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In Which We Serve is a 1942 British patriotic war film directed by David Lean and Noël Coward. It was made during the Second World War with the assistance of the Ministry of Information (MOI).

The screenplay by Coward was inspired by the exploits of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was in command of the destroyer HMS Kellymarker when it was sunk during the Battle of Crete.

Coward composed the film's music as well as starring in the film as the ship's captain. The film also starred John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson and, in his first screen role, Richard Attenborough.

In Which We Serve received the full backing of the Ministry of Information which offered advice on what would made good propaganda and facilitated the release of military personnel. The film remains a classic example of wartime British cinema through its patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of the war.


The film opens with the narration: "This is the story of a ship" and the images of shipbuilding in a British dockyard. The action then move forward in time showing the ship, HMS Torrin, engaging German transports in a night-time engagement during the Battle of Crete in 1941. However when dawn breaks, the destroyer comes under aerial attack from German dive-bombers.

Eventually the little ship receives a critical hit following a low-level sortie. The crew's company abandon ship as it rapidly capsizes. Some of the men including officers and crew manage to find a life raft. From here, the story is told in flashback using the memories of the men in the sea. The first person to reveal their thoughts is Captain Kinross (Coward), who thinks back to the summer of 1939 when the Royal Naval destroyer HMS Torrin is being rushed into commission as the possibility of war becomes a near-certainty.

The ship's company spends a relatively quiet Christmas during the Phoney War. But by 1940, the Torrin is taking part in a naval battle off the coast of Norwaymarker. However during the action, a young terrified sailor (Attenborough) leaves his station, while another rating (Mills) returns to his gun after its crew is knocked unconscious by a torpedo that has struck the ship. With the ship damaged it is towed back to port, all the time being harried by fighter-bombers.

Back in harbour, Captain Kinross tells the assembled crew that 243 out of the 244 men aboard performed as he would expect, however one man didn't. But he tells everyone present they may be surprised to know that he let the man off with a caution as he feels as Captain he failed to make the young man understand his duty.

The film then returns to the present as the survivors watch the capsized Torrin finally sink. The story now shifts to the ratings and their families and loved ones at home through the memories of "Shorty" Blake (Mills). He remembers how he met his wife-to-be, Freda, on a train while on leave. It is also revealed, she is related to the Torrin's affable Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Miles). When the men return to sea, Freda moves in with CPO Hardy's wife and mother-in-law.

The Torrin participates in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, (portrayed in the film by the 5th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards). Meanwhile the nightly Blitz is taking its toll on British towns. Blake gets a letter from home to say that Freda has given birth to his son during a raid. However the letter goes onto tell him that Hardy's wife and her mother were killed in the same attack. Stoically he goes up to the Petty Officers Mess and tells Hardy the bad news.

The film then returns to the life raft as another German plane flies over raking the men aboard with machine gun fire. This time a few more men are killed and wounded. A British destroyer then appears and begins to rescue the men. Safely aboard, Captain Kinross talks to the survivors and collects addresses from the dying. He tells the young man who once left his post that he will write and tell the boy's parents that he did his duty; seriously injured the young man smiles and passes away peacefully.

From here, the story then run concurrently until the end of the film. Worried relatives receive telegrams informing them that their husbands are safe.

Captain Kinross and the 90-surviving members of the crew have been taken to Alexandriamarker in Egypt. Wearing a mixture of odd clothing and standing in a military depot, Captain Kinross tells them that although they lost their ship and many friends, who now lie together in 50 fathoms, he notes that these losses should inspire them to fight even harder in the battle to come. The ship's company is then told they are to be broken up and sent as replacements to other naval ships that have lost men.

In respect, Captain Kinross then shakes hands with all the ratings as they leave the depot. When the last man goes, the emotionally-tired captain turns to his remaining officers, silently acknowledges them and walks away.

An epilogue then concludes: bigger and stronger ships are being launched to avenge the Torrin; Britain is an island nation, with a proud, indefatigable people; Captain Kinross is now in command of a battleship. It fires its massive main guns against the enemy.



Shortly after his play Blithe Spirit opened in the West Endmarker in July 1941, Noël Coward was approached by Anthony Havelock-Allan, who was working with the production company Two Cities Films. Its founder, Filippo Del Giudice, was interested in making a propaganda film and wanted someone well known to write the screenplay.

Screenplay development

Coward agreed to work on the project as long as the subject was the Royal Navy and he was given complete control.

The 23 May sinking of the Kelly was still on Coward's mind, and he decided to use the ship's demise as the basis for his script. Mountbatten, aware that there was some public antipathy to his political ambitions, agreed to support the project as long as it did not closely follow his own experiences. In order to do research, Coward departed for the naval base in Plymouthmarker, where Michael Redgrave, with whom he was involved in a romantic relationship at the time, was stationed. He also visited the fleet at Scapa Flowmarker, where he cruised on the HMS Nigeria, and spent considerable time in Portsmouthmarker.

When Coward submitted his first draft, Havelock-Allan advised him the film would run between eight and nine hours if it was made as written. The original screenplay included lengthy scenes in Paris, China and West India, and Coward needed to trim his plot to the basics. He eliminated everything not related to the Torrin, started his story with the laying of the ship's keel in 1939 and ended it soon after it sinks off the coast of Crete.

Pre-production roles

Coward was determined to portray Captain Kinross in the film, despite the studio's concern that his public "dressing gown and cigarette-holder" persona might make it difficult for audiences to accept him in the role of a tough navy man. Havelock-Allan supported him, although he later called his performance "always interesting, if not quite convincing." Coward also needed to convince the censors that the sinking of the ship was a crucial scene and not the threat to public morale they perceived it to be.

Coward had experience directing plays, but he was a novice when it came to films, and he knew he needed to surround himself with professionals if the project was to succeed. He had seen and admired Ronald Neame's work, and he hired him as cinematographer and chief lighting technician. Knowing he could handle the direction of the actors but would be at a loss with the action scenes, he asked David Lean to supervise the filming of those. In Which We Serve proved to be the first of several films on which the two would collaborate.


Work began on 5 February 1942. Coward was happy to let production crew members take charge in their individual areas of expertise, while he concentrated on directing the actors and creating his own portrayal of Kinross. He soon became bored with the mechanics of filmmaking, and after six weeks he came to the studio only when scenes in which he appeared were being filmed. At one point he invited the royal family to the set, and newsreel footage of their visit proved to be good publicity for the film.

Coward was anxious that it succeed, not only because it was his first film project, but because he felt it was his contribution to the war effort, and he wanted it to be perceived as such by the public. The premiere was a gala event held as a benefit for several naval charities, and Coward was pleased to see a large presence of military personnel in attendance.


Interiors were filmed at the Denham Studios, in Denham, Buckinghamshire. The Kinross-family picnic scene, set during the Battle of Britain in 1940, was filmed on location on the Dunstable Downsmarker in Hertfordshiremarker.

Although the film makers took great care to conceal locations, some of the final scenes were shot at Plymouthmarker's naval dockyardmarker in Devonmarker and the naval station on the Isle of Portlandmarker. Likewise, although never mentioned, Smeaton's Towermarker on the seafront at Plymouth Hoemarker, was used for the honeymoon of "Shorty" Blake (Mills) and his wife Freda (Kay Walsh).

Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times observed, "There have been other pictures which have vividly and movingly conveyed in terms of human emotion the cruel realities of this present war. None has yet done it so sharply and so truly as In Which We Serve.... For the great thing which Mr. Coward has accomplished in this film is a full and complete expression of national fortitude.... Yes, this is truly a picture in which the British may take a wholesome pride and we may regard as an excellent expression of British strength."

Variety called the film "a grim tale sincerely picturized and splendidly acted throughout" and added, "Only one important factor calls for criticism. It is that all the details are too prolonged. The author-producer-scriptwriter-composer and co-director gives a fine performance as the captain of the vessel, but acting honors also go to the entire company. Stark realism is the keynote of the writing and depiction, with no glossing of the sacrifices constantly being made by the sailors."

Awards and nominations

On Christmas Eve 1942 in New Yorkmarker, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures honoured the film as the Best English Language Film of the Year citing Bernard Miles and John Mills for their performances.

The film was nominated in the 1943 Academy Award's for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (losing out to Casablanca and Princess O'Rourke respectively). However Coward was presented with an Academy Honorary Award for "his outstanding production achievement."

In Which We Serve also won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film and the Argentine Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Film in 1943.

DVD releases

A Region 2 DVD with a running time of only 96 minutes was released by Carlton on 11 October 1999. A Region 1 DVD was released as part of the David Lean Collection by MGM on 7 September 2004. It features subtitles in English, Spanish and French and an English audio track in Dolby Digital 1.0.


  1. Hoare, Philip, Noël Coward: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 1995. ISBN 0-684-80937-0, p. 322
  2. Hoare, pp. 323-24
  3. Hoare, pp. 324-25
  4. Hoare, pp. 325-26
  5. Hoare, p. 323
  6. Hoare, p. 326-31
  7. New York Times review
  8. Variety review

Additional reading

  • Vermilye, Jerry, The Great British Films. Citadel Press 1978. ISBN 0-806-50661-X

External links

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