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From the Four Corners (1941)


Main image of From the Four Corners (1941)
35mm, black and white, 15 mins
DirectorAnthony Havelock-Allan
Production CompaniesD&P Studios
 Ministry of Information

Cast: Private J. Johnston (The Black Watch of Canada); Corporal W. Atkinson, (Australian Imperial Force); Private R. Gilbert (2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force); Leslie Howard (A passer-by)

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Leslie Howard meets soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada and gives them a whistle-stop tour of 'Englishness'.

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Although as a major Hollywood star he could easily have sat out the Second World War in sunny California, Leslie Howard flew home in 1939 and devoted the rest of his tragically curtailed life and career to supporting the British war effort. This 15-minute Ministry of Information-backed short is based on what initially seems like an almost parodically contrived situation - Leslie Howard meets three soldiers hailing from Australia, New Zealand and Canada and discusses why they're contributing to the war effort. However, the film goes on to present an unexpectedly subtle case for their involvement.

The central point is that Corporal Atkinson and Privates Johnston and Gilbert are not, as a woman who accosts them in Trafalgar Square claims, here to "defend the motherland" - as Johnston pithily points out later, "that's a lot of hooey". They offer differing reasons for joining up, but following a discussion in a Regent Street pub over a pint (one of many icons of 'Britishness' that the film slips in) and a panoramic guided tour of London from the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, Howard explains that it's not so much the physical British Isles that they're fighting to defend as the ideas that they represent, arising from Britain's "ancient foundations and most worthy liberty".

Ironically, of this quartet, Howard had the fewest natural ties to "the motherland", being of Hungarian Jewish stock and raised in Vienna. Which may explain why his conclusions sound so heartfelt: he knew better than most how important it was to ensure Hitler's defeat. And the decision to play down, and even debunk, notions of blind loyalty to the British Empire means that the film also provides a persuasive case for the United States to enter the war. As he puts it at the end:

Perhaps the men who came closest to putting them into words were those Americans, many of them the sons of British pioneers, who founding an independent nation proclaimed "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Those words and that spirit were born and nourished here, and your fathers carried them to the ends of the earth. They're our inheritance from the past, our legacy to the future. That's why you came here - to defend them.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Pub chat (3:16)
2. Typically English (1:03)
3. Hearts and minds (1:40)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)