Malta Story (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 March (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Clearly I like Malta because I’ve twice been there on holiday. It’s a fascinating set of islands. For such a tiny place, a pinprick in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been at the hub of civilised history since there was such a thing and it’s stuffed with attractions, from Neolithic temples to walled medieval cities and Baroque cathedrals, dating from the time when it was owned by the Knights of St John. Malta’s record during World War Two is something of a footnote within the grander scheme, but it was a key strategic location. Occupied by the British, it was pivotal in supplying and disrupting the war effort for either side in the North African theatre. As a consequence, it was heavily bombed by the Axis powers, flying night and day bombing raids from Sicily, ahead of a likely invasion that, if successful, would almost certainly have led to victory in Egypt for Rommel and the closing of the Suez Canal to the Allies.

One of the stranger things to visit in Malta are the Lascaris War Rooms. This is the British control centre from which the war effort was conducted. It might have changed a bit in the seven years since I went, but I remember struggling just to find it, the path taking me down, down down, through tunnels and gangplanks as though descending into some netherworld. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing, the city of Valletta far above, a somewhat plain door before me representing the museum entrance. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I entered, but the nondescript whitewashed tunnels and unassuming doors were probably about right for this place, with its grim purpose and teeth gritted lack of decoration. Still, really interesting stuff. I was given a walkman, which related the story of the war rooms and indeed the conflict as a whole whilst I wandered through the control rooms, stared at the enormous Mediterranean wall charts and the ‘battle boards’ upon which they would move pieces representing ships, planes, thousands of lives. I’d recommend it as a change of scenery, a reminder of one of the more crucial yet far less celebrated moments in Malta’s history.

The Lascaris War Rooms, along with Valletta itself, feature strongly in Malta Story. Brian Desmond Hurst was a director from East Belfast who had scored a considerable box office success in Britain with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, in 1951, now routinely considered to be the best version, but his career stretched back to the 1920s, back when he was working for John Ford on Hangman’s Horse. It was Ford who persuaded Desmond Hurst to take the job of directing Malta Story, cannily seeing it as ‘right up your street,’ and so the production moved to Valletta to begin filming. It was the director’s second visit to the island, his first coming in 1915 when he stopped off with his Irish Rifles regiment on their way to a fateful engagement at Gallipoli.

The film focuses principally on the Axis attacks on Malta, the struggle to fight off enemy bombers, the desperate need for supplies to make it through, the toll it takes on the Maltese who shelter from the ceaseless raids, cope with dwindling food supplies and listen to exhortations from Radio Rome on the wireless that beg them to surrender. The latter are represented by Melita Gonzar (Flora Robson), the matriarch who sees first hand the effect all this is having on her family and who lives in a bittersweet relationship with the British, the cause of their suffering. No Britons on Malta, no more war. When her son, who she believes has been captured and imprisoned on Sicily, emerges as a spy working for the enemy, the pain it causes her is excruciating. It’s a great role, wonderfully understated and surprisingly dignified, amidst the bombast of all those scenes depicting bits of the island being blasted. Much of the footage is carefully edited stock from the historical archives, mixed in with shots of the three Spitfires that were loaned to the production flying out in retaliation. It doesn’t matter. The scenes contain their own power. We know all about the London Blitz, but war was hell everywhere, no more so than on embattled Malta. When the island is collectively awarded the George Cross, in recognition of its suffering, it comes across as a curiously half-baked gesture.

These bits, spliced to give the film a documentary film, are Malta Story at its best. Jack Hawkins is on reliable form as the stoical British commanding officer, every decision given heft by the sense of realism over what failure will amount to. Wing Commander Bartlett is played by Anthony Steel, at the height of his fame following The Wooden Horse but nothing like a leading man. Despite that, there’s a touching element to the romantic storyline he shares with Renee Asherson’s operations room worker, like both are thrown together in an effort to find some personal happiness in the thick of the struggle.

The tale is told nominally from the perspective of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness). A photo reconnaissance pilot, used to flying high over the enemy in order to take shots of potential targets, is on his way to Alexandria but finds himself stranded in Malta when the carrier plane transporting him is hit by a bomb. Ross does his work out of Valletta instead and comes across a train carrying glider parts into Sicily, elements proving there will be an imminent attack. Showing himself to be useful, he also comes a Maltese girl, Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Melita’s daughter, and the pair fall in love, though their relationship is played against cultural clashes between the British and the island’s natives, and worries over what they will do when the war is concluded.

Guinness specifically asked to play Ross, asking Desmond Hurst to be allowed to take on a romantic lead due to being ‘fed up with playing funny little men’. Better known on screen as a comedy actor, there’s a reason why he got few parts of this type. The actor’s scenes with Pavlow are strangely uncomfortable, lacking in chemistry and played very stiffly, whereas when he takes to the skies he appears much more at home. Little wonder perhaps, that Ross simply disappears from the film for large parts when there’s all that juicy war footage to focus upon. He should be the heart of the film; instead, he’s its weak link.

Malta Story: ***

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The Wooden Horse (1950)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 January (3.35 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

On Friday, 30 January, it’s exactly fifty years since the funeral of Winston Churchill. The BBC has marked the occasion with a week of war films, all tangentially linked to the man himself, though on Friday we get Simon Ward fighting them on the beaches (or something) in Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston.

Elsewhere, it’s a mixed bag of offerings, though my favourite sub-genre is almost certainly the British war film of the 1950s, as evidenced by The Wooden Horse. Refusing to reinvent war stories as boys’ own adventure yarns, or overdo the humanist exercises in guilt and sacrifice of more recent times, these films held special poignancy for domestic audiences, for whom memories of the conflict were fresh and vivid. Perhaps it’s for this reason that films like The Wooden Horse carry a certain degree of honesty. The Germans might be the enemy but they are never portrayed as cardboard villains, similarly there’s some heroism about the British protagonists yet they’re rooted in real emotions.

The Wooden Horse was directed by Jack Lee, who cut his teeth filming footage of the Blitz, often at great personal risk. It’s this sensibility that gives the film an almost documentary feel. There’s little music and efforts are made to depict the prison camp, Stalag Luft III, as realistically as possible. It was filmed in a reconstructed camp in West Germany, which helped the picture ultimately run over budget. The overriding impression within is one of boredom. The British prisoners are treated fairly, on the whole, perhaps too much so as their lives have slowed down to memorising each others’ bedroom routines. The plan to escape is born more out of the need to do something, anything, rather than go mad amidst the tedium of camp life.

Though licence was taken with some of the facts, The Wooden Horse was based on a true story of ordinary people achieving the extraordinary. Escape from Stalag Luft III seemed impossible, given the sheer number of guards and gunner outposts. The scheme saw some of the inmates construct a vaulting horse and perform gymnastics on it in an effort to keep physically fit, though this was a front – in reality, as the prisoners vaulted, one man would remain inside the horse and dig a tunnel to freedom, 100 feet long and right beneath the guards’ noses. Hooks were fitted inside the horse so that when it was returned to barracks it would contain bags of earth from the hole, which were then scattered; in the meantime, a temporary construction of planks, sandbags and topsoil covered the mouth of the tunnel. This went on for months until three men made it right outside the camp’s fences, and successfully escaped back to Britain.

In the film, the main escapologists are Peter (Leo Genn) and John (Anthony Steel), the lead actors within a decidedly unstarry cast. Genn’s a favourite with this writer due to his ability to look as though he knew something that everyone else did not. This was Steel’s breakthrough role. With his matinee good looks and fine figure, The Wooden Horse could have helped to make him a star, and for a brief period during the early to mid-fifties he appeared to be heading in the right direction, until a string of box office flops coupled with his addiction to alcohol and high living put paid to that.

All Peter and John’s struggles can’t stop many of the digging scenes from generating mounting levels of suspense. It appears the unlikeliest of plans. Tunnelling right before soldiers, the noise of their work muffled by the gymnastics taking place, it would take the slightest thing going wrong, such as someone knocking the horse over, to bring their bid for freedom to an end. Yet make it they do, the second half of the film focusing on their attempt to leave Germany, which brings on a further slew of troubles, In one scene, Peter is forced to kill a Nazi trooper who just happens to be in the wrong place; the look of terror and disgust on his face afterwards shows what we might have suspected, that he’s never before had to take a life, and doing so appalls him.

It’s a world away from more celebrated ‘escape’ pictures, the best known of which is, of course, that old Bank Holiday favourite The Great Escape, with its ensemble cast and rogue’s gallery of renegades, nut jobs and American bluff jarring against British stiff upper lips. Indeed, compared with the sight of Steve McQueen’s heroic charge across the German countryside on a motorbike, The Wooden Horse might appear tame and even a little quaint. Yet it wins entirely in terms of realism, the levels of bickering increasing between Peter and John as they face exhaustion after so many near misses, the unease as they are forced to rely on people they have no idea they can trust, the sheer tension of attempting to make it through a situation as mundane as buying a train ticket to Lübeck unscathed and undetected. It’s a great film, made without resorting to patriotic message-making, and maintaining complete faith in the power of its central story.

The Wooden Horse: ****