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In Which We Serve (1942)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of In Which We Serve (1942)
35mm, black and white, 114 mins
DirectorsDavid Lean
 Noël Coward
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
ProducerNoël Coward
ScreenplayNoël Coward
PhotographyRonald Neame
MusicNoël Coward

Noël Coward (Captain Edward V. Kinross RN 'D'); John Mills (Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake); Bernard Miles (Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy); Celia Johnson (Mrs Alix Kinross); Joyce Carey (Mrs Kath Hardy)

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A destroyer, HMS Torrin, is bombed during World War Two. Her surviving crew members reflect on their pasts.

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Already acclaimed in the theatre, Noël Coward was approached by film producers Anthony Havelock-Allan and Filippo del Giudice to make a film, on any subject he wanted. Coward had been enthralled to hear Lord Mountbatten speak about the sinking of his ship, HMS Kelly, and thought it would make an effective film story. Coward needed a good technician to help him and David Lean was recommended as being the best in the business.

In Which We Serve (1942) was Lean's first directorial credit, after more than a decade as a highly respected editor. He had already declined several offers to direct 'quota quickies', fearing that becoming associated with inferior films could damage his career.

Coward's first script was much too long, but he eventually came up with the idea of the Carley float as a device to flashback to some of the best scenes he had written, focusing on just three of the survivors. Mountbatten himself advised Lean on the sequence where the ship is dive-bombed. The documentary-style opening, showing the building of the ship, was filmed by Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, with a voice-over supplied by Leslie Howard.

Although Lean insisted on sharing the direction credit with Coward, his name is barely mentioned in the publicity material for the film, which does not even carry a photograph of him. The Monthly Film Bulletin review praises "the quite outstanding direction of Noël Coward" and fails to mention David Lean at all, although Coward left Lean to more or less shoot the film on his own, while he concentrated on playing the lead role.

For John Mills, playing Shorty Blake, it was to be the first of five films he would make with Lean. A 17 year-old Richard Attenborough made a strong impression in his first film role as the cowardly young stoker. Coward himself gives a rather humourless performance as the Captain, hampering the characterisation with his clipped and affected speech delivery. He also takes care to script for himself several fatherly speeches addressed to the crew, throughout the film. Despite such shortcomings, and Coward's condescending view of the lower classes, the film is very moving, and Lean achieves some stunning sequences.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. After the dinner (3:13)
2. Battle stations (4:25)
3. Battle-weary parade (2:45)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Close Quarters (1943)
We Dive At Dawn (1943)
Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)
Bernstein, Sidney (1899-1993)
Carey, Joyce (1898-1993)
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)
Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)
Two Cities Films