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The Way Ahead
cast: David Niven, Stanley Holloway, William Hartnell, John Laurie, and Hugh Burden

director: Carol Reed

115 minutes (U) 1944
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail
[released 17 May]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
Watching The Way Ahead, it becomes obvious where Jimmy Perry and David Croft got the idea for Dad's Army. Not only did its 'You have been watching' end credits parody the final moments of the film, but its elderly cast included one of its stars, John Laurie of "We're all doomed!" fame. In this he plays a farm labourer, one of a cross section of British society who are forced to drop everything and abandoned their normal lives to answer the call up on the eve of World War Two. As in Perry and Croft's situation comedy, there are references to the class tensions of the day, with people from various walks of life thrown together as private conscripts in this rough melting pot.
   This is emphasised, when a store manager and his subordinate find themselves sharing a train carriage to the training camp, before being joined by the boiler engineer, who works under the House of Commons and believes that the only good man to have got into parliament was "bleedin' Guy Fawkes." However these disparate individuals are destined not for the Home Guard, but the regular army. So the stakes are higher, and they face the prospective of being knocked into shape by Sergeant Fletcher (William Hartnell). Watching Hartnell in The Way Ahead, it is hard to imagine him as the doddery old time traveller in the early days of Doctor Who, but it is easy to forget that his previous stock-in-trade was hard-bitten military types and gangsters. Playing good cop to Fletcher's bad cop is David Niven as the officer in command.
   The Way Ahead is fun to watch while these raw recruits are a grumbling, near-mutinous rabble. But by the second half they have been licked into shape and their insubordinate tendencies ironed out, by way of such subplots as Hugh Burden's withdrawn shop assistant being granted 48 hours leave to save his wife from the bailiffs, the consequence of a hire purchase plan that has gone into arrears since his conscription. While this little interlude serves to underline the chaos people's lives were thrown into by the call-up, the second half of the film has a smug edge, unless you buy the myth of wartime British social cohesion wholesale. Of course some of the greatest British films of the period had a strong propaganda element by virtue of necessity, but films like Powell and Pressburger's A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) made a better job of concealing it than this, by disguising its call for Anglo-American unity as a romantic comic fantasy. However though The Way Ahead may disappoint devotees of Carol Reed's better-known works, such as The Third Man, Outcast Of The Isles and Odd Man Out, it does provide a revealing and entertaining commentary on little known aspects of this social phenomenon. The DVD comes with chapters and subtitles, only.

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