In Which We Serve agitates patriotism with the sweet banality of prewar life
In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.
With its title taken from the morning prayer said on Royal Navy ships, Noël Coward's In Which We Serve is a wartime film that epitomises British military propaganda. Produced, written and co-directed by leading man Coward, In Which We Serve premiered in September 1942, when the nation was entering the fourth year of war. Commissioned by Britain's Ministry of Information, the film served as a morale booster for a battered British nation. Certainly, the film's heavy stress on national patriotism can be overbearing, but In Which We Serve carries a compassionate focus on the resilience of the human spirit.
In Which We Serve follows the trials and tribulations of Captain Kincross (Coward) and his crew aboard HMS Torrin, a destroyer based on the real-life career of HMS Kelly. A prolonged attack by the Nazis leaves Torrin in ruins and members of the crew have to abandon the ship. While stranded on a life raft, their personal backstories are told in flashbacks. Coward's deliberate blend of domestic life scenes and battlefront segments is uncanny. The contrast plainly shows what these navy officers are fighting for — a return to an ordinary life. Unlike the gung-ho heroics of conventional war films, Coward humanises British war efforts by establishing a social consensus worth fighting for.
The scenes of ordinary life in the film are, well, quite ordinary. They are depicted through typical clichés: there is Kinross's tight-knit middle-class family, Hardy's close relationship with his loving wife and cockney seaman Blake's romance with Freda. This could be seen as a reinforcement of class distinctions of British society in that era, but arguably, In Which We Serve chooses to prioritise national unity instead. All these different characters simply come under the unified British collective.
Plus, for a wartime propaganda film, In Which We Serve keeps it real classy. The film briefly mentions Hitler twice, rather than launching into an all-out assault on the Nazis, which was common among war films of that time. These passing references appear more as cautionary statements than blatant criticism (e.g. while having breakfast, Hardy tells his wife Hitler is after “world domination…That's what that little rat's after, you mark my words”). It is a realistic portrait of how the majority of British citizens of that era would have had any contact with Hitler: simply giving their two cents over “that little rat”.
In Which We Serve is anything but grandiose. There is no romanticised notion of freedom, honour or peace. The film hones in on what the British are fighting for, and not what they are fighting against. Coward's writing sensibilities displays a keen sense of benevolence. The British spirit is embodied by regular citizens, yet it also retains the capacity of extraordinary strength in a time of war.