If you are an American and watch hundreds of war movies, you will eventually run across “It Happened Here”. It is a unique film. It was the brainchild of two teenagers. Eighteen year old Kevin Brownlow got the idea when he saw some thuggish looking men wearing leather coats come screeching up in a car and go storming into a house. He thought “what if?”. An alternative title for this alternative history is “It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler’s England”. Brownlow asked a history buff named Andrew Mello to help him. The sixteen year old soon became Brownlow’s collaborator. They spent eight years on the project, making it one of the longest productions in cinema history. Brownlow went on to become a famous film historian and recipient of an honorary Oscar for film preservation. Mello is now a well-respected military historian.
The movie is set in 1944 England. A narrator informs us that England fell to the Nazis after the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940. The resistance movement had been crushed, but the success of a Soviet offensive has led to the withdrawal of a large part of the occupation forces and a revival of the resistance. American soldiers have recently arrived to aid the insurrection. The country is being ruled by British Union of Fascists which is a political party of collaborators. The counterinsurgency is comprised of police collaborators and German S.S. Most of the public is acquiescent of the occupation. At least the Nazis are better than the Bolsheviks. The government’s counterinsurgency strategy is to remove civilians from zones where the resistance is powerful. Massacre of civilians deemed disloyal is also part of the strategy.
The main character is a nurse named Pauline (Pauline Murray) who is initially apolitical. This changes when she barely survives an ambush by rebels which kills several of her friends. She ends up in London and gets a job with the government’s paramilitary ambulance corps. The training includes firearms. Indoctrination encourages her evolution towards collaborating. At one point she goes to a theater where a propaganda film uses the Christmas Truce of WWI as an example of the true love of the British and Germans! Also, Waterloo is an example of Anglo-German cooperation. And International Jewry has brought on WWII. Later, there is a discussion of how the Jews are evil and inferior. A character refers to them as “fleas on a dog” and argues for euthanasia to get rid of “useless” people. Pauline does not succumb to these odious views, but she does take the realistic attitude that since England lost, they should be happy with law and order. Her evolvement is sidetracked by an encounter with two respected friends who are harboring a rebel fugitive and her posting to a hospital that disposes of incurables through “cleansing operations”.
“It Happened Here” is an amateur triumph. The fact that it was made by two young men is astounding. Brownlow and Mello used a shoe-string budget and unpaid actors to accomplish the eight year task. The actors, including Pauline Murray, were amateurs but this added to the natural feel of the acting. Some of the scenes look unrehearsed. The duo used actual British fascists, some of whom were playing themselves. They also made use of German veterans. Although the movie is in black and white and was shot with 16mm film, the cinematography is noteworthy. Peter Suschitzky was lensing only his second film and went on to a distinguished career. His greatest feat in “It Happened Here” is the recreation of newsreels and fake archival footage. Even the battle scenes have the look of real footage. In this respect they resemble the assault on the air base in “Dr. Strangelove”. (Coincidentally, Stanley Kubrick donated some film stock from that film.)
The movie is thought-provoking. The theme is that fascism can rise anywhere and a majority will accept it. From that foundation the movie proceeds to chronicle the result of that. It does not take sides between the collaborators and the rebels. There is a feel of “a pox on both houses” to it. This is clear in the bookending of the movie with dueling atrocities. Murray’s character arc is a bit unrealistic as she stands in for the rare individual in those circumstances who starts out neutral and then moves from one side to the other. She is not typical of the average Britain who accepted the status quo in exchange for security. The movie was controversial because of its insinuation that it could have happened in England if it had not won the Battle of Britain. This is also unrealistic, but doesn’t detract from the plot. Surprisingly, the collaborators are not villainized. The movie was decried by Jewish groups partly for its use of British fascists. More problematic is the references to the Jews. Some of the dialogue is repulsive and there is no rebuttal. United Artists insisted on cutting some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric for its American release. Needless to say, Brownlow and Mello did not have the clout to prevent this.
“It Happened Here” is a must-see for hard core war movie lovers. It is definitely a forgotten gem here in America and I had never heard of it until recently. I certainly would never have seen it if I had not undertaken this blog. Another perk of my hobby. Not only did I see a unique film, but the researching of it informed me of some fascinating facts. In the movie, we see on the walls of government offices portraits of Oswald Mosley (alongside Hitler). I now know that Mosley was a British politician who founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Mosley was a big fan of Mussolini and wanted Great Britain to go the route of Italy. Unoriginally, his followers were called “blackshirts”. The party was condemned in 1940 and he was interred for the rest of the war. The movie imagines if things had gone in the opposite direction. It is not unimaginable that had England fallen, he would have been released by the Germans and appointed puppet ruler. It is unimaginable that the British people would have accepted this, but it sure makes for an interesting movie.
GRADE = B-