Classic Film Review: Niven, Ustinov, Trevor and Stanley in Carol Reed’s “The Way Ahead”

“The Third Man” is widely acknowledged as British director Carol Reed’s breakthrough film, even if his breakout title — the one that ensured his employability as a filmmaker –came much earlier.

But film scholars and cinema buffs, poking around his earlier works, often run up against just what was transformed in his eye, ear and style by that Vienna masterpiece. Was it the influence of Orson Welles on the set as star, perhaps even co-directing his own scenes or making blocking and lighting suggestions?

As that would tend to take something away from the future director of an epic (“The Agony and the Ecstasy”), a lovely period-perfect musical (“Oliver!”), and a grand Graham Greene spy dramedy (“Our Man in Havana”), the “Welles Influence” theory is often dismissed.

After all, Reed skillfully adapted Greene’s “The Fallen Idol” just the year before “Third Man.”

But poking around 15 years of his earlier films can be frustrating if you’re looking for an emerging style, an eye and ear that made “The Third Man” his undebatable masterpiece.

“The Way Ahead” is a pretty good case in point. It’s a classic WWII “unit” film, a story of men plucked from civilian life, trained, shipped out and finally tested in combat. Hollywood made so many of these — and Clint Eastwood and others have revived the genre more recently (“Heartbreak Ridge”) — that the best you can say for this one is that it’s from a British point of view and the humor is more droll than rowdy.

There are two action sequences, handled with great skill — the ship that Lord Glendon’s Light Infantry Regiment are on is torpedoed, and the company pitches in to try and save it, and a taste of combat in Algeria.

But otherwise, this is strictly formula, colorful in only the generic sense and most interesting for the future stars tucked away in its large cast.

Based on a story by pulp action novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler (“Journey Into Fear,” “Topkapi”), with on-set rewrites (he’s credited as co-screenwriter) Peter Ustinov, “Forward” is most unusual in its efforts to lay out the pre-Army lives of its soldiers and its pointed late-war (released in the UK in 1944) self-awareness.

Most of these would-be soldiers are late “call-ups,” men expecting deferments due to their age, their delusions about their “value” in their current jobs. Pretty much to a one, they are reluctant draftees.

The funniest is played by music hall legend Stanley Holloway, most famous as Eliza Doolittle’s street bum dad in “My Fair Lady,” singing “Get Me to the Church On Time.” He plays a boiler operator/stoker at Parliament. That makes him a Cockney expert on British government. Brewer has heard the speeches, is sanguine about the coming war when we meet him (in 1939), and judges Members of Parliament by how long their speeches keep him past his suppertime.

“Only one good man ever got into Parliament.”

“Oh really? Who?”

“Bleedin’ Guy Fawkes!”

Before he’s the Dunkirk-survivor turned lieutenant in charge, David Niven‘s Perry runs a service station catering to the roadster classes.

There’s a travel agent, a mid level manager and his flunky at a garden supply company, and so on.

They meet on the train, muster in Crewe, and are put through their paces by a not-that-unreasonable Sgt (William Hartnell), an encouraging, buttoned-down character far-removed from the stereotypical insulting Drill Instructor Sgt. of American prepping-for-combat movies. (See “Full Metal Jacket” for the most infamous of these).

I like the framing device, a couple of old age pensioners — veterans of the Boer War or earlier from the looks of them — griping about their old regiment, “The Dogs,” going to the dogs because of the declining state of British manhood and toughness. They wear their colors, meet in a London square and complain about the Army, the government, the works. They’ll have to be won over by film’s end.

Other than that, “The Way Forward” is best appreciated for the future stars tucked into it. Trevor Howard was a couple of films away from his “Brief Encounter” breakthrough. Reed set the tone for the rest of Howard’s career with his non-nonsense British occupation officer turn in “The Third Man.” He turns up as an officer on the torpedoed transport, here.

James Donald, playing a private quickly promoted to corporal, is best known for a few war films such as “The Great Escape,” most famously as the humanist doctor in “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Future big screen Poirot, epicurean and talk show raconteur extraordinaire Peter Ustinov plays a cafe owner in Algeria who grouses (in French) about the soldiers coming to his place until they introduce him to that British pastime, darts.

There’s Leo Genn (“Moby Dick,” many other films) as the unit’s commanding officer, John Laurie and many a familiar face to any fan of British cinema of the ’50s and ’60s.

So even if the plot is pro forma and the “types” a tad over-familiar, “The Way Forward” has its rewards. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing if you plan on having that “Orson Welles MADE Carol Reed” argument any time soon.

Rating: “U”

Cast: David Niven, Stanley Holloway, James Donald, John Laurie, Leo Genn, with Trevor Howard and Peter Ustinov.

Credits: Directed by Carol Reed, script by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov. A Two Cities/Eagle-Lion release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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