Sometimes things that are completely disparate come together in a weird way.
On Dec. 2, which happens to be my younger sister’s birthday, I was home in the mid-afternoon doing a few chores and getting about some meal preparations.
As I sorted the mail after taking the dog out for a romp, I flipped on the TV and did some channel surfing.
Turner Classic Movies is usually one of my stops on the trip around the dial and they were showing the 1942 British film, “In Which We Serve.”
Back in the Paleolithic era—pre-cable television—we were lucky enough to be able to bring in Canadian channels over the air, expanding our viewing options, and beginning our enthusiasm for ice hockey, if not competitive curling.
One of the three stations from north of the border that we got showed old movies, but had a rather limited rotation, so that, it seemed, the same dozen or so movies played several times a year.
“In Which We Serve” was one of them, and so I rested there awhile, thinking “I’ll tell Bridget tonight when I talk to her that I saw it.”
The movie is an epic piece of propaganda written by Noel Coward, who also starred as the captain of the fictional HMS Torrin. Told in rather stilted flashbacks, it recounts the lives of the crew of the Torrin from before World War II was declared until the ship is torpedoed.
Coward, probably the textbook definition of “urbane,” wrote, directed, produced and acted in the movie, and also, as I learned when I looked it up—composed the music and was the set decoration supervisor.
There are a host of familiar faces in the film, many in their first roles, so that you have to sort of squint and say “is that Richard Attenborough?” playing a cowardly, but later, valiant seaman.
As the sailors cling to a life raft, they individually flashback to their lives at home—both before and during the war, and we meet their families—wives, parents, sweethearts, etc.
The movie was made to shore up support for the war at home, but also for American audiences not yet in the war when the movie began production, although it was released after the US entered the war.
While I watched the movie I also switched to check our weather and then to a news channel which was beginning to unspool the carnage in San Bernardino, California.
At the time I began watching, the networks knew the incident had happened, but events were still unfolding. The husband and wife shooters had not been identified and their deaths were still hours away.
A day later, as I write this, I did an interview with a British radio station in which the central question posed to me was “Why can’t we be like the British?”
Since I only had a five minute segment which I shared with an ex-patriot playwright from Chicago, I didn’t have much time.
But I would have liked to have said—if I had been sitting across from my interlocutor and his other guest—“Did you ever see the movie ‘In Which We Serve’?”
I’m sure any of today’s major media outlets would have been thrilled to have Sir Noel Coward on their program to discuss the differences between the UK and the US. For all I know, Coward would be as staunchly anti-gun as the majority of people in the entertainment industry seem to be these days.
But perhaps he would remember not only making the film, but also living through World War II as it unfolded on the literal doorstep of his native land. At one point in the film, characters see news of the Nazi takeover of France and one character remarks, “Now they’re 20 miles from us.”
The families in the movie are not spared the horror of war, as the bombing of London and the rest of the country takes its toll on characters on the home front as well as those as sea.
We do not yet know, at this writing, whether the war visited on San Bernardino was foreign or domestic, and in practical terms, it doesn’t matter to this discussion.
It does matter, however, that instead of watching a parade of talking heads, and later, grasping politicians sputter and spout, we remember the lessons of the movie—we are all in this together and we all serve.