The Way to the Stars – Propaganda and Politics

The crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
The Way to the Stars (Dir. Anthony Asquith, 1945)

Amongst the films that caught and emblematised the mood of wartime Britain during the Second World War, a period in which a whole generation of young men lost their lives in active combat, The Way to the Stars (Dir. Anthony Asquith, 1945) is particularly memorable. This filmic message of Anglo-American co-operation during a time of conflict, situated at a Royal Air Force base, is especially relevant to contemporary events, given the failure of a week to pass without the tragic notification of the death of someone engaged in overseas military operations. Although released after the war was over, the film was intended for propaganda purposes in order to enhance Anglo-American relations. Under Asquith’s skilful direction The Way to the Stars subtly blends tragedy and humour to create a timeless film that is a moving portrayal of how people cope in an epoch of adversity and suffering, and it truly emphasises the scale of the sacrifices that ordinary people had and have to suffer in wartime.

The Way to the Stars was commissioned for production by the British government’s Ministry of Information. The film production company, Two Cities, approached Terence Rattigan to write the screenplay, which he based on his theatre production of 1942, Flare Path. Terence Rattigan, himself an air gunner, was released from RAF duties to write the script for The Way to the Stars, drawing from his own personal experience, and thereby accounting for the film’s distinct tone of authenticity. Produced by Anatole de Grunwald who, along with Terence Rattigan and Anthony Asquith, would later form a trio of cinematic talent; after the war years this partnership would helm many other successful collaborations.

The Way to the Stars is centred on life at an RAF aerodrome, told in the form of a flashback, and begins with the arrival of a new pilot for duty. Later in the film, the United States Air Force also arrives at the base to commence their bombing operations over enemy territory. A convincing performance is delivered by Michael Redgrave who takes over as Squadron Leader following the death of his Commanding Officer in action. Redgrave’s rendition of the popular contemporary poem by John Pudney, “For Johnny”, epitomises the reflective tone of the film. John Mills, an actor who seems ubiquitous within British war films of the period, appears as the new pilot who eventually finds romance and happiness amongst the chaos of quotidian wartime life.

When the United States Air Force arrive with their Flying Fortress aircraft to begin operations against the enemy from the airbase there is, however, initial confrontation and resentment between the two nationalities. This underlying opposition eventually merges into a true sense of comradeship as English and American aircraft are united in combat. Despite the grave situation, the plot has several humorous moments which are handled with Asquith’s typical light-hearted approach. One memorable scene occurs when the American servicemen try to teach the RAF pilots how to play baseball, bridging the gulf separating the two polarised camps through comedy and sport. Furthermore, one of the film’s central set pieces, the hotel bar of The Golden Lion, serves as a venue for merriment between the Americans and the English, and ultimately as a means to establish genuine cohesion and unity. Stanley Holloway, who was later to star in the Oscar-laden My Fair Lady, provides the mellow humour and rousing songs at the piano during these intimate and tender scenes away from the war. There is also a fine performance from the actor Douglass Montgomery who plays American pilot Johnny Hollis in what would later become an iconic cinematic representation of a USAAF serviceman.

In contrast to the early years of the war and the accompanying works of propaganda, Asquith’s film, instead of directly exhorting contemporary audiences to some moral or political tract, represented a new trend in the war films of the period. It prioritised and emphasised the relationships and personal feelings of the servicemen in wartime, and it become one of the first films to address the question of what quality of life would exist in the post-war world. An underlying theme of emotional restraint emerges throughout the film that can be attributed to the emphasis at the time of endurance above all else, regardless of the circumstances and suffering existing on all levels of society. Ultimately, however, the film is hugely entertaining and a brilliant testament to the collaboration of USAAF and RAF personnel against the encroaching threat of Nazi Germany. With the addition of its beautiful soundtrack by Nicholas Brodszky, the film was a critical and commercial success, and it remains a much-loved classic that is not merely a product of a particular era, but has managed to transcend generations.

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