“The Way Ahead” (also known as “The Immortal Battalion”) is a British WWII movie released in 1944. The first title is more appropriate as the movie was meant to be a morale booster midway through the war. The film fits snuggly into the heterogeneous small unit subgenre. It this guise it covers squad evolution through last stand.
The movie opens with the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition for war: “a considerable body of men of war, armed, organized and disciplined, to act together for purposes of warfare”. Nicely informative, too bad the movie is not about an army, but instead is about eight men. The movie begins in March, 1939 when Brits were arguing over whether war was imminent and/or necessary. One theme is set when two old veterans discuss how the new generation is not tough enough for warfare. They wouldn’t be able to face naked savages coming at them with spears. “Where will we find the men to fight the next war?” It apparently takes two years because suddenly we are in May, 1941 and England is at war. The small unit consists of “call-ups” led by a reservist Capt. Perry (David Niven). The crew includes a snob, a wimp, a lower class slob, a know-it-all, a gas bag rich guy, and a morose cynic. The rich guy offends a soldier at the rail station. He turns out to be the Sergeant Fletcher who is in charge of making soldiers out of them. Oops!
|David Niven as Capt. Perry learns |
that the tea ration has been cut
As training proceeds, would you believe the seven get all the shit details from Fletcher? They certainly believe it. Lloyd even goes to Perry to complain about this uniquely unfair treatment. Perry investigates and finds that Fletcher is actually very complimentary of all the men. Fletcher is not a good judge of character because later the men purposely get killed during a war game so they can go home early. This results in a scolding by Perry who tells them of the history of their unit going back to the Battle of Talavera in the Napoleonic Wars. The attempt to shame them has no effect, especially since it’s followed by tea. The training sequences include the requisite montages and an obstacle course that is awesome in its variety.
Normally, the men would gradually learn respect for Perry and Fletcher as they harden and gain respect for how the training and discipline are making men out of them. Not in this movie. Instead the director uses an appearance by Perry at a tea party hosted by a British matron. She greets Perry by asking him if he has “the same horrible officer they have?” Awkward! The seven bond with Perry over tea and biscuits and all is well.
In July, 1942, it’s off to North Africa as part of Operation Torch. Finally some combat. Unfortunately, their ship is torpedoed, but at least we get some action in the form of fire-fighting and dumping vehicles overboard. Still with the shit details. It’s a good scene with excellent special effects and is appropriately fiery. They are rescued by a destroyer using a net to climb down and Fletcher is rescued from having his leg trapped below deck. They are disappointed to learn they will not be participating in the landing (as was the audience), thus evidencing their evolution to enthusiastic fighting men.
In March, 1943, they are finally in the war. Somewhere in the Middle East. The seven are still intact. Hey, someone could have been killed in an accident. Damn, now they are spending time in a café teaching the locals darts. If the movie was designed to attract recruits by showing the army tolerates complaining and does not ask you to fight, mission accomplished. They are ordered to construct trenches miles behind the line of engagement and those who predicted that they would all survive breath a sigh of relief. So far, this is the rare war movie that is clearly not anti-war. However, the Germans (or Italians) break through and Café Rispoli is their target. Brewer: “Suddenly, I can do with a fag.” What a bizarrely queer thing to say under the circumstances. (Just kidding – the Brits called cigarettes “fags”.) The subsequent long-awaited combat is fitful, but has an interesting duel with a mortar. The film culminates with a last stand.
|stick around for the proper British combat|
“The Way Ahead” is the kind of movie that expected to be a classic. That started with the director and cast. The cast is full of familiar faces from that era of British cinema. The nine members of the ensemble are all solid. Noone overacts, although some of the stock roles could have used it. The drill sergeant is too sedate and understanding. Perry is too good to be true. The overall characterization of the members makes little sense. After going through lots of cinematically-proven character development exercises, they are still complaining and go so far as sabotaging the war game. Even the Dirty Dozen did not go this route! Of course, by the end of the film, they are all gung-ho.
This was the second British WWII film in a row (the other being “The Wooden Horse”) where I have noticed a lack of soundtrack. Is this a British thing? The American equivalents tend to bludgeon you with enhancing the mood. The dialogue has quantity, but not really quality. At least it isn’t treacly. There is surprisingly little humor. The film does effectively bridge the date shifts with the comedy of the two old coots (they reminded me of the Muppets) complaining about the new generation of inferior warriors. One area where the movie stands out is in cinematography. There is a lot of use of deep focus and the composition of most of the interior scenes is eye-catching. Cinematic effort was put into scenes that could have done without it. Nice for cinephiles like me though.
You have to give the producers credit for sincerity. One theme is the unit living up to the traditions of the past. This would have resonated with British audiences. The theme of sacrificing your civilian life for the good of your country is diluted by the fact that nothing bad happens to the core group. Their worst experience is with a drill sergeant who is a saint compared to his cinematic comrades. The film tries hard to blend in the impact of the war on the men’s families, but the home front scenes are prefunctory. The attempt, but not the execution, is reminiscent of “In Which We Serve”.
Classic or antique? I will go with classic although it takes an awfully long time to get to the payoff battle scene.
Grade = C