I’ve watched quite a few 1930s and 40s films giving down-to-earth portraits of men’s working lives, including a number about the armed services – but haven’t come across all that many older movies about women at work, or at war.
However, thanks to the UK TV station Film 4, now I’ve seen this British wartime propaganda film about the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), directed and narrated by Leslie Howard, which was quite an eye-opener to me. It isn’t a masterpiece, but I think it has worn pretty well, despite the patronising title and an occasionally heavy-handed commentary from Howard, for instance, quoting lines from poems about women’s traditional role as they are seen carrying out military tasks. He is only briefly glimpsed from the rear – in what sadly turned out to be his last film appearance before his own death in the war.
After Howard opens the film by picking out seven women in a crowd at a railway station to be his heroines, the rest of the movie gives what looks to be a realistic portrayal of life for these characters, all from different backgrounds. I was impressed that there is no attempt to make any of them look particularly glamorous, and the real hard work is not glossed over. The meals and dormitories seem very realistic.
At times it is hard to keep track of all the individuals, especially as I thought one or two of the actresses looked rather similar. Maybe there are just too many of them for any one to get enough screen time. Joyce Howard (no relation to Leslie) plays Anne, who is from a service family and quickly gets into the routine, with Rosamond John as cheery Scottish Maggie, who quotes Robert Burns to herself to count her stitches when knitting. Jean Gillie plays Dot and Joan Gates is Gwen, two modern working women who I kept mixing up with one another.
A very young Joan Greenwood plays the baby of the group, Betty, who has never been away from home and “Mummy”, and is at first overwhelmed by the thought of doing ordinary household tasks for herself – but quickly finds that she can cope. The least sympathetic member of the group is bossy, upper-crust Joan (Barbara Waring), who gets her stripe as a corporal – but although there is occasional friction between her and the others they manage to work alongside one another and eventually it is revealed that much of her snappiness is really down to shyness. It was nice to see a film where the focus is on the women helping and supporting one another rather than on any rivalry.
I thought Lilli Palmer gives the most moving performance, as an exiled “foreigner” – probably Polish, as her character’s name is Erna Debruski, but I believe her country is never stated, probably deliberately, so that her plight can represent that of all the exiles who had signed up to fight in the British forces. Most of the time she stays silent about what she has been through, with just her burning eyes telling her story – but there is one powerful scene where, in response to another character, Joan, thoughtlessly remarking “At least the Nazis are efficient”, she tells them exactly what that efficiency means in terms of death and suffering.
Apparently the movie was made with the co-operation of the ATS and some of the extras were real servicewomen. The film shows them training and carrying out tasks such as driving lorries through the night and, in the most dramatic scene towards the end of the movie, operating anti-aircraft guns under fire. A male soldier expresses surprise at the lorry-driving, commenting: “Women, working through the night?” and is told: “Yes, this is a woman’s war.”
I was surprised to see how little romance there is in the film – Leslie Howard actually comments as narrator that the women are too busy to have much time for love. Anne has a brief whirlwind romance with soldier David, played by John Justin, who is later lost in action, “missing believed killed”. But she only has a couple of scenes with him and then one with his mother, Mrs Sheridan (Mary Jerrold). During tea with Mrs Sheridan, Anne starts to declaim about how women are now serving alongside men for the first time and predicts that the role of women will change after the war. Mrs Sheridan quietly reveals in response that she herself was an ambulance driver at Ypres in the First World War, and was wounded in action – but gives the impression she wants to see women’s social position change too.
Maggie does dance once with a middle-aged Scottish soldier in full Highland dress, Alexander, played by Dad’s Army favourite John Laurie, and we are told in voiceover at the end that they will marry – but, apart from that, love is very much secondary to work throughout the film, and the women are shown working alongside men in matter-of-fact style.
I especially liked the ending of the film, where the women are seen queuing for mugs of tea in the open air, and Leslie Howard bids each one goodbye in turn, giving a brief suggestion of what the future may hold for them, but with no certainty, either for them or for the viewers.
Oddly enough, the movie appears to be only available on DVD in Spain – but it seems to be shown on TV in the UK quite often. After enjoying this film, I’m hoping to track down another one which Howard produced about wartime nurses, The Lamp Still Burns.