Every so often a classic film is given a limited cinema re-release, usually to celebrate its anniversary or a restored digital copy, but seldom just for the sheer pleasure of being able to see the movie on the big screen. When this occurs, it makes me want to view the film again as a refresher, and so it is that yesterday I watched a copy from my collection. Parenthetically, although it is a wonderful flick, its full-screen format and fairly pedestrian black and white photography do not particularly warrant a cinema viewing, and since it has been on DVD for years and occasionally shown on television, it is not really a rarity either.
Still I enjoyed coming back to it. Based on a short story by Graham Greene and set in a small bucolic English village during the War, the townsfolk welcome a group of soldier engineers who have come to install some "hush-hush" equipment over the weekend. It is not a spoiler to state here that these would-be British tommies are actually a crack German squadron in disguise, sent to disrupt communications in preparation for an imminent Mainland invasion. In fact the film opens and closes with villager Mervyn Johns standing by a tombstone in the churchyard marking where those soldiers now lay buried, saying it is the only bit of England that they can claim as their own. The movie's strength lies in its suspense, as the locals gradually discover the truth of the situation and bravely join together to defend themselves and their community. Picking up on little clues like crossed sevens on a scoresheet and finding "chokolade" from Wien in one of the billets, even the more dubious locals begin to suspect the worse, forcing the Germans to show their hand, threatening the villagers to keep them in check until the work is done. Word does leak out, but prior to the real British troops arriving, the villagers fight back with pepper, axes, knives, and finally guns, holding the enemy at bay, but suffering losses amongst their numbers as well -- the vicar, the shopkeeper, members of the Home Guard. One can just about imagine how such a scenario must have hit home with local audiences in 1942, with the real German threat just a few scant miles across the Channel.
The film was directed by (Alberto) Cavalcanti, a Brazilian who started his career in Paris as an avant garde documentarian, moving to England in 1933 to work for the GPO Film Unit, before joining Ealing Studios where this film was produced. He later gave us other cinema gems like "Champagne Charlie" (1944), "Nicholas Nickleby" (1947), and the most memorable and scariest section of the compendium film "Dead of Night" (1945). The cast is a role-call of B-List talent from the period and it is a treat to see character stalwarts like Arnold Rigby and Marie Lohr in their late prime, latter-day TV doyennes like Thelma Hird and Patricia Hayes ("I am NOT the vagrant") as fresh-faced Land Girls, and English film regulars like Basil Sydney, David Farrar, and James Donald playing the dastardly Hun. The most impressive bit of casting against type is from Leslie Banks, always a paragon of true blue British bravery from "The Hounds of Zaroff" (1932) onward, playing a local laird who is secretly a Nazi collaborator, with no explanation given for his traitorous sympathies.
All in all, watching this movie again was a splendid bit of nostalgia. It has not really dated nor dimmed in its freshness, despite its flag-waving patriotism. I still do not understand why it received the fanfare of a re-release, but I can only hope that some people who were not previously aware of its existence were tempted into a cinema to discover for the first time this paragon of British film history.