Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Great Expectations (dir by David Lean)

“My Christian name was Philip Pirrip, which I pronounced Pip….”


Seriously, there’s a lot of good things that can be said about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations but most readers simply can’t get past the fact that the narrator insists on being called Pip.  I don’t necessarily blame them, as Pip might be a good nickname for a child but, by the time you’re 16, you should be demanding that everyone call you Phil.  That said, I’ve always liked Great Expectations.  Despite the fact that Charles Dickens could be a terribly pedantic writer, the plot of Great Expectations is genuinely interesting and the book is full of interesting characters, the majority of whom don’t demand to be known by their childhood nicknames.  Plus, I’ve always related to Estella.

The 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations was at least the third movie to be made from the novel and it would be followed by many more.  (In 1998, there was a modernized version where Pip was wisely renamed Finn.)  Still, the 1946 adaptation is the best.  As directed by David Lean (and based on a stage version that was put together by none other than Alec Guinness), Great Expectations remains true to the source material while, at the same time, cutting away a lot of extraneous material.  As a result, Lean’s film version of the story maintains a clear narrative momentum, which is something that eluded Dickens in his sprawling original.

John Mills plays Pip, an orphan who is being raised by his wicked aunt and her husband, the simple but kind-hearted blacksmith, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles).  One night, Pip helps out an escaped convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) and, though Magwitch is eventually recaptured, that one act of kindness will determine the rest of Pip’s life.

Pip is invited to visit the mansion of a recluse named Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) and it’s there that he first meets and falls in love with the beautiful but rather cold-hearted Estella (Jean Simmons and then, after Estella grows up, Valerie Hobson).  Of course, what Pip doesn’t realize is that Miss Havisham has specifically raised Estella to destroy the hopes and dreams of every man that she meets.

Eventually, Pip grows up and discovers that he has a mysterious benefactor who feels that Pip should be transformed into a gentlemen so that he might be able to meet the “great expectations” that the benefactor has for him.  Pip, of course, assumes that it’s Miss Havisham but even those who haven’t read the book will probably suspect that there’s more to it than just that.  Pip moves to London, where he stays with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), a pale young man (for that’s how Dickens described him) who teaches Pip that a gentleman does not use his knife as a fork.  Herbert was always my favorite character in the book and he’s my favorite character in the film, largely because he’s played by the totally charming Alec Guinness.

Anyway, Pip becomes a bit of a snob but eventually, he discovers the truth about his benefactor and the last few years of his life.  It causes him to not only rip down a lot of curtains but also to reconsider what it truly means to be a a gentleman.

It’s all very well-done, largely because David Lean doesn’t allow the fact that he’s making a film out of a great novel get in the way of telling a good story.  The film is well-acted by a wonderful cast of British thespians, all of whom manage to make even the most artificial of scenes and lines seem naturalistic and believable.  Even though Pip is a bit of a jerk, John Mills manage to turn him into a sympathetic character.  (Mills plays Pip as if he himself cannot stand the fact that he’s turned into such a snob.)  Both Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson do a wonderful job of bringing the potentially problematic character of Estella to life and Bernard Miles is wonderfully empathetic in the role of the Joe Gargery.  The scene where a nervous Gargery first meets Pip after Pip has become a gentleman is a true example of great acting.

Not surprisingly, Lean also does a great job of bringing 19th century England to life.  Watching this film is a bit like stepping into a time machine and going back to the Dickensian era.  As filmed by Lean, London is as bright and vibrant as Pip’s childhood home is dark and constraining.  When Pip finds Magwitch on the beach, Lean directs the scene as if it were from a film noir.  When Pip enters the darkened home of Miss Havisham and meets the beautiful but destructive Estella, the film flirts with becoming a Rebecca-style gothic romance.  And when it’s just Pip and Herbert Pocket talking, it becomes a comedy of manners.  Not surprisingly, Great Expectations won Oscars for both its art design and its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

Great Expectations was also nominated for Best Picture.  However, it lost to Gentleman’s Agreement.

The Fabulous Forties #26: The Way Ahead (dir by Carol Reed)


The 26th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1944 British film, The Way Ahead (or, as it was retitled when it was released in America, The Immortal Battalion).

Directed by Carol Reed (who was five years away from directing the great The Third Man), The Way Ahead is a British propaganda film that was made to boost the morale of both a weary British public and the army during the final days of World War II.  Usually, when we call something propaganda, it’s meant as a term of disparagement but The Way Ahead is propaganda in the best possible way.

The film follows a group of British soldiers, from the moment that they are conscripted through their training to their first battle.  (In many ways, it’s like a more refined — which is another way of saying “more British” — version of Gung Ho!)  As usually happens in films like this, the newly conscripted soldiers come from all sections of society.  Some of them are poor.  Some of them are rich.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are single.  In fact, when the film first begins, the only thing that they all have in common is that they don’t want to be in the army.

As they begin their training, they resent their tough sergeant, Fletcher (William Hartnell), and are upset that Lt. Jim Perry (David Niven, giving a very likable performance) always seems to take Fletcher’s side in any dispute.  However, as time passes by, the soldiers start to realize that Fletcher is looking out for them and molding them into a cohesive unit.  Under his training, they go from being a group of disorganized and somewhat resentful individuals to being a tough and well-organized battalion.

Though they’re originally skeptical that they’ll ever see combat, the battalion is eventually sent to North Africa.  However, their ship is torpedoed and, in a scene that remains genuinely impressive even when viewed today, the men are forced to abandon ship while explosions and flames light up the night sky.  By the time that they do finally reach North Africa, they are more than ready to fight…

The Way Ahead plays out in a semi-documentary fashion (it even features a narrator who, at the end of the film, exhorts the audience to stay firm in their commitment) and it’s a fairly predictable film.  If you’ve ever seen a war film, you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in The Way Ahead.  That said, The Way Ahead is a remarkable well-made and well-acted film.  The cast is well-selected (and features a lot of familiar British characters actors, some making their film debut) and David Niven is the perfect choice for the mild-mannered but firm Lt. Perry.  Even though I’m not a huge fan of war films in general, I was still impressed with The Way Ahead.

And you can watch it below!