Back to John Mills with another of his 1930s films, Forever England – one of his first lead roles. He plays a young sailor who ends up waging a lone war on a German vessel during the First World War, against almost impossible odds.This was an ideal role for the young Mills and helped to make him a star, although top billing went to vivacious British music hall and silent film actress Betty Balfour, once known as “Britain’s Queen of Happiness”. The film is available on DVD in the UK, included in the John Mills Centenary Collection II box set from ITV Studios.
Confusingly, this one film has gone by four different titles over the years.It’s adapted from a book by C.S. Forester, and on first release in the UK it took the novel’s title, Brown on Resolution. However, the US release went for a snappier title, Born for Glory – and when the film was re-released in the UK (I don’t know what year this was) it acquired a more memorable title here too, Forever England. For good measure, it was also reissued as Torpedo Raider in the US!
During all those title changes, a lot of footage was cut, and the film now feels rather disjointed and rushed at just 68 minutes long. According to the imdb, originally it ran for 80 minutes.Some of the cut scenes involved a sexually daring storyline involving Balfour, so it seems likely that the censors had a hand in this. She now has all too little screen time, but still makes a strong impression during the opening scenes.
Balfour is cast as Elizabeth Brown, the daughter of a greengrocer, who is riding in a horse-drawn cab involved in a collision in late 19th-century London. The aristocratic young naval officer travelling in the other vehicle, played by musical star Barry MacKay, takes her out for dinner, and a brief romance results – but, when Lieutenant Somerville goes off to sea, Elizabeth says it’s all over. She admits she loves him, but is convinced their backgrounds are too different and it would not work out.
A lot of footage has been cut at this point, though the original New York Times review of the film by Andre Sennwald gives the gist of what’s been lost. It seems that in the uncut film Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant, but, even so, refused to marry Somerville, insisting they couldn’t be happy because of the class divide. Instead, she told her family she would bring her baby up alone. This has now all been cut, sadly – it certainly sounds like an unusual take on the “fallen woman” theme. Even as the film stands, though, the romance across the class divide is a striking element. Of course, this is also a theme of a famous film based on a book by Forester, The African Queen, which also has some similarities with this film’s war story.
In what’s left of the film, we jump straight from the couple’s parting to a glimpse of their son, Albert, as a small boy at a naval school, where he is presented with a prize by his father – who doesn’t know his identity. The story then moves on to show Albert (Mills) as a young man leaving school to join the Navy, with some jokey scenes where he brings his friend Ginger (Jimmy Hanley) home for tea from training college.
Ginger is girl-mad, and I was interested to see that the censors didn’t cut his claim to have “sex allure”! (Some earlier swearing, “Where the hell are you going?” has also survived.) Albert isn’t interested in romance, however, and constantly tells his mother she’s the only girl for him. These scenes are slightly odd because Balfour was only five years older than Mills, and the make-up to make her look older isn’t very effective – so when Mills cuddles and kisses Balfour it doesn’t really feel like a mother/son relationship.
This on-land section of the film is quickly over, and Albert heads off for sea, as one of the crew of an ageing, small ship, the cruiser HMS Rutland. His father is still a serving officer on another ship, but neither of them knows of the other’s existence. The first shipborne scenes are fairly lighthearted, including a sequence where the boys invite some young German sailors aboard. Albert has a boxing match with one of the German lads, Max, and they strike up an instant friendship. However, even before the pair have finished singing Danny Boy together, the Germans are ordered back to their ship – and by the next scene the First World War is under way. (The actor cast as Max, Howard Marion-Crawford, played Doctor Watson in a 1950s TV series with Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes, while Mills played an elderly version of Dr Watson in 1980s film The Masks of Death.)
After the Rutland is sunk, Albert and a gravely ill Ginger are plucked from the sea and rescued by the same German battle cruiser where they have friends among the crew. Max is delighted to see Albert and is soon sneaking him cigarettes and chatting to him, only shutting up when he sees an officer. Strikingly, there’s no hint of any personal enmity among the ordinary sailors, even though you might expect that in a film with such a strong vein of patriotism. In any case, despite his friendship with Max, Albert is determined to stop the German ship from getting away – and, when it moors off the Galapagos islands for repairs to be carried out, he sees his chance. He escapes to the island of Resolution and hides in the mountains with a gun, picking off the German sailors one by one.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but you can probably guess it all. Despite some melodramatic scenes, in particular when Brown is on the island, the film as a whole feels down-to-earth and enjoyable, and Mills is very good as Albert. He has quite a few wordless scenes in the island section, and expresses a lot with just his eyes. These island scenes were directed by Anthony Asquith. I’m impressed by how much versatility Mills showed in his 1930s films and indeed all through his long career.