Friday, 20 February 2009

The Way to the Stars

The Way to the stars was a Terrence Rattigan script which continues where Angels One Five left off. This time it is John Mills who plays the newly qualified pilot in 1940, a former school master attached to an established flying unit used to attacks from the enemy on their base and who have quickly become an established part of the local town and community. The focus is the small hotel with permanent paying guests which includes a married aunt and her companion niece. The new arrival also has a shaky start with his first landing and takes time to settle in.

The Squadron Leader, Trevor Howard in his first film role is shot down and killed, and his position is taken over by Michael Redgrave who initially shares a room with Mills at the airfield. Redgrave marries the manageress of the hotel and they have a son and Mills falls for the niece staying at the Golden Lion hotel public house with her aunt. He is about to pop the question when Redgrave is killed and this leads him to sever relations with the girl on the grounds that those engaged in war have no right to marry and have children until the conflict is over. Because the film is to have a happy ending, (it was released in 1945), Mills is able to survive by being transferred to operational control after completing his first period of flying missions and then is transferred back to flying, to bombers at another aerodrome after the USA enters the war.

The film pays tribute to the contribution of USSAF service personnel who also quickly settle into local life outside of flying although the brash and forward ways of some take some getting used too. The film skates over some of the realities, especially the conflicts between American and British services over relationships with unmarried girls and some wives. Instead, the focus is on a happily married USSAF flight Captain who strikes up a genuine friendship with the widow and her son, and the community, entertaining local children at an annual party arranged by the local Anglican Vicar played by Felix Aylmer. The Captain is about to be sent home to become an instructor but hesitates in part because he has not heard from his wife, because of a hint at the relationship with the landlady developing beyond friendship and because he does not want to leave his nine person crew of the Flying Fortresses who are also nearing completion of their period of mission.

Just after announcing his decision not to accept the instructor’s post there are three missing pales on a mission and after two make it back, the damaged plane of the USSAF Captain returns with one of the four engines damaged and other problems, particularly that there is a 500 pound bomb lodged which cannot be released. All nine crew members parachute to safety but the Captain refuses in case the plane falls in such a way to harm the local community and therefore he crashes the plane ending his own life. The part is played by Douglas Montgomery.
A feature of this production was the poem For Johnny
For Johnny

Do not despair.....For Johnny-head-in- air,
He sleeps as sound....As Jonny underground.
Fetch out no shroud... For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears...For him in after years.
Better by far......For Johnny-the-bright-star.
To keep your head.....And see his children fed.

The poem is written in the film by Michael Redgrave for his wife played by Rosamund John, it is given to Bonnar Colleano after the death of the his Captain. Bonar Colleano was an actor from New York who became a well known film and stage actor in the UK. This was his first major role and he went on to appear in a number of films set in wartime and Once a Jolly Swagman, a film about motorcycle speedway with Dirk Bogard which I remember well. He was killed in a sports car accident at the age 34 years. A very young Renee Asherson plays the niece who eventually is to marry John Mills in the film. Stanley Holloway plays a local who is generous with his cash buying the flying boys drinks and entertaining at the piano, as long as they listen to his long funny stories which he always manages to get wrong despite endless repetition. Basil Radford plays a long standing member of the aerodrome operations and Bill Owen as the young member of the ground crew who eventually gets to fly in the Lancaster Bombers with John Mills and who also survives. The film also marked the debut of a very young Jean Simmons who sings part of one song at a dance in the town the night before the children’s party at which Bonnar Colleano explains that his Captain has not been able to come and how much he cares for them all. Rosamund John reassures that the town will never forget the sacrifice made by the captain.

The film therefore covers the greater part of the war in the Air. The British squadron are posted over seas for a time returning at the end of the film. John Mills, with Bill Owen in tow, has to force land at the aerodrome returning for one mission where he has been acting as the path finder and this gives him the opportunity to meet up with everyone especially Renée Asherson who has been courted by Bonar Colleano. The film also has something of the quality of First of the Few by attempting to put the war in perspective, doing this by showing the deserted airfield and quarters and those involved have gone their separate ways, after the war has ended.

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