Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics

by Glenn Erickson Apr 04, 2020

Can a war movie be reassuring in a time of crisis?  Each of the films in this excellent collection stress people working together: to repel invaders, escape from or attack the enemy, and just to survive in sticky situations. All are inspirational in that they see cooperation, organization and leadership doing good work. See:  the ‘other’ great escape picture, the original account of Dunkirk, and the aerial bombing movie that inspired the final battle in Star Wars. Plus a tense ‘what if?’ invasion tale, and a desert trek suspense ordeal that’s one of the best war films ever. The most relevant dialogue in the set?  Seeing the total screw-up at Dunkirk, Bernard Lee determines that England will have to re-organize with new people in key leadership positions, people who know what they’re doing. I’m all for that Here and Now, fella.

Their Finest Hour 5 British WWII Classics
Went The Day Well, The Colditz Story, The Dam Busters, Dunkirk, Ice Cold In Alex
Film Movement Classics
1942-1958 / B&W / 1:37 Academy and 1:66 widescreen / 572 min. / Street Date March 31, 2020 / In stock at the Film Movement page / 84.95
Starring: Leslie Banks, Valerie Taylor, Harry Fowler; John Mills, Eric Portman, Christopher Rhodes; Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd; John Mills, Bernard Lee, Richard Attenborough; John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle.
Directed by
Alberto Cavalcanti, Guy Hamilton, Michael Anderson, Leslie Norman, J. Lee Thompson


A happy development a couple of years ago was the new access of disc companies to beautiful recent retransfers and restorations of the enormous vault of films held by the French Studiocanal consortium. Exotic European movies were once seen here only in inferior transfers, if at all. Now, hundreds are being released in terrific disc editions — not just the usual popular titles, but delightful items unfamiliar in America. In other words, it’s a gold mine of goodies.

All of the British war films in this fine set were released in the U.S., but several were cut down significantly from their original versions. The given title Their Finest Hour 5 British WWII Classics harks back to the boom in feel-good ‘how I won the war’ movies of the depressed postwar decade. Critics like Raymond Durgnat argued that these films celebrating heroism, king and country were made to lift spirits as the British Empire waned. The old folk championing the ‘spirit of the blitz’ were a source of fun in ’60s films by Richard Lester and others, probably because the younger generation was tired of being told to be grateful for their parents’ sacrifices.

The superior films in this selection take the War fully in earnest. David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai popped the balloon somewhat for blind patriotism, but each show here has more to say about the war experience. They also precede the advent of ‘Escapist Combat’ pictures, which see the war as mostly an excuse for grandiose spectacle and exciting gun battles.

It’s a good choice of titles. I’d only seen three of the five, and I’d call them all classics, for different reasons. It’s a good chance to see excellent early work by three directors known better for blockbuster pictures of the 1960s.



Went The Day Well?
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 48 Hours / 92 min.
Starring: Leslie Banks, C.V. France, Valerie Taylor, Marie Lohr, Basil Sydney, David Farrar, Elizabeth Allan, Patricia Hayes, Mervyn Johns, James Donald, Christopher Lee, Janette Scott.
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Original Music: William Walton
Written by John Dighton, Angus MacPhail, Diana Morgan, story by Graham Greene
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by
Alberto Cavalcanti

The respected film expert Kevin Brownlow delivered a terrific talk when Went the Day Well? was shown at the TCMfest in 2012, an afternoon I’ll never forget. This brave production from the charming little Ealing Studio is the only show here made in the 1940s, let alone during the war. It’s a violent, rousing morale piece for the dark days of 1942, with a unique twist. In that year Englanders had already lived in fear of imminent invasion for three long years, and the outcome of the war was by no means assured.

Went the Day Well? is told from a ‘future date’ when the war has been won, almost like a science fiction film. Author Graham Greene gives every homeowner and shopkeeper a chance to vicariously strike back at invading Nazis. When a meek telephone operator — a little old lady! — brains a loutish German invader with a hatchet, British audiences must have roared with approval.


The quiet country hamlet of Bramley End cooperates fully when a detachment of Royal Engineers arrives on maneuvers, to secure the area in preparation for a possible German paratroop attack.  Little do the citizens know that the soldiers are actually German spies masquerading as Tommies, led by Wehrmacht officers who can pass for English. Not only that, a Quisling among the townies has been preparing for a quick takeover. The German mission is to hold the town for two days as a ‘beachhead’ for thousands of paratroops to follow. The undercover Nazis maintain a ruse of friendliness but keen townspeople are tipped off by little details that don’t add up — like the fresh chocolate bar from Vienna that is found in the commander’s backpack.

It’s a fantasy every schoolboy has entertained at one time or another: dreaded invaders have taken over and your community’s only hope depends on what you do personally. Went the Day Well? is no combat spectacle — it gets bogged down in some unconvincing fighting toward the end — but it must have riveted English audiences when its fantasy was a distinct possibility. It probably raised awareness of how easily spies, saboteurs and even German soldiers could pass themselves off as British.

Pleasant officers Basil Sydney (The Devil’s Disciple) and David Farrar (Black Narcissus) billet their troops in town, while the local Home Guard shows them the lay of the land and the best local defensive positions. The Vicar (C.V. France) and the local Squire (Leslie Banks of The Most Dangerous Game) graciously invite them to dinner. Only one woman half-suspects that an invasion is underway, and she’s pooh-pooed by the local social matron. Things change when the Germans herd everyone into the church, shoot the Vicar and hold the town’s children hostage. But all of Bramley End, even little kids and old ladies, step up to wage all-out war on their home turf.


Most of the invading Germans are depicted as thugs, even those that can carry themselves well enough in English (“Oh, that’s an odd accent, you must be from South Africa.”). We eagerly anticipate the villagers’ retaliation. The screenwriters turn everyday locals into heroes guaranteed to set audiences applauding. A sailor on leave joins the rector (Mervyn Johns) in plotting a breakout from the church, while the local poacher (Edward Rigby) helps the local brat Young George (Harry Fowler) escape to raise the alarm in the next town. Things reach a Dario Argento level of mayhem as knives, bayonets and axes are brought to the fore; by morning the village defenders are holding off the entire German force. Ace Ealing director Alberto Cavalcanti (Dead of Night) handles the suspenseful character drama with ease.

The gleeful depiction of violence isn’t the only surprise — the dialogue skips no opportunity to insult the enemy:

Mrs Fraser (Marie Lohr): Now George, is what you’re doing good for morale?  You know what morale is, don’t you?
Young George: Sure I do!  It’s what the Wops ain’t got!

The fast-paced, suspenseful script invents a number of clever reversals. The Germans almost give themselves away through slips of the tongue and bits of behavior that some locals recognize as essentially continental, not British. The most interesting character is Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor), a woman for whom dignity is everything. Even when defending the small children in her care she stays in perfect stiff-upper-lip mode. When she discovers that the man of her dreams might be a traitor, she quietly asks if the pistol she’s found is loaded before going to confront him. Twenty years later, Roman Polanski gave Ms. Taylor a plum bit as the beauty-shop proprietress in his Repulsion.

One can’t overpraise the bravery of the filmmakers. It’s easy to shout the truth when one’s well-being isn’t on the line. Had England lost the war, people with credits on films like Went the Day Well? might have paid a terrible price for their outspoken patriotism.

When one realizes how close England came to defeat Went the Day Well? seems even more of an accomplishment. Alberto Cavalcanti’s rousing fantasy provides a great thematic contrast to  A Canterbury Tale,   Powell & Pressburger’s poetic, transcendent ode to national resolve. A much different approach to the ‘what if?’ invasion fantasy is Kevin Brownlow’s much later It Happened Here, which shows Englanders reacting far differently to occupying Nazis.


Went the Day Well? has been out on Region 1 DVD for quite a while, but the improvement in quality is remarkable. The picture is rich and clean (and runs at the right speed), and the audio track is sharp and clear. As with all of these Film Movement/Studiocanal titles, there are no English subs or closed captions. Occasional dialogue lines might be hard for us Yanks to figure out, especially when local jargon is employed.



The Colditz Story
1955 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen (correct) / 94 min.
Starring: John Mills, Eric Portman, Christopher Rhodes, Lionel Jeffries, Bryan Forbes, Ian Carmichael, Richard Wattis, Frederick Valk.
Cinematography: Gordon Dines
Original Music: Francis Chagrin
Written by William Douglas-Home, Ivan Foxwell, Guy Hamilton from a novel by P.R. Reid
Produced by Ivan Foxwell
Directed by
Guy Hamilton

This highly entertaining escape drama had almost as much American TV exposure as The Dam Busters before English films disappeared from our broadcast channels in the 1970s. The classic story of POWs trying to break free of captivity bears superficial comparison to Renoir’s Grand Ilusion in that both POW camps are located in mountain castles. Viewers will recognize humorous situations from The Great Escape in this earlier film, such as the practice of relocating tunnel earth to outside gardens by hiding it in pant legs. The film’s tone assures us that escaping from a German POW camp is serious business, even when the escape bids play out like crazy college pranks.


Britishers Pat Reid and ‘Mac’ McGill (John Mills and Christopher Rhodes) are early tenants of Colditz Castle, a German POW camp for ‘problem’ prisoners that have tried to escape from other camps. The Kommandant (Frederick Valk of Dead of Night) and his first officer Fischer (Anton Diffring of Circus of Horrors) try to keep tabs on a huge mob of English, French and Polish officers, all of whom have ideas about getting away. Ranking English officer Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman) at first seems unconcerned with escape. Elected Escape Officer Pat Reid coordinates the effort across language and cultural barriers — and the threat of informers. Escape methods simple and complex fail until Mac comes up with a great plan that requires only a few German uniforms and a lot of nerve. Christopher Rhodes usually plays brutish soldiers and policemen, or just plain villains, as in Gorgo. Here he’s a big Scottish lug, a real sweetheart of a guy.


The handsomely assembled The Colditz Story finds humor in the dramatic situation of (fairly pampered) prisoners attempting a constant string of escape attempts. The English prisoners include a number of eccentrics while the French are loners and the Poles refuse to be told what to do by anyone. Even the Germans have given up on getting the Poles to stand at attention or to listen to instructions. Although the brazen escape attempts infuriate the Germans it’s obvious that they admire their charges’ initiative and wish they could join in on the fun. Theodore Bikel plays one of Mills’ Dutch confidantes.

Star John Mills takes a leading role in three of the movies in this collection. Here he plays the author of the book, Pat Reid, a bright and reasonable fellow forever trying to make peace. As Escape Officer, Reid can’t participate in most schemes. Eric Portman eventually becomes a prime player in the hijinks, masquerading as a mustachioe’d German officer given the derisive nickname ‘Franz Josef.’ A young Lionel Jeffries is an unlucky escapee and future director Bryan Forbes (Quatermass 2) sneaks out by hiding in a mattress. Ian Carmichael (I’m All Right Jack) and Richard Wattis (The Abominable Snowman) are stuffy oh-so-particular chaps with a talent for insulting the enemy — they lower a dummy ‘escapee’ from a window just so they can laugh when the guards shoot at it. They also perform an amusing marching drill exhibition, to draw attention from an escape attempt happening right under the noses of the guards.


Guy Hamilton shows his predilection for short trucking shots, perfectly timed to feel invisible. Everyone speaks in their proper language, a nice touch that works well even when we have to guess what’s being said. The action eventually centers on a daring ‘walk out the front door’ escape ruse attempted by several POWs in the middle of a camp variety show. The sly humor kept up throughout the picture pays off in the utterly serious, but somehow ridiculous plan. As someone in The Great Escape remarked, “It’s so stupid, it’s brilliant!”


This scan of The Colditz Story could have come from the original negative. It looks pristine, with crystal-clear audio. It is formatted in razor-sharp 1:66 widescreen, even though the packaging says 1:37.



The Dam Busters
1955 / B&W / 1:37 Academy (should be 1:75) / 124 105 min.
Starring: Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Ursula Jeans, Raymond Huntley, Basil Sydney, Laurence Naismith, Nigel Stock, Robert Shaw, Richard Leech, John Fraser, George Baker, Ewen Solon, Patrick McGoohan, .
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Original Music: Eric Coates, Leighton Lucas
Special Effects: George Blackwell, Gilbert Taylor
Written by R.C. Sherriff from a book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Commander Guy Gibson
Directed by
Michael Anderson

The aerial combat spectacle The Dam Busters is probably the best-known title in this collection. Much of its notoriety comes from Star Wars aficionados because it was one of the films used by George Lucas’ editors to ‘pre-cut’ the first Death Star attack sequence. Lucas even borrowed dialogue almost verbatim:

Radio question, plane-to-plane: “How many guns do you think there are, Trevor?”
Response: “I’d say there are about ten guns – some in the field, and some in the tower.”

It’s based on the true story of a daring raid on the German Moehne and Eder Dams, utilizing experimental ‘bouncing’ explosive charges capable of breaking massive concrete structures that a normal bomb couldn’t. The credits list a book by Paul Brickhill (The Great Escape) and also one by the raid’s commander, Guy Gibson. He was lost in aerial combat over Holland in 1944. Almost every actor in the large cast is playing an actual participant in the famous dam raid.


Brilliant designer Dr. Barnes N. Wallis (Michael Redgrave) comes up with a novel idea to cripple German war production by blowing up several key dams considered impregnable from the air. But his plan is stalled in red tape until Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is assigned to form the new 617 Squadron. The mission is to deliver Wallis’ special bombs in a one-of-a-kind suicide mission into the heart of Germany. Wallis’ technical scheme is aided by Gibson’s ability to fly extremely low over the lakes behind each dam. The raid commences on schedule but becomes a nail-biting ordeal. Nobody can predict its chances for success.

The Dam Busters is as close as this collection comes to the rah-rah clichés of ‘secret mission’ movies. Michael Redgrave’s patient ‘boffin’ Wallis and Richard Todd’s reserved man of action clearly represent what’s best in the British character. The script enlivens the long buildup to the raid with memorable bits, like farmer Laurence Naismith’s angry complaints that low-flying practice is keeping his chickens from laying eggs. Dr. Wallis’ chances for being loaned a Wellington bombing plane improve when he offers the fact that he designed them.  A ‘glamorous’ bomb test ends with Wallis wading into the muddy shallows of a pond to recover pieces of a bomb that didn’t survive the impact with the water.

The physical details are almost all 100% accurate. When the pilots encounter difficulty flying only a few feet off the water in the dark of the night, Gibson finds the solution while watching spotlights converge on the star of a London stage show. Apparently that fix wasn’t found in exactly that way. Because the design of Wallis’ bouncing bombs was still classified in 1954, the authentic film footage of the testing obscures their shape with animated black dots.


The raid itself is superb. Gibson’s planes hedge-hop their way across France to get to the Ruhr valley dams. The stiff-upper-lip credo is tested when one plane hits some power lines. The mission focus is too intense for the other pilots to acknowledge the loss of an entire crew.

At the dams the fliers must fly through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire and calmly line up their shots flying low and straight. The cutting pattern between the pilots and the views through their cockpits, with tracer bullets flying as they skim across the water, is indeed reminiscent of the first Star Wars film. There are even tense cutaways to mission headquarters, where Wallis and other nervous non-combatants eagerly await news. The producers could have used better animation for the storm of German anti-aircraft tracers thrown against the planes, but Peter Kuran and Adam Beckett were just small children during production.

The aerial scenes are indeed spectacular. One training angle of a bomber flying very low over a Scottish lake is breathtaking. Although many daring flying shots are authentic, special effects were required for the close-in scenes of bomb runs on the dams. These are no longer very convincing. Animated mattes for water-explosions simply reveal sheets of rushing water below, probably the same shots shown in the post-attack flooding scenes. The excitement of the bizarre raid more than compensates.

Later analysts reportedly discounted the effect of the raid on German war production. An entire industrial district wasn’t wiped out, as is implied by the impressive special effects. The targeted ball-bearing factories survived; the Germans soon restored power to the district. The Dam Buster raid must have been something like our morale-boosting Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, a gesture that proved the allies could strike wherever they wanted and were willing to commit a maximum effort to the job.


The Dam Busters gives us a chance to get quick looks at several interesting actors near the beginning of their careers. Nigel Stock, Robert Shaw and John Fraser are pilots, and Patrick McGoohan flits by as a guard in one scene. The film is almost twenty minutes longer than what Americans once saw on TV. It was also often edited for content. Guy Gibson’s black pet dog “n—–” figures in several scenes and in the sentimental ending. I’m not in favor of altering content like this, and erasing the historical evidence of bigotry. On the other hand, the scenes with n_____ can’t help but tarnish Guy Gibson’s image.


The Dam Busters was given a major restoration just a couple of years ago with a publicized re-premiere. It looks clean and bright, with beautifully restored audio. Eric Coates’ uplifting Dam Busters theme is not unlike ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ firmly rooting the show in National Pride territory. We’re more impressed by the little touches, as when the airmen return to their rooms and fall dead asleep, too exhausted to get sentimental about the empty cots of their fallen comrades.

The show is presented at a 1:37 aspect ratio, which looks good but is incorrect. My contact David Carnegie, a retired English projectionist, just returned my query (from lockdown) with the word that Dam Busters was definitely screened at 1:75 when new. The main title blocks are shaped for a widescreen ratio.



1958 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 135 min.
Starring: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Robert Urquhart, Ronald Hines, Sean Barrett, Michael Bates, Eddie Byrne, Maxine Audley, Lionel Jeffries, Victor Maddern Kenneth Cope, Denys Graham, Barry Foster, Patricia Plunkett, Michael Gwynne, Christopher Rhodes, Patrick Allen, Bernard Cribbins, Liz Fraser, Barry Keegan, Sheila Raynor, Mona Washbourne.
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Original Music: Malcolm Arnold
Written by David Divine, W.P. Lipscomb from books by Elleston Trevor, Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and J.S. Bradford
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by
Leslie Norman

I didn’t know this show existed until seeing Brian Trenchard-Smith’s excellent trailer commentary at Trailers from Hell. Ealing Studios went out big, staging the historical evacuation from Dunkirk (or French Dunkerque) on a massive scale. War film fans take note: Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk is to Christopher Nolan’s 65mm Dunkirk, what Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember is to James Cameron’s Titanic: the earlier movies have more historical detail. This ’58 Dunkirk tells a much bigger story and adds a great deal of social context, especially when criticizing England’s disorganized reaction to the German onslaught. For instance, the old comedy act ‘Flanagan and Allan’ plays itself, conducting a jolly music hall sing-along about the Siegfried Line.


This older Dunkirk actually begins way before the evacuation, as the German sweep overruns France and leaves the British Expeditionary Force no choice but to retreat. This rout is conveyed through the desperate flight led by the I-don’t-want-to-command Corporal Binns (John Mills again), accompanied by his sidekick Private Mike (Robert Urquhart of The Curse of Frankenstein). While the British High Command ponder how they ever got in such a fix, back in Eastern England we meet two civilians, reporter Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee of The Third Man) and bourgeois belt-buckle manufacturer John Holden (Richard Attenborough). Both end up volunteering to cross the channel to help pick up some of the 300,000 Tommies stranded on the Dunkirk Beach. Holden initially cut down his pleasure boat to be under 30 feet, so he wouldn’t have to register it; he’s shamed into volunteering and doesn’t even tell his wife when he departs. Along for the ride is teenager Frankie (Roland Curram), thanks to a rather lenient dispatch officer (Michael Gwynne of Village of the Damned).

The show by no means concentrates on heroics. Civilian Foreman is bitterly critical of the political/strategic mess and gripes out loud to his wife (Maxine Audley of Peeping Tom) that England doesn’t deserve to win the war. When his boat is blown to bits Foreman joins the boys stuck on the beach, while waiting for Holden’s boat to be repaired.


The evacuation action is almost identical to what’s shown in the Christopher Nolan version: the thousands of men on the beach have no cover from cannon shells and strafing aircraft. Hundreds of them jam onto a long quay to board ships, despite repeated attacks. When Corporal Binns and his boys do get on a ship, it is sunk while still at the dock.

The special effects of sinking boats and the bombing on the beach are very well done, sometimes using excellent mattes and miniatures. But the production does assemble thousands of dress extras onto a real beach. For sheer numbers of extras, this ’58 version seems ‘bigger’ than the ’17. Unlike the exciting new version, participants do stop every once in a while to clarify what’s going on, as when doctors on the beach (Lionel Jeffries among them) draw lots to see who will evacuate and who will stay with the wounded. Bernard Lee’s civilian witness offers some choice observations as well.


This show stays out of the air, offering no exciting fighter dogfights. It doesn’t dwell on on-screen slaughter, even as hundreds of evacuees are shot, blasted, drowned and crushed in the chaos. Teenaged participant Frankie is as effective here as Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan are in the Nolan version: schoolboys suddenly thrust into high-jeopardy combat. But there is a main difference between the two movies — the soldiers in Dunkirk ’58 behave as if they will escape, even as the death toll mounts. What we see in Dunkirk ’17 shows more panic and horror on the beach and in the surf.

Composer Malcom Arnold’s music scores use a main theme that changes little from film to film — Bridge on the River Kwai and The Roots of Heaven are practically interchangeable with his music here. Even Arnold’s circus movie Trapeze sounds similar.


With Dunkirk the screen widens to 1:66 again, thus looking more modern on a large monitor. Director Leslie Norman was competent  (X The Unknown) but nothing in his work suggests him as an organizer of giant scenes as in this film. An army of assistant and second-unit directors must have been employed although only one is credited. Future effects supervisor Brian Johnson is given the sole Visual Effects credit.



Ice Cold In Alex
1958 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 130 76 min. (!) / Desert Attack
Starring: John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle, Harry Andrews, Diane Clare, Richard Leech, Liam Redmond, Allan Cuthbertson, Basil Hoskins, Walter Gotell, Frederick Jaeger, Richard Marner, Peter Arne, Paul Stassino.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Original Music: Leighton Lucas
Written by T.J. Morrison, Christopher Landon from his novel
Produced by W.A. Whittaker
Directed by
J. Lee Thompson


Once upon a time, J.Lee Thompson was a terrific director.

I’m really happy to have seen Ice Cold In Alex for the first time in this excellent presentation. The show not only lives up to its vaunted reputation, it’s now a favorite war picture. Having to suffer through several of J. Lee Thompson’s worthless “take Cannon’s money” movies with Charles Bronson, this superb action drama reminds me how good were Thompson’s earlier Tiger Bay and Cape Fear. The story here is more mature and affecting than his ‘big’ picture, the childhood nostalgia favorite The Guns of Navarone.


Excellent location work in Libya is abetted by performances from a cast clearly enduring the sweltering Saharan desert — never have we felt the sweat as intensely. Ice Cold is sometimes compared to H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear but its suspense is of a different variety. Clouzot demands that we detest the evil politics that torment his desperate truck drivers. Alex doesn’t take a patriotic stance for granted. But it ends up making a uniquely satisfying statement about human respect under pressure — in that sense it even comes out ahead of Robert Aldrich’s desert survival classic The Flight of the Phoenix.

In North Africa, the Brigadier (Liam Redmond) evacuates 25 nurses on a ship, as they expect their position will soon be overrun by the advancing German army. The redundant Captain Anson (John Mills, again) and M.S.M Pugh (Harry Andrews) are to drive one ambulance back to Alexandria, a treacherous journey considering that the Germans are everywhere. Captain Anson may have been chosen as a matter of personal mercy — having escaped from German captivity, he’s been hitting the bottle badly. They’re under fire even on the way out, and end up with extra passengers. Two nurses have been left behind, Denise Norton (Diane Clare of Plague of the Zombies) and Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Sims). They also pick up Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) a hardy, physically imposing South African. Van der Poel shares his satchel of hard liquor with Anson, spoiling Pugh and Murdoch’s efforts to keep Anson dry.


The desert trek that follows feels unpredictable even with the expected German patrols, mechanical breakdowns and bizarre hazards like minefields and quicksand. Van der Poel speaks German, and is able to talk a —   No, let’s not spoil anything. I’m not even going to explain the meaning of the title. Don’t even look up a synopsis, as you don’t want to have this gem spoiled.

The main thread keeping Ice Cold in Alex in fresh territory is its firm commitment to human values (as opposed to easy sentiment and heroic gestures). The hazardous trek is not a happy morale builder (Sahara) nor an existential mess (Bitter Victory) nor an exercise in stylish cynicism (Play Dirty). The suspense sequences aren’t of the exaggerated nail-biting variety, but situations that test the travelers to the limit of their stamina and strength.

We gain even more respect for John Mills, as he really has to work for this one. Harry Andrews’ solid support is more tempered than usual, with a character both thoughtful and considerate of others. This may be the most impressive I’ve ever seen Anthony Quayle — he shows us what kind of miracle a great actor can pull off with material this good. Quayle is older than I thought, having started out in movies in 1935. My favorites of his films before this were Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and The Battle of the River Plate.


I’ve seen Sylvia Sims in a number of movies but have to say didn’t remember her strongly: Expresso Bongo, The World of Suzie Wong, Victim, The Quare Fellow, Operation Crossbow. After this movie I’m ready for suggestions of what to see next. Her Nurse Diana overcomes the war movie concern of ‘how to fit the love interest’ into the story. Nurse Clare is deeply involved in the worst things that happen. At one point she’s almost run over by the ambulance truck, an unscripted near-accident that happens right on camera, for real.

The bottom line is that Ice Cold in Alex offers something that few war movies deliver, the idea that cooperation under extreme conditions can break all barriers. The desert can certainly deliver extreme conditions. It’s refreshing to see a ‘desert survival picture’ that isn’t relentlessly negative. All concerned realize they have no time or energy to waste on anything that won’t solve the problem.


In handsome widescreen with a near-perfect picture, Ice Cold in Alex is the gem in this set, if only because it’s such a happy surprise. I’m glad I didn’t see a 20th-Fox American release version, which is said to have been cut by almost an hour. What could have been left of it?  According to the IMDB, the Brit censors asked for numerous changes and insisted that a love scene be re-shot.



Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Their Finest Hour 5 British WWII Classics is quite a package. Upon finishing Went the Day Well? I was unhappy to find no extras attached; it’s a shame that Kevin Brownlow’s TCMfest speech wasn’t recorded. But the other four films are very well appointed, with two major making-of-docus, numerous interview pieces, a trailer, on-set home movies by John Mills, and other items. The Dam Busters gets the most lavish attention, owing to its flashy re-premiere a couple of years ago.

The one disappointment is the lack of English subs … the disc audience for movies of this vintage skews OLD, and many of those folk have hearing issues of some kind. Studiocanal deserves praise for opening up its well-maintained film library (which is more than some U.S. studios will do), but should also have their knuckles rapped for not providing Les sous-titres.


For me the happiest extra is the vintage Ealing Studios short subject Young Veteran, a morale booster about the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s directed by Cavalcanti and edited by Charles Crichton. A recreated scene shows newspaper editor Arthur Christiansen ordering up a new cartoon character. He’s the same crusading newsman seen over twenty years later in the great science fiction classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, performing with his own voice. We’d know Christiansen anywhere — he exudes professionalism and inspires confidence. We need leaders like him now.

The official list of extras:

The Colditz Story:
Colditz Revealed documentary
Restoration Comparison

The Dam Busters:
The Making of The Dam Busters
Sir Barnes Wallis Documentary (the science engineer of the raid)
617 Squadron Remembers
Footage of the Bomb Tests
The Dam Busters Royal Premiere
Restoration of a Classic

Dunkirk Operation Dynamo Newsreel
Young Veteran 1940 Ealing Short
Interview with actor Sean Barrett (‘Frankie,’ the teenaged civilian)
John Mills home movie footage

Ice Cold In Alex:
Extended Clip from A Very British War Movie Documentary
John Mills Home Video Footage
Interview with Melanie Williams
Steve Chibnall on J. Lee Thompson
Interview with actress Sylvia Syms

24-page booklet with essay by film writer and curator Cullen Gallagher.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Their Finest Hour 5 British WWII Classics
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent possible non-problem issues with aspect ratios
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Very Good.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Five Blu-rays in oversized eep case
April 3, 2020


Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith on Ice Cold in Alex:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x