Over twenty years ago, George Perry dismissed this film as ‘unconvincing and cliché-ridden, and not for a moment are its players believable Yugoslavs.’ (Perry 1981, 72) Putting aside the latter notion of how Ealing would populate a film with ‘believable Yugoslavs’ that is a harsh criticism of a solid and enjoyable piece of filmmaking that both resembles and departs from standard Ealing wartime fare. A model of economical filmmaking that appears to predate the storyboard and pre-planning model Ealing would try and apply in the mid-to-late 1940s, the film also contains potent echoes of its contemporary productions Nine Men (1943) and Went the Day Well? (1943)
Based on the exploits of the wartime Yugoslav Chetnik resistance movement, Undercover is compelling drama-propaganda that traces the fortunes of the Petrovich family when they are forced to become rebels after the Germans invade in 1941. Milos (John Clements) is in the Yugoslav army during the invasion, his brother Stefan (Stephen Murray) is a successful doctor in Belgrade, while his wife Anna (Mary Morris) is a school teacher in his home village, living with Milos and Stefan’s parents, Kossan (Tom Walls) and Maria (Rachel Thomas). Opening with a traditional Ealing celebration of community, as the village gather at the Petrovich farm for Kossan and Maria’s 35th wedding anniversary, the film follows Milos, Stefan, Anna, Maria and Kossan’s fortunes as they attempt to resist the German occupiers.
Milos ends up running the local resistance cell, holed up in the mountains and leading occasional sorties against the Germans; Stefan is truly undercover, working alongside the German commander at his hospital but feeding information to Milos; Anna, Rachel and Kossan attempt to live under the Germans, but have to join the resistance when Milos’ identity becomes common knowledge. Stefan and Milos start as stoic figures, but both gain additional layers through Milos’ struggle to lead a rag-tag army of men and women and send his friends and family on suicide missions (he is accused of having ink in his veins not blood when he refuses to engage in tit-for-tat raids with the Germans), while Stefan’s struggle to balance his beliefs with his work saving German lives sets up his eventual sacrifice for the cause. Anna’s character arc is also well-defined: her role as teacher gives necessary exposition, her torture by the Germans sends her into the mountains, and she (and Maria) work alongside Milos to defend the Petrovich farm in the final act.
The idea of this as an economically produced film is clear throughout: the reuse of central locations (most notably the village and the Petrovich farmhouse) never feels forced, but allows the maximum drama and time in each place; documentary footage is used, as in other Ealing productions, to paint a larger picture of the German invasion; the narrative builds a solid cohort of characters who split up and then come together in either the city or mountains (an echo of Went the Day Well? which utilises similar tricks); the siege-based final act (reminiscent of Nine Men’s structure); and the drama is opened out through model work (an element of Ealing’s productions that I’ve highlighted before in this blog, but which deserves further acclaim) that showcases the bombing of Belgrade, creates German motorcades and city traffic, and plays a central role in visualising the bombing of a train tunnel.
As in those other films, Undercover is not afraid to pursue either striking narrative events. Like Went the Day Well? major or unlikely characters are killed off – not just Stefan and Kossan’s sacrifice, but six schoolboys are shot by firing squad to punish rebellious Petar (Stanley Baker): a scene that demonstrates Baker’s acting ability even as a teenager, the camera focused on his horrified expression as the off-screen shooting takes place. The film also offers a (partial) dramatisation of alternative voices and ideologies: one of the film’s most fascinating characters is Tosha / Stationmaster (Ivor Barnard), a working class voice who (in contrast to the other villagers) claims the country is run by nepotism, where jobs are assigned based on who you know not what skills you have. The German invasion promotes him to stationmaster and, although the film mocks his status when Milos and Kossan run rings round him, his betrayal of Milos and Anna appears to go unpunished.
The film is never coy about its propagandist function: Anna accuses her German torturers of having no conscience; most of the Germans are boorish and harsh (although General von Staengel (Godfrey Teale) is more morally grey than most, with a conqueror’s desire to be loved); the rebellion’s actions are rarely questioned; and the final voiceover heralds their continued and valiant struggle against ‘the enemy.’ For all that though, Undercover remains a fascinating and under-appreciated film of the period, and one that sits well alongside the more famous Ealing war films of the 1940s.
[Undercover is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, The Four Just Men (1939) uncover a plot to plunge the world into war....