CRUMBLIES…4 crumblies

A snifter of a Robert Donat performance, this. It’s 1943 again – and for real – and his run of war propaganda films tips into recruitment in a 40 minute short that he’s barely in…and which got remade as The Way Ahead a year later. The latter is rather more considered, a thing of pride, but with no Donat to give it a quality moment of comedy class. For here he pops up at the end, in a film within the film, playing movie heroics that draw the ironic commentary of The New Lot.

The New Lot 2018-06-13 21.14.27But long before Donat’s rather glorious moment come character studies from the great and the good of the British isles – all inconvenienced, angry, scared or simply surprised to be called up and on their way to basic training. The film, directed by Carol Reed, starts in the now, with John Laurie and friend looking at a post training photo of five recruits. The screen blurs and we meet them meeting one another on the train to camp…

Laurie is the doughty Harry Fyfe, Bernard Miles the stoic Ted Loman, Raymond Huntley the posh and startled Bernie Barrington, Phil Godfrey is Art Wallace and – co-writing and doing gentle and young – Peter Ustinov is Keith Bracken. They’re a lovely cast, all affronted in some way by the disruption to their lives. The jobs range from brick-laying to white-collar certainties, but the cast reach out to their audience of 1943’s likely recruits with a nervous warmth: for they are doing the right thing.

The next forty minutes are filled with the basics of getting to know one another, helping when the need is there, bonding, and gliding through montages of marching, polishing and gun control. They’re in the Army now…

Miles gabbles half-truths about how to survive in the Services. Laurie – gloriously on a path to Dad’s Army – gives wiry confidence and unexpected courtesy to everyone he meets. For these days are great levellers – from youth to middle-age, Huntley touching on the pains of the latter, all have to work together to do their bit…

Ustinov is easily the most affecting, albeit with a touch of ambiguity. As the boys line up on the floor of the firing range, guns in hand and observers inches away, Ustinov’s Keith freezes when it comes to shooting. Old Jack’s modern eye half expected him to say “I don’t want to kill…”, but 1943 is not the time for this. He lacks confidence in running the gun, breech block and reloading, so his new friends share their know-how until he is good to fire with a steady hand.

So they become a unit. The terrific Geoffrey Keen is the shouty Corporal who bullies and blows hard until they are ready for war. And, of course, he says he’d happily serve alongside them as they part. Well, well, Mr Bond.

The New Lot 2018-06-13 21.15.15At which point they head to the movies. Robert Donat is on-screen, on a battlefield, a bandage on his head, clipped tones in his mouth and a gun in hand. His comrade in arms is telling him how proud his father would have been (having just told him who his Dad is…). It’s a funny moment, Donat playing the getting-it-all-wrong actor-as-soldier, running into the firing line and lobbing a grenade at the bad guys…only to take one in the chest. He’s great fun – his work here a wink to the audience and a reflection of how far our heroes have come. Many of our new soldiers, six weeks in and heading to the battlefield, must have looked at such performances and tutted while they smiled.  They were trained; they knew best.

Now, there are no credits in the film – beyond the sonorous introduction from the Army Kinematograph Service: “supervised by an Officer appointed by the General Staff. Produced for the Directorate of Army Kinematography. Approved January 1943. AKS Production”. Donat is listed elsewhere as Soldier, but Laurie gets to tell his comrades this actor will be in town soon, promoting The Young Mr Pitt (1942). So…more knowing glances for the audience at the propaganda to come…

And that’s that. The New Lot is a smart, efficient, does-its-job film designed to get men to the recruitment offices. It accepts the fallibility, fears and obsessions of its characters, twice underlining its points with a justifiably mid-war heavy hand: first on the train as a Czech soldier (Albert Lieven) dispassionately talks of separation and the loss of his family, and then at the close as the recruits ponder on their weeks together, their bonds, and our invincibility when we stand together.