"We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets
and on the hills. We shall never surrender."
The never-say-die spirit of those stirring words and indeed of the indomitable British people as a whole during the dark days of World War Two is demonstrated with a degree of intelligence, frankness, zeal, coolheadedness and unsentimental accuracy that will make any viewer lucky enough to purchase this collection of five British war films (which are available under the umbrella title of BRITISH WAR COLLECTION) stand up and cheer.
The very fact that THE DAM BUSTERS (1954) did not have at its disposal the kind of mega-budgets that would materialize in such future "impossible mission" epics as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and OPERATION CROSSBOW is a reality decidedly in its favor, for this vivid and exhilarating true story about the invention of specially devised bouncing cylindrical bombs and their eventual deployment on Germany's Ruhr Valley dams displays no evidence of the bloat and bombast that sometimes call attention to the overly generous allotments of cash that are usually bestowed on stateside and star-studded "gung-ho" epics of this type. Indeed THE DAM BUSTERS celebrates courage, persistence and the simple triumphs of ingenuity with an economy and lack of bravado extremely rare in this sort of film and in the process becomes one of the finest such films ever produced.
While we gratefully acknowledge the tight and concise screenplay and the disciplined and deft direction of Michael Anderson, the lion's share of the credit has to go to the the two stars, Michael Redgrave and two-time Oscar nominee Richard Todd, who each invest the real-life roles of aeronautic engineer and Wing Commander with a determination and charisma that singlehandedly breathe life into roles that are respectfully written as one dimensional heroic figureheads. To watch these two consummate actors work together with such flawless ease and finesse is just one of the myriad of pleasures that this superb film offers.
The grim realities of The Battle of the Atlantic, a decisive and destructive fight for survival lasting as long as the war itself, are vividly demonstrated in THE CRUEL SEA (1953) in an unblinkingly candid manner that constantly keeps one on the edge of one's seat for its entire 127 minute running time and leaves no doubt as to why it was this particular film that finally transported former supporting player Jack Hawkins into the rarefied ranks of Britain's top cinema stars. While it is impossible to find any fault whatever with any aspect of this raw and riveting film there's no getting around the fact that Hawkins' multidimensional portrayal as small warship Captain Ericson is of such an astoundingly varied, rich and sympathetic nature that despite the extreme competence of the supporting cast one actually misses him when he isn't on screen. He is the glue that holds THE CRUEL SEA together and makes it the fine film that it is.
WENT THE DAY WELL? (1942) is the only film in this collection I have never heard of and the only one actually produced during the war. It is one of the two major discoveries in this collection. It tells its fictional story of the Nazi invasion of a small British town with an urgency and ferocity unparalleled for a film of its era. Director Alberto Cavalcanti craftily begins the film by slowly and methodically allowing us to fully appreciate the peace and contentment this type of idyllic village can offer, and then gradually and with devious glee bursts the bubble with shattering ferocity as the Nazis deceitfully invade and, believe us, the violence that ensues retains its ability to shock sixty-three years after the film's initial release. A measure of how strikingly this blistering film accomplishes its goals can be graphically demonstrated by comparing it to the sheer awfulness of two future monstrosities INVASION U.S.A. (1952) and RED DAWN (1984) that turned similarly-imagined events into ludicrous and laughably exploitive trash.
An even more astonishing discovery is THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) a film that was critically lambasted at its time of release because of its penchant for continuously switching genres but, for me, the very fact that it is able to do so with such cheeky skill makes it a refreshing cinematic experience unlike any other. I went into this film with the innocence of a new-born babe, vaguely familiar with the title and very little else, and because of this was constantly and pleasantly surprised and taken aback every time this highly unusual film shifted gears, and it is for this reason I think it necessary, in order to ensure your complete enjoyment, that I reveal virtually nothing about the plot except to say that it never ever becomes even remotely predictable and remains constantly engrossing throughout. It really would be a shame if you missed this SHIP.
In such luminous company as the four films reviewed above THE COLDITZ STORY (1954) suffers somewhat, in that it chronicles the adventures of British POW's in Germany's maximum security prison/castle in a straightforward but somewhat too leisurely and conventional fashion, especially when compared to such other more energetic and suspenseful similarly-themed films as Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, John Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE and Andrew Stone's THE PASSWORD IS COURAGE. Still, there is nothing radically wrong with it and the performance of Eric Portman as the caustic and careful British superior is excellent.
Anchor Bay has really delivered the goods here, as their uncut full-screen black and white transfers of THE DAM BUSTERS, THE CRUEL SEA, WENT THE DAY WELL?, and THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME are very good indeed, as is the strong monaural sound on each. Only THE COLDITZ STORY, which is the sole anamorphic film in the batch, displays an occasional graininess and softness in its black and white image.