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Top 10 British War Films (1939-45)

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released
Not released
Not released

To mark Remembrance Sunday, Cinema Paradiso reflects on the films produced by British studios to inform and inspire the public during the dark days of the Second World War.

Despite Alfred Hitchcock warning against the danger looming on the continent in such classic thrillers as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), the British film industry had tried not to sabre rattle for much of the 1930s for fear of exacerbating a precarious situation with Europe's dictators. When hostilities commenced, however, 'The People's War' united the nation in a fight against Fascism.

A still from The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Vol.1: The First Days (1940)
A still from The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Vol.1: The First Days (1940)

From the outset, civilians in the bigger cities knew that this would be a war unlike any other because they would be the target of aerial bombardment from the Luftwaffe. But, as Humphrey Jennings reported in the 1939 documentary, The First Days - which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 1 of The Complete Humphrey Jennings Collection (2011) - the expected assault didn't come. Indeed, Europe entered a phase of Phoney War, as the leaders of the Allies and the Axis took stock of their situations and put their armaments industries into overdrive. The British government also began preparing for a propaganda war, with the Ministry of Information being set up to keep the public aware of developments abroad and the duties that would be expected of them at home so that every man, woman and child could do their bit for the war effort.

Even though everyone was in the battle together, the MOI faced a tricky assignment. A third of the population didn't go to the pictures, while the younger generation preferred Hollywood escapism to homemade flagwavers. Films, therefore, had to hit the right tone and be realistic without lowering morale or raising expectations. They also had to blur the lines of class division and normalise the changing status of women in wartime society. Furthermore, there were a number of topics that were considered taboo in the national interest, including military secrets, munitions work, the black market, evacuation, Jewish refugees, enemy aliens, and prisoners of war.

A still from Their Finest (2016)
A still from Their Finest (2016)

Lone Scherfig's Their Finest (2016) ably conveys the pressures facing those charged with enlightening, encouraging, and entertaining a population at war through newsreels, documentaries, shorts, and features. So, let's see what British audiences were watching, as they faced nightly air raids and the very real prospect of invasion.

Keep the Home Fires Burning

At 11am on Sunday 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took to the BBC airwaves from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. He solemnly announced that Germany had ignored British demands for a withdrawal of its troops from Poland and that a state of war now existed between the two countries. Less than 21 years had passed since the signing of the Armistice to end all wars.

While the government avoided the 1914-18 mistake of darkening screens (see Cinema and the First World War), only three British film studios remained in operation for much of the 1939-45 conflict. With budgets reduced and the range of topics limited, producers had to find ways of slipping propaganda messages into mainstream pictures without alienating audiences seeking to forget their troubles. Perhaps that's why the best-known film about the Home Front was made in Hollywood. Based on Jan Struther's newspaper column, William Wyler's Mrs Miniver (1942) was set in the fictional Kent village of Belham and starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as the plucky couple facing up to the threat of invasion. Despite being mauled by British critics for being insultingly sentimental, MGM's melodrama won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, and gave US audiences an idea of what their transatlantic counterparts were enduring. Moreover, Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered it 'propaganda worth 100 battleships'.

Homegrown film-makers knew that the British public wouldn't stand for such a romanticised fantasy and plumped instead for a blend of escapism and everyday realism that gave wartime dramas, thrillers, and comedies alike a sense of authentic optimism. While the enemy was sometimes caricatured, it was mostly taken seriously in being depicted as ruthless and cunning. But the Nazis and their detestable cohorts in the countries they occupied were never presented as invincible, just as British characters were never presented as paragons of virtue who were too good to be true.

In order to be effective, fictional wartime movies had to tell it like it was and leave the overt propagandising to the kind of MOI short that can be found on such excellent collections as Home Front Britain, the BFI's Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films From the Home Front, and such Imperial War Museum anthologies as Women and Children At War, The British Home Front At War, Britain's Home Front At War, The Home Guard and Britain's Citizen Army, and Writers At War. See also the BFI's aforementioned three-part Humphrey Jennings Collection to see such poetic insights into the war as London Can Take It (1940), Words For Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942), The True Story of Lili Marlene, and A Diary For Timothy (both 1945).

Not every film dealt with the war, as audiences needed a break from the all-consuming business of keeping calm and carrying on. But we shall concentrate on those titles that focussed on the conflict and the events that led up to it. A clutch of pictures, for example, reflected on the policy of appeasement that has been practiced during the 1930s. Maurice Elvey and Castleton Knight's For Freedom (1940) centres on newsreel chief Will Fyffe, who warns against the Nazi threat after the 1938 Munich Agreement. Having failed to alert people of the need to stand up to Hitler's bullying tactics, however, journalist Michael Redgrave turns his back on the world in Roy Boulting's Thunder Rock (1940) and becomes the keeper of a remote lighthouse on Lake Michigan, where his conscience continues to trouble him.

Following the fall of France in the spring of 1940, Britain braced itself for a Nazi onslaught. In order to glean secrets and commit acts of sabotage, Fifth Columnists operated across the country. Film-makers responded with thrillers like Anthony Asquith's Cottage to Let (1941), which warned of such nefarious activity. The cost of careless talk was also emphasised in Thorold Dickinson's equally gripping The Next of Kin, as well as Harold French's Unpublished Story (both 1942), with the latter centering on MOI censorship of newspapers and Nazi agents posing as pacifists. Naval commander James Mason lets his guard down to allow a seductive female spy to steal some important documents in Karel Lamac's They Met in the Dark (1943), which culminates in a showdown in Liverpool.

A still from The Bells Go Down (1943)
A still from The Bells Go Down (1943)

The northern port would come under heavy bombardment during the Blitz. East Ender Tommy Trinder finds himself in similar peril when joins the Auxiliary Fire Service in Basil Dearden's The Bells Go Down. Co-starring James Mason, this message comedy was followed by Humphrey Jennings's Fires Were Started (both 1943), which recreated the assault on London with real firefighters taking the roles of a crew called upon to tackle a warehouse blaze near a fully loaded munitions ship moored in the docks. The neo-realist style honed by Jennings owed much to his prewar involvement with the British Documentary Movement led by John Grierson.

Brazilian avant-gardist Alberto Cavalcanti went for a more naturalistic approach in Went the Day Well? (1942), an adaptation of Graham Greene's short story, 'The Lieutenant Died Last' that provided a chilling reminder of the need to be vigilant against the enemy within. The way the postmistress leaps to the defence of Bramley End typifies the way in which women were depicted in Home Front narratives. Proving that a woman's war work is never done, Leslie Howard and Maurice Elvey's The Gentle Sex (1943) follows women from all walks of life volunteering for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which also recruited Ethel Revnell and Gracie West in Philip Brandon's Up With the Lark (1943). Known to millions from the radio show, The Long and the Short of It, Ethel and Gracie had also confounded some Fifth Columnists while masquerading as members of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force in Redd Davis's The Balloon Goes Up (1942),

Having already cropped up in a couple of guises, Deborah Kerr plays a driver with the Mechanised Transport Corps in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which stars Roger Livesey as a belligerent war veteran. Churchill hated the film. But it reinforced Kerr's status as a rising star, although she wasn't quite in the same popularity league as Forces Sweetheart Vera Lynn. Sadly, an attempt to turn her into a movie idol in Philip Brandon's We'll Meet Again (1942), Gordon Wellesley's Rhythm Serenade (1943), and Walter Forde's One Exciting Night (1944) didn't quite come off, even though she sings beautifully and more than holds her own as an actress.

Lynn also got to show off her bedside manner in ministering to an amnesiac and nursing was a recurring theme in wartime dramas. Lesley Brook helps sailor Richard Bird recover his memory after he is lucky to survive an attack on his ship in Maclean Rogers's I'll Walk Beside You (1943), while the same year saw architect Rosamund John volunteer to nurse and promptly fall for patient Stewart Grainger while also caring for his fiancée in Maurice Elvey's The Lamp Still Burns, which was one of the last films produced by Leslie Howard before his plane was shot down in the Bay of Biscay.

Horatio Nelson had also perished off the Spanish coast at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In order to remind audiences of past glories, Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941) was one of a clutch of historical dramas designed to instil national pride. Laurence Olivier was teamed with his Oscar-winning wife, Vivien Leigh, although he would surpass this drama with the Technicolor Shakespearean masterpiece, Henry V (1944). Maybe it's time a label brought out two more wartime costume classics, Thorold Dickinson's The Prime Minister (1941), Carol Reed's Young Mr Pitt, and Norman Walker's The Great Mr Handel (both 1942), which recalled how a German composer had made a home and found fame in Britain.

As the threat of jackboots on British soil receded, the home front feature came into its own. The best was Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's Millions Like Us (1943), which touched on many themes and situations that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences. David Lean offered a wonderful insight into Clapham life between the wars in This Happy Breed (1944), which turns around the friendship between old army pals Stanley Holloway and Robert Newton, who is married to the ever-marvellous Celia Johnson.

Sidney Gilliat's Waterloo Road (1945) erred more towards melodrama, as John Mills goes AWOL from the Forces after spiv Stewart Granger makes a move on his wife (Joy Shelton). Granger would be less caddish in Leslie Arliss's Love Story (1944), as a pilot whose failing sight complicates his relationship with pianist Margaret Lockwood, who is suffering from a potentially fatal heart condition.

A still from The Way Ahead (1944)
A still from The Way Ahead (1944)

Showing how training troops interacted with the civilian population near their base, Carol Reed's The New Lot (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944) reinforced the 'all for one' notion that Churchill's coalition government had tried to foster to ensure everyone did their bit. There were quirkier offerings, however, including Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, in which somone keeps pouring glue into girls' hair in the small Kentish town of Chillingbourne, and Bernard Miles and Charles Saunders's Tawny Pipit (both 1944), which sees the villagers of Lipsbury Lea protect a rare pair of nesting birds.

There were also hijinx aplenty in Sidney Gilliat's The Rake's Progress, as Rex Harrison's Eton- and Oxford-educated playboy fritters away the inter-war years before realising he owes a debt to society and displays reckless courage in uniform. The debonair Harrison is unusually on the wrong side of a romantic triangle in Herbert Wilcox's I Live in Grosvenor Square (both 1945), as his dashing major is engaged to WAAF Anna Neagle, only for her to fall for USAF pilot Dean Jagger, when he is billeted in the London home of her ducal father, Robert Morley.

Produced with victory in sight, these features started looking forward to what a land fit for heroes might look like. Vernon Sewell's The World Owes Me a Living and Alexander Korda's Perfect Strangers (both 1945) took a downbeat approach, with the latter showing marrieds Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr struggling to reconnect after their wartime exploits. But Basil Dearden's They Came to a City (1944) was more optimistic, as J.B. Priestley's screenplay anticipated a future in which humanity learns from its past mistakes and decides to live in peace and justice.

Look Up and Laugh

Numerous wartime flagwavers contained the leading comedy stars of the day, as the MOI realised that people were more likely to respond to messages about rationing, making do and mending, and careless talk costing lives if they were slipped into lighthearted scenarios rather than stressed in weightier dramas. Consequently, director Marcel Varnel guided George Formby through Let George Do It (1940), Bell-Bottom George (1944), and Get Cracking (1943), in which he strives to ensure that the Minor Wallop Home Guard get the better of their rivals from Major Wallop while out on manoeuvres.

Formby would also headline John Paddy Carstairs's Spare a Copper (1940), which was released in the same year that Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge took on some Nazi spies in Maurice Elvey's Under Your Hat, boatbuilders Edward Rigby and Tom Gamble join the River Patrol in Oswald Mitchell's Sailors Don't Care, and Tommy Trinder, Claude Hulbert, and Michael Wilding accidentally find themselves aboard a German destroyer in Walter Forde's Sailors Three.

A still from Foreman Went to France / Fiddlers Three (1944)
A still from Foreman Went to France / Fiddlers Three (1944)

Trinder got into more scrapes in Harry Watt's Fiddlers Three, which sees a couple of sailors and a Wren being transported back to Ancient Roman times after getting hit by lightning while visiting Stonehenge. Bud Flanagan starts hallucinating after being hit on the head by a heavy kitbag while he and buddy Chesney Allen are helping a Wren board a train in John Baxter's Dreaming (1945), while Arthur Askey becomes convinced he's invincible after being tricked into believing he has been entrusted with Excalibur in Marcel Varnel's King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942).

Askey was a major radio star and joined forces with Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch to do their bit for morale by putting on a show in Aldwych Tube station during an air raid in Varnel's I Thank You (1941). Big-hearted Arthur found himself manning a remote Scottish lighthouse under Nazi surveillance in Herbert Mason's Back-Room Boy (1942) before ditching from a bomber near Paradise Island in the middle of the Atlantic in Val Guest's Bees in Paradise (1944).

Kent-born comedian Bob Hope makes a guest appearance in Anthony Asquith and Burgess Meredith's training film, Welcome to Britain (1943), a treatise on the frictions between Limeys and Yanks that can be found on the typically excellent Panamint collection, 40s Britain: Over Paid, Over Sexed and Over Here. Lancastrian Frank Randle acted the goat in service comedies like John E. Blakeney's Somewhere in Camp and Somewhere on Leave (both 1942), in which a bunch of conscripts help a buddy romance their commanding officer's daughter and cause mayhem when they are invited to stay with a well-heeled comrade in arms.

One of the first policies to be implemented after war was declared was the evacuation of children from Britain's major urban areas. Maclean Rogers put a comic spin on what proved traumatic for parents and children alike in Gert and Daisy's Weekend and Front Line Kids (both 1942). The former sees Elsie and Doris Waters take some evacuees to the country, where they catch some jewel thieves in a stately home, while the latter recycles the plot to allow porter Leslie Fuller to nab a gang in a London hotel with the help of some scampish kids who stubbornly refuse to leave the capital.

Will Hay was no stranger to dealing with unruly pupils and his patented schoolmaster act twice came in handy during the war, when he confounded some spies in Marcel Varnel's The Ghost of St Michael's (1941) and sabotaged a top Nazi school in Basil Dearden's The Goose Steps Out. He co-directed the latter and renewed the partnership with Dearden on The Black Sheep of Whitehall (both 1942), in which he bungles his way to besting Fifth Columnist Felix Aylmer.

For more about Britain's leading wartime entertainers see the Cinema Paradiso article, Topping the Music Hall Bill.

The Senior Service

Operation Dynamo remains one of the most desperate rearguard actions in British military history. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, dozens of ships and hundreds of commercial and leisure craft ferried 338,226 stranded souls across the English Channel. As narrator Laurence Olivier makes clear in the 'France Falls - May-June 1940' episode of The World At War (1973-74), this was anything but a glorious victory. But the nation took pride in its resolve and resourcefulness, as is revealed in The Little Ships of England (1943), a documentary short that can be found on the excellent BFI collection, Tales From the Shipyard (2010).

Now alone against the Axis, Britain became increasingly reliant on transatlantic trade in its efforts to defend itself and the Royal Navy was detailed to support the mercantile marine by escorting shipping through the sea lanes that were being targeted by Germany's Kriegsmarine. Ealing Studios boss Michael Balcon was keen to highlight this important work and commissioned Pen Tennyson to direct Convoy (1940), which stars Clive Brook as a captain who discovers that new first officer John Clements is romancing his wife, Judy Campbell. Despite the melodramatic narrative, Tennyson (who was the great-grandson of poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson) adopts a docurealistic approach to ensure the authenticity of action he had witnessed at first hand after joining the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during pre-production. Sadly, this would prove to be the twentysomething's final film, as he was killed in a plane crash while heading to a shoot at Scarpa Flow in July 1941.

A still from Casablanca (1942) With Humphrey Bogart
A still from Casablanca (1942) With Humphrey Bogart

An aquatic tank was also required for the bookending sequences in Noël Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942), which opens with the surviving crew members of HMS Torrin clinging to a Carley float and thinking back on events that were inspired by Lord Louis Mountbatten's experiences aboard HMS Kelly prior to the Battle of Crete in May 1941. Having missed out on Best Picture to Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), Coward accepted an Honorary Academy Award for his achievement as writer, actor, and director.

This much-lauded saga was more traditional in form than the period's other studies of naval combat. Having steered a course through the vignettes in The Big Blockade (1942), which explored efforts to place Germany in economic isolation, Charles Frend put a realist spin on the abandoned ship storyline in San Demetrio, London (1943), which was notable for the casting of actual seamen in a reconstruction of their efforts to regain control of a burning ship carrying 12,000 tonnes of aviation fuel. Following the docufiction example, Pat Jackson's Western Approaches (1944) also takes place in a lifeboat, as the 22-man crew of a sunken vessel realise that their Morse signal has been picked up by a U-boat, as well as the ship coming to rescue them.

Filmed in Technicolor off the Irish coast, this Crown Film Unit tribute to the Merchant Navy rather stands in glorious isolation, as the majority of British maritime films focus on the Royal Navy's titanic struggle with the German fleet. Similarly, Charles Crichton's For Those in Peril (1944) was a rare salute to the air-sea rescue service that charts the efforts of crew members David Farrar and Ralph Michael to survive after they are hit while searching for a downed bomber.

Submersibles had played a part in the Great War, as is demonstrated by the Conrad Veidt duo of Victor Saville's Dark Journey (1937) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Spy in Black (1939). As the war raged across the Atlantic, two notable British features were made about submarines in 1943. Vernon Sewell's The Silver Fleet stars Ralph Richardson as a Dutch shipbuilder, who is branded a collaborator when Reich commander Esmond Knight orders him to switch production to U-boats. There's no danger of John Mills being identified as anything but a hero, however, as he takes command of HMS Sea Tiger in Anthony Asquith's We Dive At Dawn and heads into the Baltic to try and keep the new Nazi battleship, Brandenberg, penned in the Kiel Canal.

The Few

The significance of the duel between the RAF and the Luftwaffe over the Home Counties in the summer of 1940 is made manifest by the sheer number of documentaries on the subject available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. Several are newsreel compilations that have been dated according to the footage used, including Battle of Britain: View From the Cockpit, The Battle of Britain, British Campaigns: Battle of Britain and the Blitz (all 1940), The Battle of Britain (1941), WWII: The War Chronicles: The Battle of Britain (1943) and The Battle of Britain (1945).

In his speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, Churchill declared that 'the Battle of Britain is about to begin'. Having refused to contemplate a peace treaty with Germany, he started making plans to defend the British Isles from the might that Hitler would unleash under Operation Sea Lion. In order to launch a land offensive, however, the Nazis had to weaken the resistance of the RAF and the civilian population. Consequently, the Luftwaffe started to target British airfields between 10 July and 31 October, while the major ports and industrial cities were subjected to a merciless Blitz between 7 September 1940 and 11 May 1941.

A still from The Lion Has Wings (1939)
A still from The Lion Has Wings (1939)

While still on the back benches, Churchill had been negotiating a screenwriting deal with Alexander Korda, who had promised to put Denham Studios at the nation's disposal if war broke out. He was made good on his promise, as, within two months of war breaking out, Korda had released The Lion Has Wings, using his own life insurance policy to complete the shoot. Co-directed by Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, and Adrian Brunel, this paean to the preparedness of the RAF stars Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon as a wing commander and his wife doing their duty in the run-up to the war's first aerial bombing raid on Kiel.

Another screen stalwart to throw himself into war work was actor Leslie Howard, who featured in numerous shorts for the Ministry of Information, as well as rousing adventures like the self-directed Pimpernel Smith (1941), which really should be on disc, as it was one of the inspirations for Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Howard doubled up again in The First of the Few (1942), a biopic of R.J. Mitchell, in which Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven) looks back from the heat of the Battle of Britain to how Mitchell came up with the idea for the Spitfire fighter plane after a meeting in 1930s Germany with rival aircraft designer, Willy Messerschmitt (Erik Freund).

In seeking to give audiences a glimpse of Britain fighting back after being on the receiving end of aerial bombardment, Harry Watt's Target For Tonight (1941) boards the Wellington codenamed 'F For Freddie' during an RAF mission against a Nazi storage facility near Freiburg. This graphic Crown Film Unit docudrama was widely seen in the United States after it received an honorary Academy Award. Indeed, Warner Bros was sufficiently impressed to co-produce Walter Forde's Flying Fortress (1942), although like Lance Comfort's Squadron Leader X (1943), this isn't currently available to rent.

Twins John and Roy Boulting went for a more authentic approach in Journey Together, which was written for the RAF Film Production Unit by acclaimed playwright Terence Rattigan. Richard Attenborough, Jack Watling, and David Tomlinson play the trio hoping to become bomber pilots, only for the former to have to overcome the disappointment of having to settle for training as a navigator. With a guest appearance by Edward G. Robinson during the Canadian sequences, this fascinating insight into daily operations proved a worthy companion piece to Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars (both 1945), which was scripted by Rattigan from the 1942 stage play, Flare Path, which was based on his experiences as a flight lieutenant.

A still from A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
A still from A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Made during the last days of the war, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1945) spends so long in a celestial courtroom that it's easy to forget that it's a war picture. Indeed, it opens with Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) returning from a bombing raid in a pranged Lancaster. He has ordered his crew to bail out, but his parachute has been shredded and he thinks he is having his final conversation when he makes contact with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator back at base. With its shifts from three-strip Technicolor to monochrome during the earthbound and heavenly sequences that are linked by a majestic staircase, this timeless fantasy is notable for the tensions between the British and the American characters, even though they were supposed to be on the same side.

A concert hall helps Polish pianist Stefan Radetzky (Anton Walbrook) regain his memory in Brian Desmond-Hurst's Dangerous Moonlight (1941). This was one of the first films to mention the airmen from Occupied Europe who joined the RAF during the war. Too shell-shocked to recall his aerial exploits in his homeland, Radetzky is jolted back into the present on a fund-raising tour for Polish orphans and returns to London in time for the Battle of Britain. Remembered for Richard Addinsell's 'Warsaw Concerto', this was a sentimental hit with wartime audiences. The music's a bit more up tempo, however, in Victor Savile's Tonight and Every Night (1945), as Rita Hayworth tops the bill at a music hall that keeps putting on a show for the likes of RAF squadron leader Lee Bowman during the heaviest bombing.

Hands Across the Water

Once war was declared and the Wehrmacht rolled across borders with blitzkrieg speed, the best that British film-makers could do was show solidarity with those resisting Nazi tyranny. As it wasn't easy to gather detailed information about life inside an occupied country, screenwriters tended to rely on educated speculation in shaping stories like Sergei Nolbandov's Ships With Wings, in which disgraced Fleet Air Arm pilot John Clements redeems himself on an embattled Greek island. The same year also saw Clive Brook make anti-Nazi broadcasts from within the Third Reich in Anthony Asquith's Freedom Radio, while concentration camp escapee Movita Castenada seeks sanctuary in lighthouse with keeper Wilfrid Lawson and British spy Michael Rennie in Lawrence Huntington's Tower of Terror (all 1941).

Director Harold French commended the efforts of the Norwegian resistance in The Day Will Dawn, as fisherman's daughter Deborah Kerr helps intrepid journalist Hugh Williams blow up a U-boat base, and the Maquis in Secret Mission, which sees Williams joins forces with Michael Wilding, Roland Culver, and Free French agent James Mason to sabotage a Nazi factory in the heart of La Patrie. This was also the destination for Welshman Clifford Evans and cohorts Tommy Trinder, Gordon Jackson, and Constance Cummings in Charles Frend's The Foreman Went to France (all 1942).

Frend also directed Johnny Frenchman (1945), which shows how rival Cornish and Breton fishermen forget their age-old differences when confronted with a common foe. However, the price paid for fighting with the Resistance was made clear in George King's Tomorrow We Live (1943), which shows how the Germans punished acts of sabotage with reprisal killings.

The Dutch resistance movement is singled out for praise in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), as the partisans abet the crew of a Wellington bomber after they bale out over the Zuider Zee. The scene switches to Belgium for Jeffrey Dell's The Flemish Farm, so that pilot Clifford Evans can recover the regimental colours of the air force unit he was forced to abandon in order to flee to Britain.

No sub-genre of the war film has adhered to the rules of engagement more strictly than those set in prisoner of war camps. The game was simple. POWs had a duty to escape and the guards were under orders to stop them. Although the setting might change, the Allied character types essentially remained the same, whether the sadistic commandants were German or Japanese. As film-makers didn't want to risk lives by revealing how escapes were conducted, Frank Launder's Two Thousand Women (1944) had the distinction of being the first British feature about detainees. Set in the Marville internment camp, this stellar drama was given exemption from the wartime blackout on POW pictures. Flora Robson, Phyllis Calvert, and Patricia Roc excel in seeking out a traitor within the ranks while hiding three RAF survivors from a crashed bomber. As the cast includes Carmen Silvera, it's tempting to suggest that this subplot had an impact on David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd's impish BBC sitcom, 'Allo, 'Allo! (1982-92).

A rare film that empathised with those Germans who had tried to resist the Third Reich was Roy Boulting's Pastor Hall (1940), which drew on the life of Martin Niemöller, who was sent to a concentration camp for criticising the regime in the 1930s. Similarly, Anthony Asquith's The Demi-Paradise (1943) was one of the few pictures to reach out to the Soviet Union, with Laurence Olivier struggling with a Russian accent as an inventor trying to sell his revolutionary propellor blade.

A still from 49th Parallel (1941)
A still from 49th Parallel (1941)

Controversially, Michael Powell's 49th Parallel (1941) took the viewpoint of Eric Portman and his fellow submariners after their U-boat is sunk in Hudson's Bay by the Royal Canadian Air Force. As they are forced inland to seek shelter, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey lead a stellar ensemble that also includes Anton Walbrook, who donated half of his fee to the Red Cross. But only one feature openly spoke about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and it's a scandal that Harold French's Mr Emmanuel (1944), which follows Felix Aylmer on a mercy mission to Berlin, has never been released on disc in this country.

Several other films set in Occupied Europe have yet to come to disc, including Herbert Mason's The Night Invader, Lance Comfort's Escape to Danger, and Harold S. Bucquet's The Adventures of Tartu (all 1943), which were respectively set in Holland, Denmark, and Romania. The Home Front titles currently out of reach include Marcel Varnel's Gasbags (1941), Maurice Elvey's Medal For the General, Leslie S. Hiscott's Welcome, Mr Washington (both 1944), and Lance Comfort's Great Day (1945), which centres on a village expecting a visit from former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in June 1942 was dramatised in three Hollywood features, Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die!, Douglas Sirk's Hitler's Madman (both 1943), and John Farrow's The Hitler Gang (1944). But the most intriguing film inspired by this event is Humphrey Jennings's The Silent Village (1943), which reimagines the reprisal slaughter in the Czech mining community of Lidice by setting it in the Welsh pit village of Cwmgiedd and casting working miners in the lead roles. Jennings was the undisputed poet of British war cinema and Cinema Paradiso aficionados should seek out his evocative documentaries on the BFI's impeccable Jennings collection.

After Sergei Nolbandov paid tribute to the Yugoslavian patriots refusing to buckle in the face of the Nazi-Chetnik alliance in Undercover (all 1943), the focus turned away from plucky foreigners and on to heroic Allied forces incrementally liberating the continent following D-Day on 6 June 1944. The war in the Pacific received little attention, as the stories were so harrowing and difficult to recreate on British soundstages. Moreover, following Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Hollywood took responsibility for taking on the Japanese. Britain's only significant contribution was Roy Boulting's documentary, Burma Victory (1946).

The battle for North Africa was outlined in Harry Watt's Nine Men, John Boulting and David Macdonald's Desert Victory (both 1943), and Tunisian Victory (1944), which was directed by Frank Capra, Hugh Stewart, Roy Boulting, John Huston, and Anthony Veiller. Its authenticity was later exposed, however, when it was discovered that some scenes had been recreated in the Mohave Desert.

Sculptress Carla Lehmann comes to the aid of British agent James Mason when the Nazis pursue him for a camera containing top secret images in George King's Candlelight in Algeria (1944). However, it's not currently possible to follow Anton Walbrook on his escape from a detainment camp in the Vichy-held Sahara in Mutz Greenbaum's The Man From Morocco (1945). Nor is it possible to see the shorts that Alfred Hitchcock made for the MOI in 1943: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. He was heavily criticised for spending the war Stateside, even though he produced such fine propaganda pictures as Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), and Lifeboat (1943). But he returned to Britain to undertake a vital task and Cinema Paradiso users can see the footage that Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein assembled to reveal to the world the shocking extent of the Holocaust in German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, which was finally released in 2014.

A still from Lifeboat (1944)
A still from Lifeboat (1944)
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