The Way Ahead

THE WAY AHEAD holds “the thin red line” as a top-quality WW2 picture from England, essentially commissioned as a salute to the British infantryman on the order of what In Which We Serve did for the Royal Navy. Coming out at the end of the war, it was not as popular as that 1942 classic, but it’s a worthy piece of film-making, well-written, thoughtfully directed, funny and exciting, splendidly acted.

Early in WW2, after Dunkirk, ‘Lt. Jim Perry’ (David Niven) is assigned to train and lead a new batch of civilian conscripts, all of whom would rather be anywhere else. Months of rigorous drilling and definite attitude adjustments gradually pull them into a cohesive outfit, bound for the invasion force heading for North Africa.

A soldier before he came to acting and America, David Niven left Hollywood to serve his native land during the war. At the time this was made he was a Major in the British Army; he came onto the project after it was first done as a training film, then developed into a feature script by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov (23, a private in the Army at the time, he also has a small acting role), with Carol Reed as director.

The writing has a naturalistic flavor, with little phony hoo-haw to mar the message. Niven is excellent (he had both jobs—actor and soldier—down pat) as the kind of officer you’d be blessed to serve under and is backed by a sterling roster; again the writing is mature concerning the assorted types of men and their attitudes. The two action scenes, late in the film, are very impressive, the first—evacuating a torpedoed ship about to explode—for its excitement and spectacle, the second—an extended battle in the desert and an Arab town—for its tension and relative realism compared to most war films of the time.

William Hartnell, the essential sergeant

In the cast: William Hartnell, James Donald, Stanley Holloway, Raymond Huntley, John Laurie, Hugh Burden, Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Leo Genn (a Lt. Col. at the time) and in his uncredited debut, Trevor Howard.

The original running time was 116 minutes. Quite popular in Britain in ’44 (released on D-Day, talk about a promo!), when shipped to the States the following year, (a month after V-E Day), it was shorn of 25 minutes and retitled The Immortal Battalion. That truncated cut came in 111th place for the year, grossing $800,000. Be a good chap, stick with the longer version.

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