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Way to the Stars, The (1945)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Way to the Stars, The (1945)
35mm, black and white, 109 mins
Directed byAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
Produced byAnatole De Grunwald
Screenplay byTerence Rattigan
Story byTerence Rattigan
 Anatole De Grunwald
PhotographyDerrick Williams
Music byNicholas Brodszky

Michael Redgrave (Flight Lieutenant David Archdale); John Mills (Peter Penrose); Rosamund John (Miss Todd); Douglass Montgomery (Johnny Hollis); Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton)

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The stories of various British and American pilots stationed at an RAF airbase in the Midlands during the Second World War.

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The Way to the Stars (d. Anthony Asquith, 1945) is one of the most effective and understated films about the conflict made during the Second World War, though it features no combat scenes and only three (brief) shots from inside a cockpit. Taking its title from the Latin script on the Royal Air Force coat of arms - 'Per ardua ad astra' - its genesis lay in the RAF experiences of playwright Terence Rattigan, which he initially used in his play Flare Path. Rattigan eventually re-shaped this material into a screenplay in collaboration with producer Anatole de Grunwald and Anthony Asquith, who directed ten films taken from his work.

The film is told in flashback and is set between 1940 and 1944. The celebrated opening sequence is made up of a series of elaborate tracking shots that survey the now abandoned airbase, casually introducing a number of props and motifs that will be referred to at later points in the film. This approach was later emulated in the Hollywood film about American bombing raids over Germany, Twelve O'Clock High (d. Henry King, 1949).

Seen today, the film's reserve and low-key approach could make some viewers dismiss it as merely another example of the 'stiff upper lip' school of filmmaking. However, like Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945), The Way to the Stars effectively comments on the traditional emotional reticence of the British by weaving a critique of it into the fabric of the story, turning it into a theme of the film. The introduction in the film's second half of the American flyers (as exemplified by the wise-cracking Bonar Colleano, making his film debut) further emphasises this. It also puts into relief the film's main focus - Penrose's development from callow youth into a burned-out, emotionally detached pilot, and his eventual return to life and love. In this respect at least the film has much in common with the more flamboyant A Matter of Life and Death (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1946).

Although attributed to Michael Redgrave's character, the poems in the film were the work of John Pudney, who served in the RAF and who wrote For Johnny during an air raid in 1941. Its popularity inspired the American release title of the film, Johnny in the Clouds, taken from the poem's opening lines: "Do not despair/For Johnny-head-in-air/He sleeps as sound/As Johnny underground/Fetch out no shroud/For Johnny-in-the-cloud".

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Opening sequence (2:22)
2. The eulogy (4:27)
3. Peter's farewell (2:28)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
We Dive At Dawn (1943)
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Carey, Joyce (1898-1993)
Colleano, Bonar (1923-1958)
Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Simmons, Jean (1929-2010)
Tomlinson, David (1917-2000)
Two Cities Films