3.5 out of 5 stars

In 1942, Two Cities Films produced In Which We Serve, David Lean’s directorial debut and arguably the most famous British film of World War II. Described as “the story of a ship,” it truly resonated with audiences thanks to its portrayal of individual Royal Navy sailors. The film interweaved sequences of their military service with flashbacks of home life, underlining that they were ordinary men as well as heroes.

A few years later, the same production company made Anthony Asquith’s The Way to the Stars (1945), which similarly intertwined the personal and military careers of servicemen, this time in the Royal Air Force.

Both films, emphasising personal stories more than combat, are frequently considered among the finest British productions of the war years. However, Two Cities also produced another film during this period, The Way Ahead, which is now far less well-known. It does for the British Army what In Which We Serve did for the Navy and The Way to the Stars for the RAF. Indeed, at one point the film overtly stresses the continued importance of the infantry in an age of aeroplanes and tanks.

Directed by Carol Reed—experienced, but not yet as prominent as he would soon become with films like Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949)—it featured one already major star, David Niven, and several actors who would achieve much greater fame. It marked the uncredited film debut of Trevor Howard; Stanley Holloway was well-known on the stage but most of his famous film roles would come later; William Hartnell (the future Doctor Who) appears in the credits as “Billy Hartnell”; and Peter Ustinov has a minor but memorable part.

Ustinov also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Ambler, a successful thriller writer by this time. Their work was based on another film they and Reed had made for the army, not as a commercial production, called The New Lot. Though less than half the length of The Way Ahead, this earlier film shares many similarities—both follow a small group of recruits through the beginnings of their army careers. The Way Ahead expands The New Lot’s five conscripts to seven. Ustinov’s description of The New Lot could apply in large part to the later movie: it was, he said, “a film specifically for those who had just entered the army, a film in which the bridge between civilian and military life would be created by means of humour and comprehension.” His unusual status, as a private soldier when most writers and directors of army-produced films were officers, may well have helped both films achieve a common touch.

The authorities baulked at the idea of a general release for The New Lot, considering the characters’ complaints about military life inappropriate for civilian consumption. In the end, it was shown only to recruits (for whom such complaints were presumably no surprise). However, they certainly play a significant role in The Way Ahead, particularly at its beginning. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t gloss over the difficult transition from civilian to military life. Nor does it fetishise the creation of fighting men: there is no implication here that the characters are better people because they have become soldiers, at least in most cases. The lesson is more practical: they need to become soldiers, and they are capable of doing so, however unlikely it might seem at the beginning.

The Way Ahead also sweetens the pill with a lot of humour, and indeed opens that way, with a scene of two elderly Chelsea Pensioners who are clearly veterans of colonial military service (“they weren’t very nice, those spears”), bemoaning the poor quality of modern recruits. “The young chaps now, they can’t fight… it’s all this education and machinery and going to the pictures,” one of them says (plus ça change?). Training is “cushy, compared to what we had to do” … and Reed, of course, then cuts to 1940s recruits on a gruelling assault course, the first of several occasions on which his film will implicitly argue against making assumptions about the military from outside.

Early on the recruits of The Way Ahead will themselves be ignorant about the army, and this is also a source of knowing humour, but when the men are granted leave later in the film and they encounter civilians who display the same ignorance, it seems frustratingly ill-informed. In particular, the predictions of a pessimistic civilian that Rommel’s Afrika Korps would be victorious in the North African theatre—something that by 1944 was known not to have come to pass, but was still uncertain at the time the film is set—a warning against kneejerk negativity.

James Howard, author of the definitive book The Life and Films of Carol Reed, describes the appearances by the Chelsea Pensioners (who also crop up briefly later on) as “the least satisfactory aspect of the film”. I’m not sure about that; certainly, in a production of graver tone they would seem out of place, but as it stands their jocular presentation of serious points fits well enough with the rest of The Way Ahead. They also introduce the fictitious Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry regiment—the DOGs—in which the Pensioners had served, and in which the main characters will be enlisted.

We now meet the principal seven enlisted men and their officer, some in brief prewar flashbacks, others on a train to the north of England to join their unit for the first time. As is so often the case in military movies of this period (and other periods), they represent a cross-section of classes and personality types.

Perry (Niven) will become the lieutenant in charge of their platoon, because in civilian life he had served in the Territorial Army, a reserve force, and therefore at least has some basic military experience. Brewer (Holloway) is a boiler engineer at the Houses of Parliament (a nice touch of democratic propaganda, showing a plain-speaking working-class man as essential to the highest levels of government). Beck (Leslie Dwyer) is a travel agent; Lloyd (James Donald) is a smooth estate agent working for a rental company of possibly dubious ethics; and Luke (John Laurie) is a Scottish farm worker.

One of the most thematically important characters will be Stainer (Jimmy Hanley), an arrogant young luxury car salesman who’s adamant from the beginning that the army will bend to his will, not vice versa. The junior department store manager, Parsons (Hugh Burden, who had taken the lead in Powell and Pressburger’s 1942 film One of Our Aircraft is Missing), also has his own problems with the army and will be the centre of an important subplot. However, he’s far more sympathetic than Stainer and even features in one of the film’s best comic scenes when a manager one level above him at work, Davenport (Raymond Huntley), has to come to terms with the fact that both department store employees are now equal as army privates.

British audiences of the period would have recognised the intense significance of such minor gradations in rank, as well as the self-importance of Davenport, in charge of “toys, officers’ kit and garden ornaments” at the store. This highlights the way the war has intruded into his civilian job. They would also have recognised the pretensions of Stainer with his upper-class accent. He’s a middle-class boy from a minor public school, not the leisured aristocrat he’d probably like you to believe, and he’s the first to cause trouble.

In Crewe railway station, thronged with servicemen on leave or returning to base, an encounter between this motley crew and some real soldiers doesn’t go entirely smoothly. So it’s an unpleasant surprise when they arrive at their camp to discover their NCO, Sergeant Fletcher (Hartnell), is one of the men they riled at the station. Conflicts between him and some of the recruits continue throughout the long basic training section of the film that follows—with scenes on the parade ground and in the billet, on an assault course and peeling potatoes. Indeed, Fletcher, very convincingly played by Hartnell, clearly embodies the army as a whole as well as being a believable individual. At first, we see him from the recruits’ perspective, as hostile, and only later realise that he’s quite fair. His relationship with Niven’s lieutenant, nominally his superior but less experienced in military matters and perfectly aware of it, is also carefully observed.

A little over halfway through the film, the lieutenant announces that the platoon is being deployed to North Africa, and the action moves there (some of it shot on location). It’s there, too, that Ustinov makes the most of every scene-stealing opportunity as the manager of a local bar, speaking entirely in French. However, he’s eventually shown to be a good bloke rather than a dodgy foreigner through his prowess at darts.

The Way Ahead was described by James Agee as “somewhat poky yet very able”, an epithet which many Americans might have applied to Britain itself in 1944. Reed’s direction is certainly accomplished, and often aided in this fast-paced film by the editing of Fergus McDonell. His work not only contributes greatly to the humorous effects but also brings alive an exciting shipboard sequence, a short battle towards the end, and a tense passage with the soldiers waiting for the Germans in the night-time desert.

Just as much credit for The Way Ahead’s success as a film, though, should go to the actors. Not just Hartnell and Ustinov but also Niven, Dwyer, and Burden, all of whom rise far above caricature, even when their dialogue is intended to convey a message rather than develop a character. The few female roles have little screen time and seem there largely to reassure civilian audiences that wives will still see their husbands occasionally even while they’re on active service; perhaps to make the film feel more relevant to women in the audience, too. Unlike in many war films, there’s barely even a token romance. Mary Jerrold as an elderly lady who provides tea and sympathy to the enlisted men has the most interesting of the female parts, and the domestic setting and mood provided by her scenes help to add variety.

The Way Ahead is certainly not a work of great ambition or subtlety. The standard-issue martial music in the score by William Alwyn typifies this; you’d never guess he was one of the many noted British classical composers who wrote extensively for the screen at the time. But Reed’s film has a purpose—to show, at least semi-realistically, that civilians could overcome the challenges of military service, and to depict a United Kingdom.

As in many WWII films, the social and personality differences amongst the men are not just there as a source of humour and drama, and a means of easily distinguishing characters, but also to demonstrate inclusivity. When they listen to a wireless broadcast from home in Ustinov’s North African bar, they all listen as British servicemen together, not as Englishmen, Scotsmen, labourers, or department store managers.

Many other scenes make the film’s values clear. Selflessness—playing for the team in a low-key, everyday way, rather than through extreme heroism—is the point of a sequence (slightly overlong) where a revue show is put on for the soldiers. Beck has been planning to recite a poem at it and is disappointed when a hammy civilian performer chooses to declaim the same poem. However, when the civilian forgets the words, Beck quietly prompts him rather than relishing his failure. Beck’s command of French and German, useful in his pre-war existence as a travel agent, later proves valuable when the platoon reaches North Africa. He may not be a soldierly type on the surface, but The Way Ahead is reminding us that he still has skills to offer the war effort.

After Parsons makes a rather half-hearted attempt to desert, to rescue his wife from financial problems, Niven’s lieutenant tells him that “being in the army has a lot of disadvantages but there is one compensation—you’re not alone any more against anyone”

The film’s key scene perhaps is the one where the lieutenant angrily addresses the men after they deliberately sabotage an exercise in protest against their perceived mistreatment. He speaks of the regiment’s heritage dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, and later, on leave, Lloyd refers to one of the Napoleonic battles as “a battle we fought.” Civilian individualism has been replaced by loyalty to the group and, by implication, the wider war effort (though not in a negative, brainwashing way; this isn’t Full Metal Jacket).

However, the war it depicts has become very different between the time of The Way Ahead’s action and its release date. The main part of the film begins in May 1941, a difficult point for Britain. Rommel had arrived in North Africa and soon mounted a successful counter-offensive against the Allies. Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union, and the US had not yet entered the war. The story takes us to late 1942 or perhaps early 1943. The film itself, however, comes from a much more optimistic stage of the conflict. It premiered in London on D-Day (a coincidence, of course) before receiving wider distribution, and the events it depicts are firmly set in the past.

The Way Ahead is not so much an exhortation to set aside a civilian mentality in desperate times as a celebration of what has already been achieved and an encouragement to keep up the good work: the unexpectedly haunting conclusion, with close-ups on individual members of the platoon, as they advance into smoke and uncertainty, are superimposed with “The Beginning” rather than “The End.”

This different context surely helps to explain why it is often so much more light-hearted than In Which We Serve, places less emphasis on sacrifice, and for much of its duration is much more interested in adaptation to the demands of daily wartime life than in the experience of battle itself. It may well, indeed, have been intended to bolster the morale of civilians growing weary of the war just as much as to salute the soldiers themselves.

It is not as powerful a film as In Which We Serve, either, it has to be said; The Way Ahead’s humour does soften the drama, though it doesn’t entirely stop it from hitting home. But it certainly deserves to take a more prominent position in the canon of British WWII movies, not least for its featuring of so many fine actors, and for the way that Ambler, Ustinov, and Reed ensure that their film’s message, though always clearly visible, is so well-integrated with credible characters and an interesting storyline.

Note: The Way Ahead was also released in the US as The Immortal Battalion, running about 20 minutes shorter. The running time of the UK version is given by IMDb as 115 minutes, though in reality currently available versions are around 110 minutes.

UK | 1944 | 115 MINUTES (UK) 91 MINUTES (US) | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH • FRENCH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Carol Reed.
writers: Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov.
starring: David Niven, William Hartnell, Hugh Burden, James Donald & Leslie Dwyer.