Movie Countdown: 5 – 1

5 Trio (1950) 

In 1947 Sidney Box, at Gainsborough Studios (part of the Rank organisation) had approached Sherriff and asked him to write screenplays for a number of Somerset Maugham short stories. He originally thought they might make six of them, but settled instead on five, with the intention of bringing them together in a compilation film entitled Quintet. It soon became clear that there were too many stories for one film, so instead four were packaged together as Quartet, and one was left over.

The story left over was Sanatorium, about a man with TB who goes to a sanatorium in the Highlands where he observes the lives of the other patients in the strange setting:  two older men (played by John Laurie and Finlay Currie), long-term residents, who delight in making each other’s lives miserable, but still seem to do many things together; a patient (Mr Chester, played by Raymond Huntley) who is bitter and resentful, consumed by the unfairness of being ill, and who is upset by the monthly visits from his wife, whom he envies for her good health; and a young(ish) woman (played by Jean Simmons) who is pursued by a middle-aged Major with an eye for the ladies (Michael Rennie). In due course one of the old men dies, leaving the other bereft;  the young woman and the Major fall in love and leave the sanatorium to get married, despite being told by their doctor that their health will be adversely affected by the decision; and Chester, chastened by their willingness to sacrifice for their love, apologises to his wife for his unpleasantness to her.

Quartet was released in 1948, and was a big success, both critically and commercially. Box then packaged Sherriff’s Sanatorium with two other stories into the film Trio, which was released in August 1950. Sanatorium was easily the longest of the three films, with the other two being The Verger (adapted by Maugham himself, in which a verger who can neither read nor write is made redundant but goes on to be a big success in business); and Mr Know-It-All (adapted by Noel Langley, about an annoying passenger on an ocean liner who surprises his cabin mate by making a very chivalrous gesture to protect a lady’s reputation).

Trio was another success. The Guardian gave it a very positive write-up (‘almost as lucky a dip as [Quartet]’) arguing that the stories succeeded because the writers ‘have had the sense to leave well alone: it is not so much the stories which have been adapted to the screen as the screen which has humbly adapted itself to the role of plain reporter.’ When the movie opened in the USA two months later Bosley Crowther gave it an enthusiastic endorsement (‘Another delightful screen potpourri’), and noted that Sherriff’s adaptation was ‘considerably broader in its sweep’ than the other two stories. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he continued, ‘[it] was considered at one time…as the stuff for a full-length picture, and well it might have been. But told as it is in this instance, it is brilliantly concise and emotionally full.’ Of course, a lot of credit had to go to the actors, who were uniformly excellent (but especially Jean Simmons as the young woman who chooses love, whatever the cost to her health), and to Harold French’s ‘smooth, unobtrusive and precise direction, in which not a frame is wasted’. It is an excellent short film.


4: Quartet (1948)

In the autumn of 1947, Sidney Box of Gainsborough Pictures commissioned Sherriff to adapt 5 Somerset Maugham short stories for the screen, with the intention of putting them all together in one film, entitled Quintet. Five proved too many, however, and one (Sanatorium) was held over for a sequel movie (Trio, released in 1950 – see Movie Countdown No. 5). The other four were brought together into one film entitled Quartet.

The stories were as follows:

The Facts of Life⁠ (Directed by Ralph Smart): A young man (Nicky), bound for a tennis tournament in Monte Carlo, is warned by his father to avoid gambling, lending money, and women. But in visiting the casino he manages to break all of his father’s injunctions, and ends up sleeping with a woman he meets there. When she thinks he is sleeping she takes his winnings and puts them in a vase, not knowing he has seen what she is doing. Before he leaves, he empties the money from the vase, only to find, when he counts it later, that he now has much more than he had before.

The Alien Corn⁠ (Directed by Harold French): An English upper-class family is of Jewish extraction, but has concealed it over the years. Their oldest son (George) just sent down from Oxford, is dissatisfied at the prospect of the life of an English country gentleman, and, discovering his German-Jewish roots, goes to Munich to become a pianist. His family despair, but acquiesce, as long as he agrees that, if he does not display sufficient talent after two years study, he will take up the respectable life his father has chosen for him. In due course he returns home and plays for a famous pianist, who judges him no more than a gifted amateur. Asking to be alone, he wanders off to clean his gun, which discharges, killing him with a shot through the heart.

The Kite⁠ (Directed by Arthur Crabtree):  A young man (Herbert) who is a keen flyer of kites falls in love with, and marries, a girl (Betty) who has no interest in the sport. Eventually he and his wife separate over his unwillingness to give up his kite flying but he continues to give her a weekly allowance, until the day when she destroys his kite. In defiance of a court order he refuses to give her any more money, and is hauled off to jail for contempt of court, where he vows to stay, rather than pay up.

The Colonel’s Lady⁠ (Directed by Ken Annakin): Colonel George Peregrine, a staid, old-fashioned country gentleman, is surprised to find his wife has published a successful book of poems which, he is told, is ‘hot stuff’. Discovering that it tells the tale of an older woman who has a passionate affair with a young man, who later dies, he contemplates hiring an investigator to find the name of the young man. He is dissuaded, however, and reconciles himself to the idea of doing nothing about her past infidelity, realising he would be lost without his wife. But still, he says, he’ll never understand: ‘What in the name of heaven did the fellow ever see in her?’

In the final film the four stories were bookended by Maugham speaking from what appeared to be his house in the south of France, but was actually a very carefully constructed simulacrum at Gainsborough’s studios in London.

Sherriff faced quite a challenge in adapting the stories, which had very different viewpoints, and tones. The Facts of Life remained substantially unchanged, except for the fact that it was the story to which the censor took the greatest exception, because Nicky slept with the woman from the casino who tried to rob him. Two of the other stories (The Kite, and The Colonel’s Lady) were altered to provide rather happier endings than Maugham himself had offered.

The story that came in for the most criticism was The Alien Corn. Much of the focus of Maugham’s story was the attempt by a well-to-do English family to conceal their Jewish origins, and Sherriff’s adaptation omitted the racial element entirely. It is not clear whether the decision to exclude race came from Sherriff, or whether it was one which was agreed by all parties early on. But even without the racial dimension, the story was powerfully told, and very well acted, especially by Dirk Bogarde.

The expectations for the film were high, mainly because of the involvement of both Maugham and Sherriff.⁠ When it was released in November 1948 it was a big success with the public, doing well in the UK, and exceptionally well in the US – indeed, it ran for two years in one theatre in New York.⁠ The reviews, however, were more mixed – everyone seemed to have an opinion about this or that story which was corrupted by Sherriff’s adaptation. The most critical review was in the Glasgow Herald: ‘From at least two of [the stories] R C Sherriff has succeeded in utterly eradicating the point, a third has been bowdlerised…’.⁠ On the other hand, Sherriff must have been delighted to see that Bosley Crowther in the New York Times was still a fan:

‘Of course, there is no continuity among the quartet of tales, and the four have been separately directed for the production of Sidney Box. But the scripts of all four were written by R C Sherriff, who has maintained a general uniformity in the spirit and tempo of the over-all work, so that you’re likely to leave the theatre feeling that you’ve seen not only a large-sized entertainment, but a rounded, stimulating view of life.’⁠

He also heard from G B Stern that ‘[Maugham] spoke highly indeed of you and your job on Quartet when I saw him last night. That’s unusual for [him]!’⁠ He probably also enjoyed the fact that the film did well enough at the box office to generate not just one sequel in Trio in 1950, but also a further Maugham compendium in Encore⁠ in 1951.


3: Lady Hamilton, or That Hamilton Woman (1941)

In the spring of 1940 Alex Korda told Sherriff about a film he was planning, on Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Wartime restrictions in England meant that the film would have to be shot in Hollywood, and he wanted Sherriff to come along to write the script. At first Sherriff was unwilling to leave home, but Korda persuaded him by explaining that the government was keen to see good British pictures made and they had asked Korda for his help. Korda had managed to secure the Hollywood facilities, and the necessary financial backing, and had even secured the services of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (at that time married to each other in real life) as the two stars⁠.

Sherriff set out for Hollywood towards the end of May, undergoing a perilous Atlantic crossing (in the face of prowling U-Boats). After a few hiccups on the other side of the Ocean (see Flight Command,  Movie Countdown No. 25) , he finally began working for Korda on 12 August, teamed with Austrian-born writer Walter Reisch. They decided on a structure in which the tale is told by old Emma, after she has been thrown into debtors’ prison in Calais. Her narrative follows a chronological progression, touching the highlights of her life: her meetings with, and subsequent marriage to Britain’s Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton; her encounters with Nelson, his battles and woundings; their very public affair and ultimate decision to live together, in spite of their marriages to other spouses. Nelson, of course, is killed at Trafalgar, and afterwards Emma falls on hard times, which takes her to the debtors’ prison where the story began.

The broadly sequential narrative would have appealed to Sherriff – it is reminiscent of the way in which he and Jeanne De Casalis structured St Helena, while the narration of the tale by Emma herself has echoes of The Hopkins Manuscript. No doubt the writers reached for easy and familiar structures, because time was of the essence. Money was tight, and the plan was to produce the film as quickly as possible – so that Sherriff and Reisch only had about six weeks to produce the script before shooting began on 18 September.⁠

With such a tight schedule, it was important that the Production Code Administration be kept informed, and a week before production started a letter went off to Joe Breen containing what they had of the script so far (about 87 pages). In his reply⁠ Breen warned Korda to be careful: because this was basically a story about adultery, to be acceptable under the Production Code, it had to incorporate the ‘necessary compensating values’ – meaning that the adultery had to be established as wrong, and the adulterers had to be ‘punished’ in some way.

Over the next few weeks there was much coming and going between the producers and the PCA, with Breen continually unhappy with the script. Eventually he suggested that a scene be incorporated in which Nelson’s father (a Minister) breaks with his son on account of the adultery. Korda reluctantly acquiesced to the scene, but not to the precise dialogue which Breen had suggested.

Filming finished at the beginning of November,⁠ and the movie finally received its PCA certificate on 1 March 1941, with the  world premiere of That Hamilton Woman (with the less implicitly judgmental of Lady Hamilton in the UK release) taking place at the Four Star Theater in Hollywood on 19 March 1941. Given the timescale to which they had been working the film is something of a marvel: it is sumptuously produced, with superb sets and costumes (‘The production must have cost a fortune,’ wrote Louella Parsons)⁠1. Vivien Leigh is perfectly cast as the courtesan who cannot help following the great love of her life, and Olivier makes a marvellously heroic Nelson. The film was not intended solely as a love story, but as a paean to Britain’s historical past and her virtues as a nation with a long record in opposing tyrants. So there are action scenes⁠ playing up Nelson’s heroism, scenes of grandeur and pageantry in palaces and at Westminster, and there is a famous speech by Nelson in which he warns the men of the Admiralty that they should not try to make peace with a dictator:

‘Gentlemen…you will never make peace with Napoleon. He doesn’t mean peace today. He just wants to gain a little time to re-arm himself at sea and to make new alliances with Italy and Spain – all to one purpose. To destroy our Empire!…Napoleon can never be master of the world until he has smashed us up – and believe me gentlemen, he means to be master of the world. You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them. Wipe them out!’⁠

The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, while not impressed with the love story (‘Perhaps if it had all been condensed and contrived with less manifest awe, the effect would have been more exciting and the love story would have had more poignancy⁠,’) clearly grasped the film’s purpose, noting Nelson’s ‘timely opinions about dictators who would desire to invade England’, and that ‘coming at a moment such as this, it should stir any one’s interest.’

It is often suggested that Nelson’s speech came neither from the pen of Sherriff, nor of Reisch, but instead was offered to Korda by Churchill himself. It is certainly true that it has something of a Churchillian tone – but such mimicry would have come easily to two experienced screenwriters (and especially Sherriff, who had a wonderful ear for such things). Multiple sources agree that the movie was one of Churchill’s favourites, and that he saw it many times, also showing it to Roosevelt (at their Atlantic Conference) and later to Stalin as well.⁠ For his part, Sherriff simply noted in his autobiography (No Leading Lady) that ‘Churchill had a copy sent to him, and he saw it many times in his private projection room. If it gave him a few evenings of relaxation in those arduous days it well repaid its making.’⁠


2: The Dam Busters (1955)

Robert Clark, at Associated British pictures, first approached Sherriff about writing the Dam Busters movie in the early months of 1952. Before that there had been Paul Brickhill’s book (and radio play) on the subject, and a couple of draft screenplays from ABPC’s in-house screenwriters. A number of possible screenwriters were in the mix for the job, but Sherriff won out in the end.

According to the diary of Bill Whittaker’s, production supervisor for the movie, Sherriff attended an initial script meeting on 7 March, with Clark ‘presiding’, in which he outlined his ideas for the treatment of the story. He then visited Barnes Wallis at his home in Effingham (close to where Sherriff lived in Esher), both on his own and with other ABPC executives, and sometime in late spring he presents the company with a twenty-three page treatment which departed from the approach the previous screenwriters had adopted, and returned to a format closer to Brickhill’s own – introducing first Barnes Wallis, and his struggles to have the bomb agreed and made; and then introducing Guy Gibson at the point of the formation of the Squadron.

Whittaker records that the ‘Final complete script’ was delivered on 15 July, and that, at meetings held from 12-14 August a cast of characters from ABPC (including Clark, Gotfurt, Whittaker and Mycroft and Brickhill) read it through and discussed it: ‘The script met with universal approval, but suggestions and discussion took place on a large number of points of detail.’⁠ Although the original script is no longer to be found, a subsequent version, dated 24 October, can be examined in Sherriff’s papers.⁠  Inevitably, a number of changes had been made, mainly to streamline the storytelling, but the overall impression was that the script largely stuck to Sherriff’s original vision.

It contains a few sightings of Sherriff’s trademark humour. One of the better ones is when Wallis is asking for a Wellington bomber for his trials, and the civil servant asks him what argument he can advance to secure the use of one, and Wallis replies, ‘If you tell them I invented it…don’t you think that might help?’ Another joke that survived the script process is the one where Wallis (after the final successful test at Reculver) credits the idea of the bouncing bomb to Nelson, who,at the Battle of the Nile, ‘dismissed the French flagship with a yorker.’⁠ The irate chicken farmer writing to complain about low flying is another obvious Sherriff touch (only he would have thought to make it chickens, rather than any other farm animal).

But there is not much use for humour in the script as a whole, for the overall tone is serious and restrained (in fact Laurence Thompson, in the News Chronicle described it as ‘a little reverent, an Albert memorial rather than a transcription of life’)⁠. It was almost bound to be so, given how recently the raid had taken place, and the presence of so many survivors. But probably no one did restraint better than Sherriff. He had shown as much in Journey’s End: in the scene where Trotter hears about the raid, for example, he remarks ‘What a damn nuisance!’, to which Osborne replies, phlegmatically, ‘It is, rather’.⁠ The echo can be clearly heard some twenty-five years later, in Wallis and Gibson’s exchange after the second unsuccessful test at Reculver: Gibson: ‘It’s the devil, isn’t it?’; Wallis: ‘Yes. It is rather.’

There is also a resonant echo from Sherriff’s past in the final scene between Gibson and Wallis. Wallis is upset at the loss of 56 men and tells Gibson that ‘If I’d known it would be like this, I would never have started it’, to which Gibson replies:

‘You mustn’t think that way. If all these fellows had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back, they’d  have gone for it just the same. There isn’t a single one would have dropped out. I know them all and I know that’s the truth.’

Gibson’s sentiment is very similar to what Sherriff had written to his father from the trenches in 1917:

‘It is no good dwelling on the awfulness of it all, for you know it only too well – the men who go up for a tour of duty in the trenches go up absolutely resigned…they go because they must – and although they are always cheerful they go with that thought that, although there is every possibility of them coming back safely, someone isn’t.’⁠

The final scenes in the script are delicate and sombre, and deeply touching. We watch the pilots as they prepare in their rooms before the raid. Afterwards we see the same rooms, now largely empty, as the announcement of the raid comes over the wireless. The heroism of the men is reinforced by the exchange between Wallis and Gibson, and is brilliantly underscored in Gibson’s last line: when Wallis asks: ‘Aren’t you going to turn in?’, he replies, ‘I’ve got to write some letters first.’ That line, and the salute which he shortly thereafter returns to a young airman, perfectly symbolises Gibson’s code of duty and takes us straight back to the ‘uncomplaining’ duty that Sherriff first described in the trenches in France.

The film premiered at The Empire in Leicester Square in May 1955, in the presence of Princess Margaret, and massed ranks of luminaries from the movie world and the RAF, as well as the survivors of the original raid, and next of kin of those who had been shot down. A thick commemorative programme commemorated the fallen, celebrated the skill and courage of the men who had been involved in the operation, and set out in detail the process by which they had been immortalised on screen.⁠

The film was directed by Michael Anderson, who was relatively inexperienced, having only half a dozen films to his credit, but for whom this film would establish his reputation. Richard Todd was, of course, a compelling Gibson, (prompting a congratulatory letter from Gibson’s father,⁠ which was included in the commemorative programme), and Michael Redgrave played Barnes Wallis to perfection. The rest of the cast were the sort of reliable senior officer types familiar from so many other recent British war movies, but with a sprinkling of new faces among the young aircrew, including Robert Shaw (as Gibson’s engineer) and George Baker as Maltby. (Patrick McGoohan also popped up in a brief uncredited role).

The press could not have been more positive, both about the film and its script. The best of the notices was probably in The Guardian which wrote that the film exhibited the virtues of typical British war films, noting that ‘the difference this time is that they are to be found, so unalloyed, in such a long film.’ It continues: ‘R.C. Sherriff wrote the script, thus (incidentally) achieving the distinction of having found the right dramatic dialogue for the men of 1939-45 as well as those of 1914-18. Many critics commended Sherriff’s script in fulsome tones, but Dilys Powell, the doyenne of British film critics then, and for many years after, was the only critic to comment on the genius of Sherriff’s ending, the ‘hush’ as she called it, of an ‘ending which leaves mourning to the imagination…The very last sentence leaves grief hanging in mid-air, and there is no neat securing of the emotions with tears or triumph’.⁠ It is, indeed, a very powerful ending, one which Sherriff had crafted from the beginning, and she was right to highlight it.


1: The Four Feathers (1939)

On 1 April 1938 started work on his new contract with London Films – and what followed was one of his happiest times working on a movie:

‘It was the perfect way for a screenwriter to work: in the midst of things from the day the picture began. The studio was only a few miles from my home. I could spend the day there, and at night I could sit down and re-write or rearrange scenes in my library.’⁠

The film was The Four Feathers, an adaptation of a novel by A E W Mason, which had already been filmed three times before. He began writing the script immediately he was employed by London Films and by mid June had produced a first draft of the entire film.⁠ Thereafter he worked very closely with the Director (Zoltan Korda, or ‘Zolly’ as he was generally known) on the scenes as they were shot.

The basic premise of both novel and film is similar: a young army officer, resigning upon hearing that his Regiment is shipping out to the Sudan is presented with four white feathers for his ‘cowardice’ – three from fellow officers, and one from his fiancee (called Ethne in the book, and in the film, but – curiously – renamed Daphne in Sherriff’s script⁠). He then travels out to the Sudan to perform various feats of bravery in assisting his brother officers, thus redeeming him in their eyes, and allowing him to return their feathers – and Ethne’s. Within this overarching premise, however, Sherriff takes considerable liberties with Mason’s story.

The most obvious (if trivial), is changing the hero’s name from Feversham to Faversham (perhaps for ease of pronunciation), but there are more significant alterations, in particular when he brings forward the action by fifteen years, so that it focuses on Kitchener’s expedition to the Sudan, ending with the thrilling British victory at Omdurman in 1898 – a victory which does not appear in the book. The other main changes are, in Sherriff’s usual manner, the stripping away of sub plots, and two in particular: one relating to Ethne’s family background; and a love triangle between Ethne, Durrance and a third character, Mrs Adair, which, in truth, added nothing even to the book.

The character of Ethne is significantly changed in the film: as the reviewer in the Manchester Guardian put it: ‘…I had wondered what the film would do about Ethne, who, in her small way, is about the nastiest of all minor fiction’s heroines. In Mr Sherriff’s hands she became positively pleasant – and with no apparent difficulty at all’⁠. But changing Ethne’s character gave Sherriff a problem, because while Harry’s motivation for leaving the Regiment is the same in both cases (fear that he may prove to be a coward), this impulse is strengthened in the book by the shame that Ethne would feel being married to a coward: were he not betrothed to her he would take his chances. The force of that particular impulse is much muted in the movie, meaning that Ethne’s acceptance of her white feather has to be delivered in a different way.

In the event, it is done with humour, which was quite a feature of the film in general, and was quite risky in a film celebrating imperial victory, in so far as it subverts the very soldiers who had once been fighting for Queen and country themselves. The particular focus of the humour is General Burroughs, who is Ethne’s father in the movie (and completely invented by Sherriff⁠) and perfectly played by C Aubrey Smith, the go-to actor for pompous military men (whom Sherriff knew from the Hollywood Cricket Club and One More River). Much of the pin-pricking satire came not from Sherriff’s pen, but from that of Arthur Wimperis⁠ (credited, along with Biro, for ‘additional dialogue’ in the movie), although in part at Sherriff’s direction.⁠

Ralph Richardson as Durrance

The English scenes of the film were largely filmed during the summer months, and then it was time to sit down with Zolly and work through a rough cut of the film, so that he could revise the script and do everything necessary to it before Director and crew left for Egypt to film the big desert and battle sequences: a letter on 5 October recapped everything that had been done on the script thus far.

In Egypt the filmmakers were assisted by the First battalion of Sherriff’s old Regiment – the East Surreys – who went to a great deal of trouble establishing a separate camp in the desert, at Sabaluka Gorge, some fifty miles from Khartoum, whence came the supplies needed for a filming party of 45, over 200 soldiers, and perhaps 2000 Sudanese natives. Water, at least, could come from the Nile, just three miles away. To help the filmmakers (and prevent soldiers having to spend a long time in make-up each morning), the soldiers were encouraged by their regiment to take part in a moustache growing competition (‘not of the “Charlie Chaplin” type, but long and flowing ones as favoured by our Grandfathers…’⁠), with prizes awarded to the top three competitors (£1 for the winner). A number of soldiers had close-ups in the film, with one or two even having speaking roles. The camp lasted for the best part of a month, before most of the the filmmakers (and their 160 packing cases) returned home in time for Christmas.⁠

When the Editors began their work after Christmas, Sherriff was encouraged to continue his involvement in the film – viewing a cut of the whole movie and offering his thoughts to Zolly’s assistant, Eileen Corbett. This was a considerable departure for him: he had never before enjoyed so much access to a film in the production stages, nor had his views been sought by Directors and Producers to anything like the same extent, which may be another reason why he would later recall his time working on the film with such fondness.

The Four Feathers had its preview on 17 April, at the Odeon in Leicester Square, and Sherriff attended with a party of friends. The reviews were glowing: ‘…Another triumph for the Korda studio…’, trumpeted the News Chronicle⁠, and the other papers almost unanimously agreed (though not the Times critic who dismissed it rather sniffily)⁠. The credit was spread around widely: the Kordas were praised for their production, design and direction; the acting was first rate (especially Ralph Richardson as Durrance, John Clements as Faversham and the newcomer June Duprez as Ethne); the cinematography outstanding (especially in the Sudan): ‘The Four Feathers lives because it gives you the feel of a cracked, parched, blistering-hot Sudan in wartime.’⁠ Unusually, however, there was also praise for the screenplay (which is generally overlooked): ‘It cannot fail to be one of the best pictures of the year,’ wrote The Spectator, and ‘…it is impossible to divide the credit between Mr Zoltan Korda, the Director, who has wiped out the disgrace of Sanders of the River, and Mr R C Sherriff, author of the film play. They seem to have perfectly fulfilled each other’s intentions…’⁠. There was even more in the Guardian, which is worth quoting at length (certainly Sherriff would think so):

‘What calls for most praise in this film is not the acting or the directing but the contribution of that often overlooked individual the scenario writer. R C Sherriff had taken great liberties with A E W Mason’s well-known, schoolboyish, but rather mistily elusive novel. One of the effects, of course, was to admit the Battle of Omdurman in a big way, but altogether the story had been so stiffened as to give far more drama to the vindication of Harry Feversham’s honour and so rationalised that all these sons and daughters of regiments seemed a lot less like Mason’s Jingoist prigs.’⁠