.