When is it too early to release a war film? Do you let wounds heal? Do you tell a story regardless of the timing? In the late 1940s, studios around the world had to answer those questions. The war films that were made didn’t often shy from the truth, films like The Best Years of Our Lives, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground and The Sands of Iwo Jima among others. Here’s one that’s been almost entirely forgotten, short on star power but a good story, 1948’s Against the Wind.
It’s relatively early in World War II. A Catholic priest, Philip (Robert Beatty) walks into a British museum requesting to see a specific office. Everything is not as it seems though. Philip has been recruited to join the Special Operations Execute (S.O.E), a unit placing undercover agents behind enemy lines as well as working with the Resistance in France, Belgium and across Europe. Philip finds himself working with men and women from countless backgrounds and cultures, all with their personal reasons for joining the cause. That cause has low percentages for survival though as these brave men and women will put their lives on the line to get the job done, day after day.
That plot synopsis came across as more positive propaganda than I intended. Touches are there though for sure in this 1948 British war film from director Charles Crichton. Only 3 years removed from the end of WWII, ‘Wind’ goes behind the lines in a story that while dark and atmospheric, it isn’t necessarily hard-hitting. It’s not heavy-handed – thankfully – and is content to tell the story of the brave men and women who risked their lives to aid the war effort. They didn’t fight on the front lines and would never get any headlines for their efforts.
So why is ‘Wind’ so generally forgotten? Well, for one, there are many more British war films that would be released in the 1950s and 1960s with far more star power. Recognizable faces are on display here, but only one big name I would say. Instead, we get an excellent ensemble that more than rises to the occasion. It’s somewhat disjointed early as we get to know our undercover/espionage agents, but it all clicks together once these individuals end up being sent out to their missions.
Who to look for? The biggest name is Simone Signoret in her first English-speaking role. She plays Michele, a Belgian refugee who has to prove herself to her fellow agents because of her past and…well, cuz she’s a woman. Beatty’s Philip is an interesting character who I would have liked to learn more about, a Catholic priest taking advantage of the relative freedoms offered to him as a member of the clergy. Jack Warner is the smooth-talking Max, Gordon Jackson as Jack, the quiet explosives expert, Paul Dupuis as Picquart, the Frenchman working with the Gestapo, Gisele Preville as Julie, precocious and curious, John Slater as Emile, a Frenchman torn between his duty and his family, Peter Illing as Andrew, the veteran agent with plenty of experience, and the always welcome James Robertson Justice as Ackerman, the station chief and commander.
If there’s an issue here, there are too many characters. Most of those mentioned above are more than capable of carrying movies on their own. My biggest criticism is that I would have liked to get to know more about them. Signoret is excellent as Michele, Jackson (later of The Great Escape fame as McDonald) is a quiet scene-stealer as the explosives expert, and Slater as Emile especially stand out. Justice too almost feels like he’s auditioning for his similarly scene-stealing part 14 years later in The Guns of Navarone. Too many interesting characters isn’t a bad thing, just a relative criticism.
The movie really hits its groove in its second half – 96-minute running time – as our agents parachute into Belgium with a variety of missions. Parts of the missions early on almost feel rushed (studio cuts?) until 2 aspects of the mission are revealed. One, there’s a traitor in the group. But who? Two, one agent is captured before he could swallow his suicide capsule and needs to be rescued. Naturally, he’s in a heavily guarded Gestapo prison. The rescue is underplayed and subtle but highly dramatic, incredibly atmospheric and the Belgian locations – filmed in black and white – are stunning to see. Never overdone, the action sequences are quick and harsh, realistic and straightforward. An excellent ending, and an especially strong last 45 minutes.
Also worth mentioning, intended or not. The influences movies like ‘Wind’ had our obvious, in characters, storytelling techniques, twists and turns and plenty of genre conventions. Films like The Train, Army of Shadows, Operation Crossbow and many more all have touches of this underrated British war film released in 1948. As well, Beatty would later play a key role in the espionage-fueled Where Eagles Dare as General Carnaby in 1967. Well worth seeking out.
Against the Wind (1948): ***/****