Saturday 18 July 2009

Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Dirk Bogarde, Marius Goring and David Oxley

This one was always going to be an interesting one for me. Beyond being a Powell & Pressburger film, it's based on the wartime diaries of W Stanley Moss, and so set in Greece during the Greek fight against Nazi occupation. My grandfather fought in this war, as a major in the Raiding Support Regiment, working behind enemy lines to harrass the enemy in every way possible and drive them out of Greece. The Raiding Support Regiment was a special forces unit only in existence during the war and which has been kept pretty secret ever since, so it's good to see something on film that ties to what he did.

It's not especially close, as my grandfather commanded the RSR in the northern third of Greece and this is set in Crete, off the south of Greece, but it may be about as close as I'll ever get on film to seeing some of the day to day life he lived when he was over there. An early scene rings very true, as Capt W Stanley Moss MC, known as Bill, arrives in Crete and spends an interesting first night amongst his comrades and locals. He doesn't speak Greek so needs everything translating, he's given food but discovers that sheep's eyeballs are a local delicacy and that some soldiers have gone without baths for six months to fit in. Even the goats don't want to sleep with them.

He's here for a mission, of course, and it's a pretty daring one as missions go. Moss is there to work with Maj Patrick Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, a British officer who as we discover from the opening credits, is known to the Cretans and the German Secret Police as Philedem. He knows the terrain, he knows his job and he has the sheer cojones to pull of a job this big: to kidnap Maj-Gen Kreipe, the divisional commander-in-chief of 30,000 Nazi paratroopers stationed on Crete and spirit him away to Cairo to embarrass the Germans.

Moss, the writer of this account, is played by David Oxley, who got his start in a Powell & Pressburger film, albeit a lesser one called The Elusive Pimpernel. A regular of theirs, Marius Goring, is Gen Kreipe, after three highly prominent roles in some of their best pictures, including A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. The only newcomer is Dirk Bogarde as Maj Fermor. It's surprising to realise that this was the only film he made for them, but perhaps he just came along a little late. It's the last Powell & Pressburger movie of them all; Pressburger never directed again and two films later for Powell was Peeping Tom, a film of genius that was seen as something very different at the time.

We're not here for the actors though, as much as they're decent in their roles. Bogarde is most obvious, but the mostly British cast do well as Cretans. Other names you may know include Cyril Cusack, Michael Gough and even, in a small role that calls only for the German language, Christopher Lee. The locations are stunning but they're very much France and Italy rather than Greece. There's no sparkling dialogue, no iconic performances, nothing to really stand out in the memory. It looks good and it sounds OK (with foreign languages admirably spoken as needed without subtitles), but really it's just another film, except for one thing.

The value this film has is in the story that it tells, not the plot but the real story, that speaks to the war in a very matter of fact manner. This isn't a grand star-studded spectacle like The Eagle Has Landed or The Dirty Dozen. It isn't even a patriotic piece of propaganda, though it's very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. There are no heroes or villains. These are simply men doing what they need to do in a time of need, distinguished amateurs as they describe themselves.

For much of the film, we see the English officers and their German prisoner treating each other with respect, though they have precisely nothing else in common at all. It feels like an attempt to portray a wartime mission without delusions of grandeur or sensationalism and that's an admirable aim. It feels utterly English and realistic in tone, as compared to the stylishness of the German films and the grandeur of the American. More modern war films tend to become polemics against the horror of war or simply use it as the backdrop for something else entirely. This one's simply its own thing.

No comments: