"I wonder what we'll look like in 1970," Perry muses to his wife during the
poignant sequence before the platoon sails for action. It's a piquant line in a
wartime drama so packed with familiar British faces, starry and small. The
film's material itself reflects the changes of time. The Way Ahead was conceived
during the 1942 winter, when morale-stiffening in and outside the Army was
sorely needed. The Army training film The New Lot (1943) served as inspiration,
providing key plot elements, characters, and creative personnel (director Reed,
writers Ambler and Ustinov). Parallels run closest in the first half, when The
Way Ahead follows its conscripted men - working- and middle-class, variously
callow, discontented, and chirpy - until they begin forming a fighting team.
Where The New Lot confined itself to basic training exercises, this 'new lot'
see action in the Mediterranean: they end the film, gun and bayonet primed,
marching through the battle smoke towards victory, possibly death. This fitted
the country's changing mood. By 1944, when the film was readied for release, the
argument for conscription had been won. Instead audiences needed, and received,
a sympathetic picture of Army life that showed Home Front wives what their men
were experiencing and made every sacrifice seem worthwhile. Opening on D-Day
itself, with the Allies' invasion push finally underway, Reed's film proved a
resounding popular and critical success throughout Britain.
The New Lot ran to 40 minutes. The Way Ahead is a full feature, leap-frogging
through the war with what now seems the redundant linking device of the Chelsea
Pensioners fretting over modern soldiery. Extra time is spent pursuing caustic
humour (and, with the Brewer character, pushing the Cockney button a little too
readily). Other space is devoted to action, most imaginatively handled in
the troopship sequence - staged in the studio, but with much of the hard edge of
actuality learned from documentary.
There is also a star performer, David Niven, himself an Army Major; he'd been
instrumental in setting up the film. At first Perry, his character, occupies the
background. But after lecturing the men for deliberately flunking an exercise,
Perry becomes the lynch-pin: the firm, fair, rose-tinted officer even the
platoon grumblers can respect. To today's viewers, however, the film's stand-out
character is probably Lloyd the malcontent - brilliantly pitched by James Donald
as a confused man of thought, grudges and shoulder chips visible in every cold