“This is the story of a ship….”
The 1942 British war film, In Which We Serve, opens with footage of the HMS Torrin, a destroyer, being constructed in a British shipyard. When the Torrin is finally finished, the men who worked on it cheer as it leaves on its maiden voyage. The film then abruptly jumps forward to the year 1941. The Torrin is sinking, the victim of German bombers. The surviving members of her crew float in the ocean, holding onto debris and watching as their home for the past few years capsizes and slowly goes underneath the surface of the water. Even as the Torrin sinks, German planes continue to fly overhead, firing on the stranded men and killing several of them.
As the men fight to survive both the ocean and the Germans, they remember their time on the Torrin. Captain Kinross (Noel Coward, who also wrote the script and co-directed the film) thinks back to 1939, when he was first given command of the Torrin. He remembers the early days of the war and the time that he spent with his wife (Celia Johnson) before leaving to do his duty. As the captain of the ship, Kinross was a tough but compassionate leader. He expected a lot out of the men but he also came to view them as his second family. Meanwhile, Shorty Blake (John Mills) thinks about his wife and his newborn son back in London. Everyone on the Torrin has left their families behind. Some of them even lose their loved ones during the war, victims of the relentless German Blitz. But, even as they float in the ocean, everyone continues to fight on, knowing that there will be bigger ships to replace the Torrin and that Britain will never surrender.
In 1942, British film producer Anthony Havelock-Allan approached Noel Coward and asked him if he would be interested in writing the screenplay for a morale-boosting propaganda film. Coward agreed, on the condition that he be given complete control of the project and that the film deal with the Royal Navy. Though one might not immediately think that the author of drawing room comedies like Easy Virtue and Private Lives would be the obvious choice to write a war film, Coward’s family actually had a long tradition of serving in the Navy and Coward based a good deal of the film’s action on the wartime exploits of his friend, Lord Mountbatten. Though there was initially some concern about Coward’s insistence that he should play the lead role on top of everything else, the Ministry of Information fully supported the production of In Which We Serve.
However, Corward knew that he would need help directing the film. He asked his friend, John Mills, for advice and Mills suggested that Coward should bring in, as co-director, “the best editor in Britain,” David Lean. Though Lean was initially only meant to handle the action scenes, Coward quickly discovered that he didn’t particularly enjoy all of the detail that went into directing a film. As a result, David Lean ended up directing the majority of the film. This would be Lean’s first film as a director and he would, of course, go one to become one the top British directors of all time.
(Also of note, frequent Lean collaborator Ronald Neame served as the film’s cinematographer. Neame later went on to have his own career as a director. In 1972, Neame directed another film about a capsized ship, The Poseidon Adventure.)
As for the film itself, In Which We Serve is an unapologetic propaganda film, carefully crafted to inspire the British people to support the war effort and also to win over the sympathy of American viewers. (During the film’s production, America had finally entered the war but there were still skeptics, at home and abroad.) Along with being a war film, In Which We Serve is also a rather touching and heartfelt tribute to the strength and determination of the British people. Though it’s a rather grim film at times and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that lives are going to be lost in the battle to defeat Hitler, it’s also a rather inspiring film. The sacrifice will be great, In Which We Serve tells us, but it will also be worth it. The entire ensemble — including future director Richard Attenborough, making his film debut as a frightened sailor — does an excellent job of creating memorable characters, some of whom only appear for a few fleeting moments before meeting their fate.
In Which We Serve was a box office hit in both the UK and the US. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture of the year, though it ultimately lost to another film about World War II, Casablanca.