“A ship can’t be happy unless she’s efficient, and she certainly won’t be efficient unless she’s happy.”
During World War II, a captain (Noel Coward) boosts the morale of his men — including Seaman “Shorty” (John Mills) and CPO Hardy (Bernard Miles) — as they survive the sinking of their ship and reflect back on their loved ones at home. Meanwhile, Coward’s wife (Celia Johnson) cares for their two children, Mills’ wife (Kay Walsh) prepares to have a baby, and Miles’ wife (Joyce Carey) stoically holds things together as their village suffers from German blitzes.
- At Sea
- Celia Johnson Films
- David Lean Films
- Flashback Films
- John Mills Films
- Noel Coward Films
- Richard Attenborough Films
- World War II
This wartime propaganda film was made with the direct assistance of Britain’s Ministry of Information and co-directed by David Lean, but otherwise creatively helmed by Noel Coward — who produced, co-directed, co-starred, wrote the screenplay (based on the exploits of Lord Mountbatten in the Royal Navy), and crafted the score. It remains a surprisingly potent and satisfying movie, with tensions kept high both during the initial battle sequence aboard the “H.M.S. Torrin” (we see it being built as the film opens), and then as we’re gradually given numerous watery flashbacks into the memories of the men holding on for their lives as their ship sinks. While centered on the birth, life, and death of the Torrin, this is really an ensemble tale of all the men and women who worked together during World War II to fight and maintain their British way of life. They’re shown celebrating small moments of joy (a hilltop picnic, a brief honeymoon) and giving support to one another through thick and thin; surprisingly (and happily), none of it comes across as sappy, and it’s appropriately balanced with somber reality: a sailor (Richard Attenborough) is chastised for his cowardice; men lose limbs; and numerous characters die. My favorite scenes include Mills feeding and providing drink to Dunkirk survivors; Mills learning both joyous and deeply distressing news in one letter; and Coward — in a wonderfully and respectfully extended sequence — providing a handshake to each individual man he’s served with.
Note: I watched an old version of this film, but will be sure to check out the much-improved Blu-Ray edition next time, as Ronald Neame’s cinematography is clearly top-notch.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Many touching moments
- Ronald Neame’s cinematography
Yes, for its historical value as a highly effective propaganda film, and for Coward’s prodigious efforts. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.