I have seen this film many times on a sunday afternoon when they used to play them in the 60s and 70s. I am so happy to finally own it on DVD.
The acting was superb with everything so subtle and understated, which used to be so British. I loved the touching poetry which seemed to be the only acceptable way to express deep sadness, eloquently. The American service men seemed so modern in their positive go get 'em attitude. The difference in culture was palpable. I suppose since then the Brits have become more American. The wartime fears about getting too involved emotionally were sensitively portrayed by John Mills, always a fine actor. The classic moaning harridan, who started every complaint with "Now you know I never complain, but ..." was a nice cultural reference of how people were supposed to behave and that they had to excuse themselves if they did not.
Not only was this film interesting on an entertainment level with a good story and subtle characterization but also from an historical point of view, particularly from the ever-so-fashionable social historical side.
I think it's important to note that this was originally a 1942 play, Flare Path, by Terence Rattigan.
Although this version is very fine and contains several excellent performances, the stage play is much tauter, concentrated and emotive. Still, unless and until you get the chance to see a production, this movie will do very well...but read the play text as well!
In the County of Wiltshire where I live, there are a number of abandoned old World War two airfields. They are mostly overgrown now. Sometimes you may still find a rusty old nissan hut or a small crumbling stretch of exposed runway. They stand as mute testament to a time when our very shores were threatened by Nazi Germany and we were exposed to the depredations of the Luftwafe. Young men flew into battle from these airfields to protect our freedom. Many never returned. This film is all about them.
The title of the film "The Way to the Stars" is taken from the Latin motto of the RAF. The film was directed by Anthony Asquith and the screenplay was partly written by the great playwright Terence Rattigan, who was well qualified as he served as a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF during the war. It is largely based on his own experiences during that conflict. The film boasts a wonderful cast of great British actors.
The film is set largely around the fictional RAF station of Halfpenny field and the nearby village of Shepley. It is set between 1940 and 1944. John Mills plays a new young Pilot Officer just arrived at the base. He is greeted by a Flight Lieutenant played by Michael Redgrave. The more experienced Redgrave shows the inexperienced Mills the ropes. He is a quick learner and soon becomes the much respected pilot of a Bristol Blenheim. We then watch the characters lives unfold around the air base and the village. We see their loves and the human tragedy when some fail to return from their dangerous missions. We later see the Americans in their Flying Fortresses enter the fray in their ebullient and colourful manner.
Although there is very little in this film to excite the viewer who wants to see lots of action, this in no way lessens the strong impact of the film. The terrible risks and the stresses involved in those perilous missions are well conveyed through the simple human responses to tragic loss. This is told through the servicemen on the base, the villagers of Shepley and the loved ones. The acting is superb. Redgrave and Mills are perfectly cast as the typical RAF Officer of the period, although the handle bar moustaches were sadly lacking. Trevor Howard turns in a brief but effective performance as the young Squadron Leader. This was only his second film role and his first that was credited. Stanley Holloway gives a lovely comic performance as a local wag who props up the bar in the local, and Rosamund John provides a very pretty love interest for Redgrave. That great old British screen veteran Basil Radford provides wonderful support.
The film evokes a very realistic picture of the period, so my Mother tells me, and she should know. This gives it a freshness to this day. On watching the village scenes today it is a bit like looking through a glass darkly to glimpse a more innocent and contented era. All this despite the problems that beset our nation at that time. Those deserted airfields are now a place where phantoms come to brood and mourn. We should not forget the sacrifices that those many young men from the RAF and the USAAF made during our Country's desperate hour of need. This film is a fitting elegy to their memory. The film is worthy of the full restoration package, but until that time this will have to suffice. Highly recommended.