The Way Ahead (AKA The Immortal Battallon)
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Peter Ustinov and Eric Ambler based on an original story by Ambler
Two Cities Films
Pvt. Herbert Davenport: Oh really? Who?
Pvt. Ted Brewer: Bleedin’ Guy Fawkes.
Sometimes as I work my way down the list of films to see for a given year, I am tempted to succumb to a bit of boredom and cut things short. Then an obscure little gem like this shows up and my enthusiasm is restored.
As the film begins, we see Lieutenant Jim Perry (David Niven), a recent returnee from Dunkirk and a career officer, training for combat duties. We then move on to see the reactions of different men to the receipt of their draft notices. They range in occupation from a farmer and boiler mechanic to salesmen in a high-tone department store to a travel agent. None is enthusiastic about joining the Army. The stories of all intersect when their trains converge at the station from where all the men will travel to boot camp. Unfortunately for the men, they have a confrontation with a uniformed soldier, who has heard all their defiance for authority and turns out to be their drill sergeant.
The complaints continue once the men don their uniforms. They believe their sergeant is working them extra hard because of the encounter at the train station. One soldier goes so far as to complain to the lieutenant. Then they get out of a war game by letting the enemy “kill” them. The lieutenant skillfully shames them and eventually the men become a proud team of infantrymen ready and able to take on combat duty in North Africa. With Stanley Holloway,John Laurie, and James Donald among the recruits and the twenty-one-year-old Peter Ustinov as a cafe keeper in North Africa (he speaks only French in the film). Trevor Howard made his screen debut in a small part as an officer on a transport vessel.
I can’t understand why this film is not better known given the director and writers attached to it. Most of the picture takes place in boot camp but there are some impressive action scenes both on a ship and defending a village toward the end. The characters are all so human and we get to know them very well. Although it had its origins as an army training film, it is remarkably free of sentimentality or jingoism. It held my interest all the way through. I can warmly recommend it.
Clips – one from the beginning and one from the very end