War, propaganda and conservative values - 2

Posted by Helen Wednesday, September 13, 2006

This is turning into a more serious experiment than predicted. I ought to have known that I could not do a blog of readable length on so many related subjects.

“Night Train to Munich” is often described as almost a continuation of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, which also stars Margaret Lockwood. The Reed film had Rex Harrison instead of Michael Redgrave who had other commitments and revived the cricket-loving Charters and Caldicott as played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

It is, of course, a truism among film critics (of whom Tory Historian is most definitely not one) that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest and few can come up to his standard. Well, in this case, the truism is wrong. “The Lady Vanishes” is a delightful film, full of the usual Hitchcockian touches and also full of the man’s ineffable silliness. Plots? What plots?

“The Lady Vanishes” takes place in a country that is vaguely Ruritanian, gives the impression of being Switzerland but is possibly Germany. Or not. This lack of precision or any worry about it diminishes the tension of the story. After all, it is only fairyland and the good will triumph while the bad will come to a no good end.

“Night Train to Munich” is very different. It is timed and positioned precisely, taking place in the last few months before the outbreak of World War II, finishing in the train journey that takes place in the night of September 3, 1939 and a chase through Germany the following day, with a final escape to Switzerland.

Briefly: the British manage to spirit out a Czech scientist, who is working on a development in arms manufacturing that will revolutionize warfare, just ahead of the invading Germans. But the Gestapo arrests his daughter as she is trying to reach the airport and sends her to an internment camp.

Immediately, one must note two very precise and realistic aspects. When the Germans talk about Czech steel production being superlative and their need for the armaments manufacturing in Czechoslovakia, the film tells the truth. The Czechoslovakia of the late thirties was one of the best producers of arms in Europe and the Germans were fully aware of this. As they took the factories of Sudetenland over, they transferred some to Austria and used others in situ. Czech tanks and vehicles were invaluable in the invasion of Poland and, later, of the Soviet Union.

Then there is the internment camp. The film was made in 1940 but already there is a depiction of the viciousness of the Nazi regime. Reed was so attentive to detail that he asked the advice of someone who had managed to get out of an internment camp and come to Britain.

The daughter, Lockwood, manages to escape and join her father but they are both kidnapped by Gestapo agents. The second half of the film consists of the elegant but deadly British agent, Rex Harrison, trying to rescue them and bring them back to Britain. He is motivated largely by patriotism, a desperate desire to improve Britain’s chances in the war that is drawing ever closer, feelings of anger because he had, in his opinion, failed in his duty and, needless to say, growing love for the stunning Margaret Lockwood.

There is, of course, a great deal of hokum but, also, some telling points. The film was released in June 1940 and was, possibly, not as successful as it should have been because of the timing. As Reed himself pointed out, it was a pre-Dunkirk film shown in the post-Dunkirk time. The mood had become darker and victory was no longer seen to be easy or, indeed, probable.

Nevertheless, the propaganda must have been effective in trying to provide both a negative and a positive reason for fighting, that is, trying to explain what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for.

The Nazis are not all spectacularly evil in this film, though there is a good deal of nastiness in the depiction of the internment camp. There are also wryly amusing moments when Nazi officers say things like: “This is very urgent as any day now Poland will provoke us into invading it in self-defence.” (There is a telling echo of this statement in the conversation William Pitt has with the French ambassador Talleyrand in “The Young Mr Pitt” about the French invasion of the Low Countries.) On the other hand, there is no obvious disdain for the Germans either. Some are stupid, dishonest, and even, brutal. But others are intelligent and, in their own way, patriotic. It is the system that has been imposed on their country, the system of lies, hatred and brutality, that is shown to be evil.

There is also a reasonable indication that many Germans are dissatisfied with the Nazi regime and hanker after the freedom, which Britain represents. That is the crux of the positive argument: what we are fighting for, the most difficult of all things to define.

When Margaret Lockwood manages to get to England from her internment camp, it is still summer and the war is merely looming. She talks happily of people laughing and feeling relaxed, unafraid. Well, one might say, they have not been occupied, unlike her own country, Czechoslovakia. But later, much emphasis is laid on the fact that the Nazis had been brainwashed, taught to repeat slogans; that they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves, unlike the British, who remain free and, therefore, ingenious in their ability to fight the enemy.

The two somewhat bumbling but basically very decent cricket-lovers, Charters and Caldicott, represent England at her best. They are smart, though not too smart; courageous though not foolhardy; decent and honest but capable of all necessary deviousness when faced with the enemy. At one point they find themselves dressed in SS uniforms, marching reasonably well behind Rex Harrison, also in disguise.

The values are conservative with a small ‘c’ – freedom, the right to live your life as you want to, decency, openness, courage and, if necessary, deviousness against the enemy. Above all, there is the determination not to give in (though this is matched by an equal determination on the other side). These are Anglospheric ideas, the link between British and American attitudes emphasised for propaganda purposes.


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