Friday, 16 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 8: Nine Men (1943)

An interesting companion piece to Went the Day Well?, where a small village was under attack from superior external (and internal) forces, in Nine Men the stakes are even higher: nine soldiers, stranded in the desert, make an apparent ‘last stand’ in a old desert fort as Italian troops surround them on all sides. As with that other Ealing war film, it is possible to read this as larger wartime metaphor (English village = Britain; small British fighting force taking on larger odds = the first few years of the Second World War), but, as Charles Barr has pointed out, the film can also be seen as one of the few successful British contributions to the Western genre.

Apart from opening/closing sequences in a modern army training camp where new recruits hear the story from Sgt Jack Watson (Jack Lambert), the bulk of the film is set in the desolate desert landscape (not Egypt, but filmed in Wales, apparently). The nine men (quickly whittled down to seven, with Sgt Watson in charge) know they are cut off, with little chance of support: their only hope lies in repelling the Italian attacks and pretending to be a larger force. And if The Long Arm and The Cruel Sea were about exploring day-to-day activities aboard a ship, or in a detective investigation, this departs from the Western template by sharing that behind-the-scenes interest in modern warfare as Sgt Watson organises his men, counts his ammo, and lays his plans.

But the plot really isn’t the point here: the emphasis is on character, ability and survival. This isn’t a ‘getting the band’ together kind of film – the soldiers have already worked together, they are a trained and a coherent unit who are comfortable both mocking and taking orders from their commanding officer (both behind his back, and to his face). At first glance, it’s the standard working and middle class mix of such WW2 films, but look closer and there’s a definite Scottish dominance about this group: Watson, Scott (Grant Sutherland) and ‘Young ‘Un’ (Gordon Jackson) are all Scottish characters, and there are regular discussions about Edinburgh and Glasgow, with reference to the 1935 book No Mean City, which depicted Glasgow’s slums as rife with razor gangs. London and other regions feature as well, but the make-up of these seven men features a distinct Scottish note. (perhaps due to Harry Watt’s own Scottish ancestry, given he is both writer and director here)

The joking and camaraderie is well played, and feels suitably naturalistic (overlapping dialogue, some obscured) but the film has its share of action and dramatic sequences as well, cramming a lot into its 65 minute running time. While I’ve backed away from focusing on directors too much in these posts, Watts’ background in documentary is clear from the film’s production. Allegedly made for £20,000, Nine Men features a lot of sequences featuring post-production sound rather than on-location sound recording – a traditional approach of the British documentary movement. The first four minutes of the film, a sequence of new recruits put through their paces on an assault course, is slickly edited to upbeat, lightweight music; equally, scenes of the men struggling through sandstorms, or crawling through the sand, is set to Lambert’s voiceover, rather than diegetic sound. Soundtrack becomes a key element of the plot: scenes in the night-time desert are largely silent (Lambert’s VO points out the way that sound carries in that landscape), until interrupted, first by clanking noises (Italians trying to get a disabled tank working, and chatting loudly), then explosions and gunfire as the British repel an Italian attack. Given the use of layered sound editing here, Watts’ training in the GPO film unit seems relevant.

Strong though the film is, a modern viewer has to allow for some choice contemporary references, most notably the range of terms applied to the Italians (there is no room here for The Cruel Sea’s note that the enemy looks just like them: here, the enemy are faceless hordes to be shot, bayoneted and verbally ridiculed) and an early comment that may sound homophobic to modern ears. The title is also a clue to how many women crop up in the film: unlike Went the Day Well? this Ealing war film is an all-male affair.

None of those should be reasons not to rediscover it, however. It is well-paced, solid drama: there is no excess material here, the film gets into the action quickly, and barely lets up once the soldiers reach the fort. Barr is right that there is definitely some Western in this film’s DNA, but it also functions as a stepping stone to other heroic last stands, from Ealing’s own Scott of the Antarctic to later British films like Zulu.

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