Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 134 mins Director: Leslie Norman Stars: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee
An oft forgotten WWII movie dramatising the large scale evacuation of retreating Allied troops from the French countryside and ultimately the port of Dunkirk. We all know the story – a country awakens to the reality that another continental war is on its doorsteps only to rally and demonstrate its grit as hundreds of fishermen and private boat owners sail their own crafts into the war zone to pick up the battered troops from the beaches.
The incident became a banner call for the Allied resistance and it’s surprising we’ve seen so few attempts to capture it on film. That said, Leslie Norman’s treatment is a fitting testament given its balanced and comprehensive approach. We see the operation from most relevant perspectives. John Mills’ corporal and his ragtag squad are in retreat through a countryside crawling with German infantry and stalked by their Stukas (dive-bombers) above. Richard Attenborough is the business owner who reluctantly agrees to offer his recreational boat up to the Navy only to fully commit to the evacuation once he sees the tattered troops getting off the boats. As the film moves between its settings, we get a richer flavour to the time and place behind the story than we might otherwise have got if the story focused on one of them alone.
Mills is eminently watchable as usual as the reluctant commander while Attenborough and fellow boat owner Bernard Lee are terrific as the two civilians embodying the contradicting attitudes to the war as it morphed from its “phoney” stage to the stark reality of what the troops on the continent were experiencing. The beach sequences are ably handled and given impressive scope by Norman. Especially impressive is the manner in which David Devine and W.P. Lipscomb’s screenplay teases out the different social, military, and political perspectives both on the ground amongst the troops and back in England from the army headquarters to the public houses. A nicely nuanced piece of war cinema if ever there was one.
Rating: The Good – 74 Genre: War Duration: 101mins Director: John Guillermin Stars: M.E. Clifton James, John Mills, Cecil Parker
I Was Monty’s Double or “Hell, Heaven or Hoboken” is a-one-of-a-kind WWII movie based on an amazing real life operation and starring the man who was at the very centre it. It’s based on M.E. Clifton James’ own account of how he, as an enlisted stage actor with a remarkable likeness for General Montgomery, was co-opted by intelligence to impersonate the general in North Africa in order to fool the Germans into thinking the 1944 invasion might launch from there. It’s a riveting premise for a movie made more so by the convenient fact that it was James’ acting background that made him fit for the part in real life and so doubly (excuse the pun) fit for the movie role. Moreover, James and Montgomery were outright doppelgängers and when the former is introduced on screen for the first time, everybody should look up a picture of old Monty to get a first hand appreciation. The story gets even more bizarre in that the officer responsible for recruiting James in real life was David Niven (then serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army’s film unit). However, writer Bryan Forbes rightly replaced him with an intelligence operative played by John Mills presumably to give the whole operation a more contained and dramatic tone.
Mills and James establish a splendid chemistry from early on as Mills’ Major Harvey sets about transforming the timid actor into the battle hardened taskmaster. This part of the film is full of humour with James being put through the paces as he keeps up with the actual Monty’s (played also by himself!) rigorous schedule and scrutinises the man and his habits up close. When they put the show on the road so to speak, the film takes a turn for the thrilling as James’ impersonation faces several tricky tests some expected and some not. James is outstanding in the role of both himself, Monty’s double, and Monty himself and captures the transition brilliantly when needed and disguises it completely when not (i.e., when he’s supposed to be the actual Monty). The insecurity of the man in his moments of doubt (even prior to his recruitment while working in the pay corpse) is endearing and his ability to turn that insecurity on its head when in character is most satisfying. Mills offers much personality to the movie whether he’s sharing the screen with James or his own on-screen superior played well by Cecil Parker.
Forbes takes some liberties with actual events towards the end of his screenplay but it plays wonderfully with the rest of the film and gives director John Guillermin a chance to present us with an excellently constructed action sequence shot with all the tension and exquisite pacing of the best war movie sequences. Some might find John Addison’s jaunty score a little twee and it perhaps could’ve been replaced by something with a more serious tone but for the most part, it’s unnoticeable or at least ignorable. The sound production hasn’t really stood the test of time either and it can often be difficult to pick up on what’s been said. A restoration would be most welcome for this reason alone. Despite some issues, I Was Monty’s Double counts as a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable film built around an intriguing turn from James. In fact, in all of cinema, there’s arguably never been a more reflexive nor historically relevant performance and if that’s not a reason to see a film, what is?