This is a strange little propaganda piece, a flashback-structured film that dramatises the ‘true’ story of Melbourne Johns, a foreman from a munitions factory who went to France to reclaim some industrial machinery loaned to a French company that, in 1940, was in danger of falling into the hands of the Germans. In one sense, then, this is a comfortable slice of Ealing wartime drama: there are appearances from familiar faces (Mervyn Johns, Gordon Jackson, Thora Hird), recognisable themes (Britain’s defiance and ingenuity, the strong relationship between Britain and France in the face of adversity) and repeated tropes (Britain wasn’t prepared, dangers of the fifth column). But at the same time, it has music hall comedian Tommy Trinder, and his reliable tropes of lusting after anything in a skirt, disobeying orders, and generally playing the fool. Oh, and technically Trinder isn’t even the lead character and doesn’t appear until over twenty minutes in.
That the film never feels as schizophrenic as that description might suggest is largely down to the cast: Clifford Evans as the foreman of the title, Fred Carrick; American actress Constance Cummings as Anne Stafford, an American working at the French company Carrick visits to get his machines back; Trinder as Tommy Hoskins and Gordon Jackson as Alastair ‘Jock’ McFarlane, two British soldiers who get pressganged into helping Carrick transport his machines to a southern port in their truck.
The film is most often talked about in relation to the foolish nature of the ‘foreman’, who trusts each authority figure he meets in France (the railway station master, the mayor, the prefect), all of whom are fifth columnists working for the Germans. Carrick can be read as analogous to 1940s Britain, unsure and unaware of the kind of war being fought, largely trusting the establishment and not challenging the status quo. Throughout the film, Carrick begins to appreciate his situation, and he spots the final fake – someone masquerading as a British colonel – without the help of Stafford. How far we would want to stretch the Carrick/Britain analogy is uncertain, although it is also true that the first person he places all his trust in is an American, Stafford, who initially claims neutrality but, after the death of her sister in a German bombing, sticks with Carrick for the rest of his journey.
Trinder’s appearance as a cocky British soldier, on a mission to liberate some curry powder, does change the tone of the film, but not as much as might be expected (particularly on the basis of his earlier appearances in this Challenge: Fiddlers Three 1944 and Sailors Three 1940). There are some more comic moments, but then the film is hardly a grim drama before his appearance. The main addition is a romantic triangle between him, Carrick and Stafford (there is never any sense that ‘Jock’ would be interested – but to make sure, the film kills him off towards the end) – Trinder gets a couple of opportunities to sing, and play the harmonica, but they are brief.
While it feels quite small in scope to begin with – lots of set-based work, returning to similar sets (notably the French factory) – the film broadens in scope visually and narratively when these four characters take to the road. The increase in location work (and the reliance on variable back projection) aids the film’s propaganda elements – the scene of a road filled with refugees strafed by German fighters is brutal (and uses sharp editing that wouldn’t look out of place in an Eisenstein film, particularly a collision of shots of young children, a plane zooming into camera, screams, and gunfire) – a similar scene in Ealing’s Dunkirk (1958) is surely an echo of this work. It is also a point that shows the film isn’t afraid of pulling punches for propaganda purposes – Carrick is shot in the hand, and a nun is killed in the attack.
The rest of their journey – a British road movie through France, in some ways – is episodic, but never completely flags (although a stop-off in a farmhouse where Trinder chases cows does test the patience a little – a necessary element if only to get him out of the way while the film develops the Evans/Cummings romance). They see the aftermath of an incendiary attack on a French town (similarities here to Trinder’s The Bells Go Down, 1942), there is a discussion of Britain ‘waking up at last’, the refugee kids are dropped off at a convent, ‘Jock’ takes a bullet defending them, and they end up at a French port, where resolute French people decide to make room on the last boat for Carrick’s machines.
Overall, this is a nicely done little film, but it survives largely because of a committed cast and some strong narrative elements. Trinder is actually a useful addition here, adding to the ensemble without dominating it. Cummings is suitably brash and biting, and maternal and supportive, where required, but her character remains the most sensible and self-aware of the group throughout – she spots the fifth columnists that Carrick is (initially) ignorant of. It might be seen as another of Ealing’s transitional films – made around the same time as The Bells Go Down, San Demetrio London (1943) and Went the Day Well? (1943), other experiments in the melding of documentary, propaganda and drama.
Next time, Tommy Trinder joins the AFS during the blitz, when The Bells Go Down (1943)...