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Dr Keith M. Johnston

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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 59: For Those in Peril (1944)

Posted: 13/04/2012 00:00

For Those in Peril is a perfect example of the story-documentary approach begun in the British documentary groups, and developed through Ealing projects such as San Demetrio, London (1943) or Convoy (1940). Here, the film uses strong documentary filming techniques around life at port and on Air-Sea Rescue launch 183, and balances that with character-based work that explores the relationship between Flight Lt. Murray (David Farrar) and new officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael), who is vocal in his dislike of his new role in the Air-Sea Rescue unit (Rawlings believes he should be flying planes for the air force, making a 'real' difference rather than messing around in boats).

In the first half of the film, we see Murray and his men working and playing together, setting up a cohesive team - and one that is less tradition-based, less stuffy about the kind of pomp they see in their Navy colleagues (although this quickly becomes togetherness and 'good old navy' when they need help from the bigger ships). So, the crew of launch 183 play snooker and darts, sing on board the boat, eat sandwiches, joke about different ways to cook spam, and drink tea together, all under the watchful eye of a stern but amused Murray. Rawlings is a tense and cynical addition for much of the film, learning the ropes but unhappy with his lot. When the launch is caught in a firefight with a German ship and aircraft, Murray is killed, and it is up to Rawlings to take charge of this team and prove himself.

The story, then, is another exercise in male camaraderie and teamwork, largely based around officers, but also drawing in the lower decks through characters like Wilkes (John Slater) and Griffiths (Robert Griffith). The film's style is a curious mix of verisimilitude (featuring a lot of filming on real ships and launches, combining Slocombe's documentary heritage with the participation of the Admiralty and Navy in filming), solid performances from Farrar and Michael, and occasionally jarring process work placing those actors against violent sea-faring backdrops. When the film works - such as tense sequences where a rescue plane touches down in a minefield, or where the launch tries to manoeuvre out of the same minefield - it is compelling; but the battle with the German ship is less convincing, and the effects work on some of the aerial dogfights is more jarring.

George Perry believed this was the closest Charles Crichton ever got to "documentary realism during his long Ealing career" (76) but the film might be a stronger evocation of Douglas Slocombe's cinematography than Crichton's directorial touch.

Slocombe had come to Ealing through wartime documentary experience, employed by the Ministry of Information to "shoot propaganda footage on destroyers and convoys" - as Ealing produced many of those films, they gradually assimilated him into the studio, and he became a fully-fledged member of the main studio team by the end of the war. (Pavlus 2002, 90) Along with Cavalcanti, Slocombe was crucial in Ealing developing the blend of documentary footage and studio-produced drama that is on display here. As in San Demetrio, London, on which she was also credited, the dramatic pacing of the camerawork and editing is well supported by sound cutter/editor Mary Habberfield, one of Ealing's unsung production heroes through the 1940s.

Perhaps the one uncertainty around this film - which is otherwise a solid and straightforward piece of drama-doc - is the abrupt way the film ends. While there is a disparity over length between IMDb (77 minutes) and the DVD release (64 minutes) the BBFC website confirms the shorter length for its original release (thanks for Derek Johnston for pointing this out), and there is no evidence of the film being edited or censored (unlike the The Goose Steps Out (1943), as discussed a few weeks ago). Instead, there are missed narrative opportunities to pursue Rawlings' uncertainty over taking on Murray's command, or even a brief exploration of how he deals with a crew more used to Murray's leadership style. In place of this, the film cuts from Rawlings taking charge to him in a pub, several weeks later: a scene that mirrors an earlier one where Murray introduced Rawlings to the same pub. The message is clear: Rawlings has learned from Murray and can now comfortably replace him. There is no psychological need to explore how Rawlings learned this, or if he struggled: it is wartime, he is British, so it just happened. The propaganda message is clear: Britain fights on, in whatever job or form it can.

For Those in Peril is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details.

Next time, we head to Wales and enter The Proud Valley (1940)...

 

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