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From the Four Corners (1941)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Trafalgar Square, London, 1941. A newspaper seller displays various headlines on a blackboard. Private R. Gilbert of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force passes and criticises the blackboard's spelling of his native country ('New Zeeland'). They are joined by Corporal W. Atkinson of the Australian Imperial Force, who makes similar quibbles. Gilbert and Atkinson then encounter Private J. Johnston of the Black Watch of Canada, and the three decide for go for a beer together. They are accosted by a middle-aged woman who thanks them profusely for travelling thousands of miles "to help the Motherland".

All this is watched by an amused Leslie Howard who, after she leaves, invites the soldiers for a drink in a nearby Regent Street pub. There, they tell him about their reasons for joining up: Atkinson was watching a newsreel accompanying one of Howard's films, and was inspired by shots of troop ships going out. Johnston had similar motives, along with the fact that his father had been killed in combat and his wife thought he should "finish the job". Gilbert, a law student, was finishing his finals, and was inspired by the paper on Common Law: if Hitler won the war, would it mean anything any more?

Howard asks them why they really came. They reply that while fighting Hitler was clearly a priority, they reject the notion that they're answering the Motherland's call to arms. For one thing, their countries have independent governments, so Britain couldn't order them to enlist. Howard says that they're practical idealists, and takes them up to the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

From there, he shows them a panoramic view of London. He points out Kingston (Kings' Town), where many early kings were crowned, including Alfred the Great, the father of the British navy (and the man who burned the cakes: Howard says that it's ironic that we honour one of our best kings by remembering him as our worst cook - but perhaps that's typically English). Beyond Kingston is Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, and established the principle that no free man shall be taken or imprisoned except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land - an elementary principle of justice all over the Commonwealth.

At the other end of the Thames stands Greenwich Hospital, where Captain Cook worked before commencing his naval career. And at Tilbury their ancestors listened to Queen Elizabeth I defying the Spanish Armada. Then there's Bankside, where Shakespeare's plays played to the masses, including troops home from the Netherlands and West Indies.

But most important of all is the House of Commons, mother of all the British Empire's parliaments and also the US Congress, and the source of the fundamental principles of justice, tolerance and the rights of man. These ideas are what Howard and the others are fighting to defend, their inheritance from the past and their legacy to the future.