Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

The Strange Land by Hammond Innes (1954)

Darkness should be the same everywhere. But it isn’t. This was a desert country. These were desert people. We could feel the difference in the sand under our feet, see it in the brightness of the stars, the shadowed shape of the bare mountains. The chill of it was in our bones. It was as alien as the moon, as cold and naked. And the agony of that death-wailing froze our blood. (p.226)

Background

The novel is set in Morocco in the early 1950s. At the start of the 20th century France and Spain had carved out separate spheres of influence over the country. A nationalist party had been founded in 1943 and campaigned for independence. Only in the previous twenty years (from the 1930s) had the south of the country, where the final scenes are set, been ‘pacified’ ie subjected to French colonial rule. Tangiers is an ‘international city’ administered by Spanish officials. The actual inhabitants, the Arabs and the Berbers from the south, are cut off from the Europeans who cover the country like a very thin layer of icing which could be thrown off at any moment. That is the political background to this novel.

The plot

The story is narrated by Philip Latham who runs a Mission at a remote village, Enfida, in the south of Morocco. He had advertised for a doctor to help him and had only one reply, from a Czech based in England named Kavan, who had written to say he is qualified but with little experience, he just needs to get away and start a new life. Since he was the only applicant, Latham confirmed his appointment and acknowledges that Kavan will, rather unconventionally, be travelling to Morocco in a yacht owned by a man called Wade.

The novel opens with the port of Tangiers lashed by a storm as a motley assortment of individuals watch the yacht foundering, failing to make the harbour, and running ashore on the beach A man throws himself into the sea wearing a life jacket. Latham strips off, gets the police to tie a rope round his waist, and swims out to the fast-disintegrating ship to rescue the man they saw.

In the next pages, we learn that:

  • the survivor Latham rescued is Dr Jan Kavan, the doctor he’s expecting
  • Kavan claims the owner of the yacht, Wade, was washed overboard on the journey out in bad storms
  • Kavan is extremely secretive and paranoid; his own wife (Karen) had come to meet him at the beach but they both refused to acknowledge each other – What are they hiding? Who are they hiding from?
  • Once safe at Latham’s hotel and recovered, Kavan decides to pretend to be Wade until they can get out of Tangier and into the interior: Why? To avoid awkward questions and being sent back to England as a ‘stateless person’.
  • And he reveals that the dead Wade was a crook, caught up in various plots with a local Greek criminal named Kostos, which Kavan – and by extension, Latham – now find themselves embroiled in.

Dr Kavan

Kavan’s backstory is that he is a physicist ie a much-prized commodity behind the Iron Curtain. He was married to Karen before the War broke out, whereupon he was taken away by the Germans to work in Essen. Here he managed to smuggle information out to the British, working with French couriers including one Marcel Duprez. After the War he returned to Czechoslovakia and had two happy years with Karen before the Russians took over, at which point he fled to Britain.

There he is not only a stateless person but becomes a target for the Czech Communists who want him back and try to discredit him to get him deported. They denounce him as a communist to the British authorities, send him secret letters in code which they leak to the authorities, anything to get him deported back to Czechoslovakia.

Hence Kavan’s

  • seizing the opportunity to escape from Europe altogether to a remote part of Africa where he can be free
  • nervousness about giving his real identity to the authorities in Tangier
  • suspicion of even his wife, who he is terrified might have been blackmailed by the communist authorities into meeting him solely to force him to return

Heading south

Having got himself mixed up in Kavan’s elaborate plans, Latham finds himself using his knowledge of the country to smuggle Kavan out via the small local airport on a flight to Casablanca; he himself will catch the sleeper train and they’ll rendezvous there. The disparity in departures gives Latham time to be accosted by Kostos who has with him Ali d’Es-Skhira, a Berber nationalist from the south. Both of them claim Wade was carrying deeds to land in the south which Ali’s tribe desperately need, because it has water and fertile land to grow dates on. They offer Latham a lot of money for the documents. Of course, he doesn’t have them or know anything about them but it makes him suspicious of Kavan.

Latham and Kavan meet up as planned in Casablanca and catch the train south to Marrakesh (Innes does good descriptions of the sights and smells of the busy souk area). But they notice suspicious things – a boy who offers to guide them deliberately loses Latham and decoys Kavan deep into the souk, Kavan swears that a native is following them, and so on. Atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.

The mission

When they finally arrive by train at Latham’s mission, outside a village in the foothill of the Atlas mountains, they discover a catastrophe has occurred. Just a few days earlier a big landslide buried the entire Mission, the main buildings and dispensary, the playground and olive groves, everything Latham has built up with his own hands over the previous five years. A friend, Graham, a kindly painter, has been killed in the disaster – his sister, Julie, seeing it happen from the safety of the old bus parked a little along the road but powerless to help.

Latham is devastated. He is now a man without a future and – as I’ve noted in reviews of other Innes books – the sense of a settled future is the Holy Grail, the Nirvana towards which all Innes’ books navigate.

We sat in silence after that, drinking tea, wrapped in our own thoughts. For each of us that landslide meant something different. And for each of us the future was uncertain. (p.101)

Confession

Latham finally pushes Dr Kavan to come clean: he didn’t take the job at the Mission at random. Turns out that, when he was doing his forced labour for the Germans during the War, he worked out a way to smuggle secrets to the Allies, using a network of Frenchmen. There was one in particular, Marcel Duprez, working in Europe but who had, before the War, spent many years in the south of Morocco gaining the respect of the local inhabitants and eventually being ceded some land round a village called Kasbah Foum.

As Duprez lay dying, he willed Kavan this land. After the War Kavan corresponded with Marcel’s lawyers to confirm his claim, but was forced to return to Czechoslovakia to work before he could do any more. But as the communist regime became more repressive his one dream was to escape to this Utopia in the desert. Now he is almost there. Will Latham come with him?

This is quite a shock to Latham, who realises he has been used, both in giving Kavan a job he never intended to take, and in breaking the law in concealing Kavan’s identity and smuggling him out of Tangiers. Moreover, the net is closing in. The newspapers are now onto the story that there was a second man on the yacht: they think it was the Wade that Latham claimed to have saved from the sea. Latham finds himself getting deeper into trouble as he has to tell further elaborate lies to the police. And during these interviews he discovers that the Greek Kostos and the nationalist Ali have travelled south in pursuit of him and Kavan.

Together these facts (his lying to the police, Kostos’ pursuit) as well as the devastation of his Mission, persuade him to accompany Kavan on the last leg of his quest south to Kasbah Foum. The sister of the painter horribly crushed under the landslide, Julie, insists she too wants to come along. So the three of them drive high up into the Atlas mountains, through the pass and down into ‘the strange land’ beyond.

Zone of Insecurity

After a vividly described journey through the mountains and desert, our gang of three arrive at Kasbah Foum. It’s a valley comprising two separate settlements each with a kasbah or old castle, a fertile irrigated area and an old mine covered by a landslip.

The existence of this mine is further news to Latham. Only now does it become clear that the whole novel boils down to the rival claims to this oasis and the mineral wealth which may or may not lie beneath it. They discover one Ed White, an American prospector who thought he had the rights to the land, is well-advanced on his plan of using bulldozers to clear the rubble of a rockfall away from the reputed opening to the mine. He had been corresponding with Wade about a deal to develop the mine. Wade had been corresponding with Kostos. Everyone is deceiving everyone else, and poor Latham is the last to realise it.

Who owns the land and the mine? Everyone agrees that the Caid Hassan (the local native leader) gave the land to Marcel Duprez for his services to the community, who then willed it to Kavan. But now it appears that European law doesn’t count – the Caid must re-confirm that gift. This is going to be tricky as he is at daggers drawn with his eldest son – none other than the fanatical Ali, the man who has been pursuing them along with the crook Kostos all the way from Tangiers.

In addition, our gang have to placate the local French authorities in the shape of Captain Legard, who doesn’t believe their (rather convoluted and improbable) story. To add complication, the body of Wade has washed ashore in Portugal but, since the authorities were told it was Wade who came ashore in Tangier, they mistakenly identify the body as Kavan. Which throws suspicion on Kavan-posing-as-Wade that he murdered Kavan-actually-Wade. Complicated.

Back with the Caid and and his son, Ali, there is a tense night-time ‘tea date’ where Kavan and Latham witness the tired old man and the fanatic son arguing over the future of the land, the Caid wanting to honour Duprez’s memory, the nationalist son wanting to keep the land for his people. This ends with the Caid sending a messenger to our gang’s camp with a note confirming the grant – but the messenger is attacked by vassals of Ali, who slash him with knives and he is only saved by the intervention of the Europeans. Slowly the tension is ratcheting up.

The backdrop to all this is that the locals are unhappy: the date harvest has failed, leading to money and food shortages. The American has alienated everyone by using big bulldozers instead of spreading his money around the impoverished community and hiring them as manual labourers. The atmosphere is becoming poisonous.

There are unusually heavy storms. These soften the mud and rocks and help Kavan and White clear the rockslide from the mountainside until they finally reveal the entrance to the historic silver mine. They are naively excited.

But when Latham goes to recruit some local men to help them remove the rocks, he realises the atmosphere has become violent. The heavy rain has turned the stream which meanders through the valley red with mud. The locals think the white men have poisoned it. First they killed the date palms, now they poison the water. The white man must be driven out.

Just as he’s reporting this back to Kavan and White, the Greek Kostas arrives looking harassed and pale, with bad news. The Caid has died. Ali has taken over leadership of the local tribes. He is leading a hundred men or more towards the camp, bent on revenge.

Explosions

And so on to the thunderous climax of the last 40 or so pages: egged on by Ali, the mob arrives at the European camp and start burning our chaps’ tents and sabotaging the bulldozers. Then they turn to menace our heroes. The cowardly Kostos had got separated from them, scrambling up onto a ledge of rock above the only-just-revealed mine working. Whereas our chaps try manfully negotiating with Ali before retreating, the Greek throws a lighted stick of dynamite at the mob – unfortunately, too close to the main store of dynamite – Boom! The whole hillside goes up, causing a massive avalanche, reblocking the mine, sweeping away Kostos, and plunging down onto Ali and his men. When the dust has cleared, the survivors are baying for blood and our gang have to escape further up the gorge and up the mountainside.

Repetition and frustration

I found reading this novel frustrating. Why doesn’t Kavan just tell the authorities who he is (the nominal reason is he doesn’t want to be repatriated to Britain, but he in fact creates much bigger problems for himself masquerading as Wade, who is liable to be charged for murdering Kavan). Why does Latham allow himself to be drawn deeper into Kavan’s deception, which involves lying to every police, immigration and security official he meets? Many of Innes novels convey a nightmare sense of characters unable to escape from repetitive and claustrophobic situations – but here the failure of the main characters just to tell the truth seems wilful and a contrived way to create a permanent sense of tension where there needn’t be one.

Also the rising tension leading to trouble with the natives could be seen a hundred miles off, but the characters seem pitifully, implausibly, slow to appreciate it.

This frustration comes to a head in the scene where – after the dynamite and rockslide has killed loads of natives – the Europeans spend hours climbing up the sheer face of the gorge and over the mountain to the piste out of the valley but then – walk back down to the valley towards the villages! Innes gives a reason – White, their scout, saw ten Berbers on mules going up the piste to the pass – our chaps would probably encounter them and may do badly – but walking right back down the track into the valley where thousands of peasants live whose husbands and sons they have just murdered – is inconceivably stupid of them and frustrating for the reader.

They go to the French Poste and wake up the French official but there’s not much he can do. And while they’re still discussing plans and counting their pitiful little armoury, a crowd of a thousand or so angry peasants, egged on by their womenfolk, march up and surround the Poste. Their ringleaders work them up to a frenzy. They start throwing rocks through the window, then one pokes a gun in and shoots. Looks like it’s going to be a massacre.

Climax

But it isn’t. Our man Latham walks out into the crowd, speaks to them in Berber and outfaces them. Till one shoots him in the shoulder (!), but still, he has planted enough of a seed of doubt to disperse the mob. There’s a stand-off for several hours while our heroes agonise about what to do next.

Then, in a kind of dumb repetition which is very characteristic of Innes, the whole thing happens again: the crowd surging forwards, the menfolk egged on by the women making their terrifying ululations, the rocks and shots through the window. It’s a peculiar fictional technique to repeat virtually the same scene, almost move for move. The Europeans are forced by the baying mob up onto the roof of the Poste and are preparing to meet their end when —

The paternalistic French policeman Legard rides to the rescue. He has ridden hotfoot from Marrakesh after receiving a garbled message before the phone line was cut and now rides straight into the crowd calling individuals by name and defusing the whole situation. Phew! The crowd disperse grumpily and – suddenly it’s a happy Hollywood ending. White and Kavan reckon they can clear away the landslide and reveal the shaft again. The yacht which sank at the start was insured so Kavan-posing-as-Wade should be able to collect a big pot of money. He’ll share the proceeds and help Latham build a new mission. Latham and Julia realise they’re in love. Aaah.

Conclusions

This novel doesn’t work for me.

  • I kept expecting the swapped identities theme to turn out to be a clever double bluff but it just carried on being really boring – Kavan pretending he was Wade in innumerable tedious interviews with police authorities all over Morocco.
  • Latham is meant to be a missionary and once or twice he prays to God but there was no real feel for the spiritual or numinous anywhere in the book. There’s plenty of travelogue colour description of Casablanca or Marrakesh – but nothing about the real soul of the inhabitants.
  • Which raises the biggest problem: with his customary research, no doubt Innes mugged up on and respected the traditions and culture of the people he writes about: but he too often describes them in a patronising way. The final mob scenes (which drag on and on) repeatedly compare the Berbers to animals.

And they scuttled away across the sands in ones and twos, like whipped dogs with their tales between their legs. (p.247)

  • The narrator and his pals easily forget that one of their own, a fellow European, has just killed fifty or more of the male wage-earners in this poverty-stricken population. When that happened it changed the entire tone of the book for me. It no longer seemed ‘a bit of a mix-up with a couple of bodies thrown in but hey, the hero gets the girl and all is well’ – which is what happens in most of his other novels. It seemed exploitative to kill off so many of the faceless natives simply for dramatic effect. Bad taste in the mouth.

End of Empire

The storyline seems all-too-aptly to summarise the post-War colonial experience: white men causing untold bother among themselves in their greed for buried treasure (here, silver), while failing to help or support the native populations whose land they exploit, and allowing the moderate older rulers to be swept away by a younger generation of violent nationalists. Much is made that the French colonial officers are struggling to bring a food convoy over the mountain to the villagers. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it will be too little too late for this and scores of other European colonies around the world.

In 1953, presumably while Innes was researching or writing the book, the country had experienced nationalist uprisings, including attacks on Europeans in the street. In 1955, the year after the book was published, the country’s leader Sultan Mohammed V, was overthrown.

Several times the characters mention that the French outpost can’t call on any troops to help put down the mob because there are no French troops stationed in south Morocco. They have all been sent to Vietnam to put down the uprisings there. Premonitions of a world of trouble…

Related links

Classic 1960 Pan paperback edition of The Strange Land

Classic 1960 Pan paperback edition of The Strange Land

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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