Odds are, if you enjoy British movies (or movies in general, for that matter), you’ll recognize the name Carol Reed. He’s the director who gave us “The Third Man,” “Odd Man Out,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and many more. However, I’d also lay odds that even if you did know Reed and the pictures I mentioned, you wouldn’t know “The Way Ahead,” his 1944 film about World War II, not even by the name under which its distributors released it in the U.S., “The Immortal Battalion.”
Moreover, if its having an important director weren’t enough, “The Way Ahead” features a screenplay by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov from a story by Ambler. Please don’t ask, Who are they? Ambler wrote twenty-one novels and almost twice that number of movie scripts, including “Journey into Fear,” “The Mask of Dimitrios,” “The October Man,” “A Night to Remember,” “Topkapi,” and others. Ustinov you probably know better as an actor, but he also wrote “Romanoff and Juliet,” “Lady L,” and “Hot Millions,” among dozens of others.
So we know that the writing and directing on “The Way Ahead” are top-notch. What about the acting? Well, it stars David Niven, Stanley Holloway, and James Donald. And you say you’ve still never heard of it? It is an oddity, to be sure; yet it’s an oddity of the best kind because it makes one’s “discovery” of the film all the more satisfying.
The filmmakers have devised for the movie a central theme embodied in the prefacing definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “An army: A considerable body of men, armed, organized and disciplined, to act together for purposes of warfare.” The key words here are “to act together.” That is, Reed, Ambler, and Ustinov attempt to show how people cannot create something great in a vacuum; it takes people working together to accomplish important results, in this case, to defeat the threat of world domination by Hitler and Mussolini. To this end, the filmmakers created a fictional plot and characters that closely approximate what was really going on in World War II in terms of people getting together for a common cause.
“It’s all right to have a good regiment, but where are the men to fight in it?”
The story opens in 1939, at the beginning of the War in Europe, where we see a variety of everyday British citizens going about their business just before being called up into active duty with the British army. These men include Jim Perry (David Niven), a mild-mannered gas-station attendant and member of the territorial army; Ted Brewer (Stanley Holloway), a loud commoner, a boiler custodian; Evan Lloyd (James Donald), a brooding civil servant; Mr. Davenport (Raymond Huntley), a snooty department-store manager; Mr. Luke (John Laurie), a Scottish farmer; and several others. The War will soon bring them all together as a fighting unit.
The movie continues for the next five years, following the main characters through their basic training and into their first combat. Men from all walks of life, thrown together as equals, learning that to survive, as individuals and as countries, they must unite and work side by side.
As with any good story, it’s the characterizations that count. And this has always separated the best war movies from the average and inferior ones; it’s what made “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “A Walk in the Sun,” “The Thin Red Line,” and “Saving Private Ryan” great war movies. They’re about people, real people, people like you and me, not just about blood splattering and things blowing up.
We get to know the characters in “The Way Ahead” and understand their motivations. We see them change as time goes by. We see them adjust under the guidance of leaders like Lt. Perry, Sgt. Fletcher (Billy Hartnell), and Capt. Edwards (Leo Genn), even when it doesn’t look as though they’re ever going to understand the rigors of military life. Life goes on, and the smart, the tough, and the wise survive.
Given that the first half of this war film is largely talk, it maintains interest considerably well. Maybe it’s because the talk seems realistic, the sentiment genuine; maybe it’s because we sympathize and empathize with the characters so well. It’s what a good film should be about.
“You know,” say Lt. Perry, “being in the army has a lot of disadvantages, but there is one compensation: You’re not alone anymore against anyone.” Yes, one must rely on one’s fellow man to get through; no one can go it alone; no one needs to go it alone.
The final part of the film finds the men in combat in North Africa, and it’s here that action fans will see their quotient of battle sequences. Interestingly, though, Reed punctuates the film with occasional musical interludes, the soldiers finding communal sing-alongs helpful in maintaining morale. It doesn’t hurt the movie’s sense of timing, either. It’s a fine film with a big heart.
VCI digitally restored the movie to something approaching its original condition in a native screen size of about 1.33:1. The engineers did an excellent job cleaning up signs of age deterioration; there are few if any lines, specks, flecks, or fades. In addition, the picture displays good object delineation, good detailing, and reasonably good black-and-white contrasts. Perhaps the black levels would be deeper and the definition even sharper in HD, but mostly this standard-def product sparkles.
The soundtrack comes to us via Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and while it may not have any width or depth, it does have a wonderfully clear, natural-sounding midrange. Dynamics are modest but effective; voices are lifelike; and background noise is nil.
The disc’s primary extra is a documentary episode from the “Big Battles” series, “Battle of the Desert,” about forty-nine minutes on the North-African campaign. Then there’s a self-guiding photo gallery of pictures from the film that lasts around five minutes. And things conclude with twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
“The Way Ahead” shows what people can do when they cooperate with one another. It’s a lesson the nations of the free world learned from during WWII and a lesson we could learn from today. By building on the idea that people of all kinds, from all walks of life, can and often must work together for the common good, director Carol Reed creates from a mosaic of characterizations a unified, satisfying whole. It’s a good film, well acted and realistic in feel.