Review: Noël Coward and David Lean’s “In Which We Serve,” Starring Noël Coward

Bernard Miles and John Mills in
Bernard Miles and John Mills in "In Which We Serve"

“This is the story of a ship,” narrator Leslie Howard informs us at the start of In Which We Serve. The first film by British playwright Noël Coward follows the crew of the HMS Torrin, who reflect back on their lives after their ship is sunk by German bombers. In collaboration with David Lean—credited as a director for the first time—Coward crafted a moving film that manages to serve its propagandistic purpose while not shying away from the harsh tragedies of war.

Coward was approached one day in 1941 by independent producer Filippo Del Guidice to make a film supporting the war effort. The following night Coward dined with Royal Navy commander Louis Mountbatten, who told the playwright about his ship the HMS Kelly, which had been sunk in the Mediterranean that May. “I was profoundly moved,” Coward would later write, “by this odyssey of one destroyer. I knew this was a story to tell, if only I could tell it without sentimentality, but with simplicity and truth.”1

The writer of acclaimed plays including Private Lives and Blithe Spirit ambitiously planned to write, produce, director, score, and star in the film, but was smart enough to realize he would need some expert technicians to pull off his film debut. Establish British filmmakers like Carol Reed and Michael Powell pointed Coward toward Lean, who had been editing films for the past decade including Powell’s 49th Parallel andOne of Our Aircraft is Missing. Coward proposed that Lean would focus on the camera while he would direct the actors; Lean agreed on the basis of a co-director credit.2 It would be his first, leading him towards an illustrious career making epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai. Directing together he and Coward turn the playwright’s fairly basic script into a film as strikingly honest and realistic as anything else produced during the early forties about the war.

Among the various vignettes that make up the film—which include Coward as the ship’s captain, Celia Johnson as Coward’s devoted wife, Richard Attenborough in his first screen role, and more—two scenes late in the film stand out. In one, a sailor (John Mills) is forced to inform an officer (Bernard Miles) of some bad news—while they’ve been off at war, the officer’s wife has been killed in the blitz. Reacting to the news, Miles plays the scene with a kind of simple, quiet, very British dignity that is absolutely crushing, while Mills just stands there, unsure what to do or how to act, never able to form the right words. Later, at the very end of the film, Coward’s captain says goodbye to what’s left of his men as they depart for their new assignments. He begins shaking hands with each of them, thanking them and addressing them by name. Rather than only showing us a few of these and then fading out, Coward and Lean show us several minutes of these handshakes, often with characters we don’t even recognize. The scene has a cumulative effect, as we come to understand the immense respect and gratitude that these men have for each other. That does of course also serve the film’s propagandistic function, showing us how great the troops are and reminding us to support them. In Which We Serve thrives when it melds its propaganda and realism together neatly, in a way that tops many of the similar Hollywood productions for years to come.

Where to Watch

Stream it on FilmStruck / Amazon Prime / Archive.org

Buy it on Blu-ray as part of the David Lean Directs Noel Coward set / DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon

For More on In Which We Serve

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Gene D. Phillips, Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 50.