Movie Countdown: 25 – 21

25: Flight Command (1940)

Sherriff left England (with his mother) in May 1940, en route to Hollywood, where he had a contract to work with Alex Korda on a big budget movie about the relationship between Nelson and Lady Hamilton (see later in the Movie Countdown). Korda was not available to start work on the film when Sherriff arrived, so he signed a contract with MGM, at a rate of $1,000 per week, although with the proviso in his contract that, as soon as the call came in from Korda, he could answer it.

His first job was on the screenplay of Flight Command, which was based on a story by ex-Navy Commander Harvey Haislip (with whom he became friends, later working together on Stand By For Action – see Movie Countdown No.30). The story was that of a hot-shot young Navy pilot joining an elite group in training, upsetting them initially with his penchant for stunts, but ultimately redeeming himself with his bravery. The story had been optioned by MGM in 1939, and a script was not only in place, but had already been through the PCA (the censors), which had the usual sort of quibbles (particularly – and exhaustively – about the pilots’ drinking). The young pilot was played by Robert Taylor (whom Sherriff would have known from A Yank at Oxford, and who would appear in Stand By For Action), and the other big name in the cast was Walter Pidgeon (later to appear in Mrs Miniver).

The film was directed by Frank Borzage (director of The Three Comrades, for which Sherriff had written an initial script in 1937 – see later in the Movie Countdown), and was described by his biographer as a standard ‘action flick’ (which it is), transformed by its aerial photography (which is, indeed, very good – as can be seen a little in the trailer).

Sherriff received no screen credit for his work, but this was unlikely to have troubled him. It was Korda’s film which brought him over, and that quickly became his primary focus.


24: Gold in the Sky (1958)

Betty Box and Ralph Thomas at Rank had clearly liked Sherriff’s work for them on Requiem for a Wren (Movie Countdown No. 49), because fairly soon after he had delivered the script he was signed by them to adapt another Max Catto story. Published in 1956, Gold in the Sky, describes the attempt by a Professor, his daughter and a mining engineer, to salvage the eponymous airliner from a swamp in the Congo, and float it down river to Tanganyika.

Sherriff found the story:

‘original and exciting, and full of opportunity. The whole enterprise of salvaging the aircraft from the swamp, and the sequence of events upon the river, right through to the final achievement, makes an odyssey that could scarcely be bettered for the screen.’⁠

But the book’s characters (and there were only three significant ones) were unbelievable, and no decent reason was given why they were in the jungle in the first place, nor why they would embark on such a massive enterprise. To compound matters, their constant bickering (especially between the daughter and the mining engineer) was tedious. But Sherriff set out a rather ingenious solution, which was to keep the basic story of the aircraft being floated downriver, but to widen the cast of characters by making several passengers in the aeroplane part of an archaeological expedition to find a lost city in the jungle. By this means he could populate the film with a number of quite different individuals, each with a particular talent which would be important in the enterprise. He also added a wealthy American passenger, keen to take up with the expedition when he hears about it, who could then provide them with the money to fund their enterprise. His initial plan also stressed the importance of varying the perils and hazards they meet along the river, to increase the tension among the members of the expedition: ‘The interplay of the various characters would provide the light and shade to the story. Divided counsels may bring them near disaster and add to the natural difficulties of the enterprise.’

The final script of Gold in the Sky, dated June 1958, would have made an excellent adventure movie, had it ever been filmed. But it was another which disappeared onto the film company’s shelf, never to make it into production. When, at the end of 1957, the film had first been announced as part of the Pinewood slate for 1958, it was noted that ‘there is a large schedule, out of which twenty films will finally be set for …production’.⁠ Since it would probably have been one of the most expensive Rank might simply have felt it prudennt prudent to direct resources elsewhere.


23: The Conqueror (1958)

Producer David Henley approached Sherriff towards the end of 1957, on behalf of British Lions films, asking if he would be interested in writing a screenplay on the life of William the Conqueror. Always fascinated by history, Sherrif jumped at the chance, spending six weeks at the end of the year preparing a treatment. He warned Henley that the treatment would be ‘much fuller than the usual prose document’, because he as intending to include full scenes as an indication of how he would write the whole thing.⁠ After they reviewed it, Henley told Sherriff that the company were very happy, although they hoped that ‘the historical aspect will be the background and the people will dominate the scenes.’⁠ This, of course, was a concern familiar to Sherriff from some of his previous movies (and would be again with Dark Angel a year later see Movie Countdown No.36), but he reassured Henley that he would write the ‘whole story in terms of human endeavour’, although he was worried that ‘some people may exert pressure upon you, and upon me, to cut down everything of the historical background to make room for flirtations of unimportant characters.’⁠

After further discussion, Sherriff eventually started work on the screenplay on 1 May, and during the following months, drawing on a number of sources (including Georgette Heyer’s wonderful historical novel), he produced a script⁠ which is lively and engaging, with a number of highly cinematic scenes hung around a fairly straightforward account of William’s life. It begins when his father has to secure the services of a tanner’s daughter to provide him with a bastard heir, moving through the many revolts he faced initially (in part because of his lack of royal blood), his subsequent mastery of Normandy, and finally his invasion of England. It is altogether too respectful of its principal characters (who are generally portrayed as thoughtful and considerate, although William is given the odd display of temper), and the narrative is linear and largely unabsorbing (we know from the outset that it will end with William’s victory at Hastings). Nevertheless, there are some very well executed scenes: his brutality at Alençon, for example, when he cut off, and then catapulted into the town, the hands and feet of those who had tried to resist him; his destruction of the army of the French king’s brother by the use of massed archers; his whipping of Matilda of Flanders, the woman he had intended for his wife; and the preparations for the invasion of England and its subsequent successful resolution. In this latter respect Sherriff was quite clearly ahead of his time: his script provides quite detailed accounts of the mundane details attached to preparations for battle or invasion, and he exhibits a relish in his knowledge of the detail of mediaeval warfare and provisioning. Historical detail clearly always fascinated him, and would be put to good use, years later, in a children’s book about a mediaeval siege (The Siege of Swayne Castle).

Passing the script to the producers he waited to see what would become of it. There were some comings and goings with Hollywood, and some press interest early in 1959, when the main producer for British Lion, Steven Pallos, announced that they were seeking American partners: ‘We had to get an American company interested because of the high cost. If it were only £500,000 we could do it easily on our own, but it will cost one and a half million. R C Sherriff has written a wonderful script’.⁠ And Henley told him a few months later that he and Sydney Box had been to New York to sign a contract to have the film made for an American company, so it looked as though progress was being made.⁠ But six months later he was reporting that the American company had merged with MGM, so no longer had their own slate, and he was in the process of trying to buy back the rights to the film⁠. At that point, the mists envelop the movie and it slowly disappears without trace.


22: Ruined City (1939)

Nevil Shute’s novel, Ruined City, was published in 1938, and MGM snapped up the rights so quickly that Sherriff was at work on an adaptation by September of that year.

The tale is that of a banker – Henry Warren – who has worked for his family bank since emerging unscathed from World War 1, but who, wrapped up in his business affairs, has failed to maintain his family life. His wife has engaged in multiple affairs, and even his butler is leaving, since he can’t bear to be in the house any longer.  To clear his head, he leaves to go walking in the hills of the north-east, but takes ill and ends up in a hospital in Sharples, a once-thriving shipbuilding town now fallen on hard times during the recesison. His ward is crowded, and the men unable to withstand operations, so weakened are they from years on public assistance. Prompted by a young woman in the hospital, Miss McMahon the almoner (whose job it was to obtain payments from those of sufficient means), he decides to do his best to restore life to the town’s shipyards. This he does, but only by means of engaging in a shady deal in the Balkan country of Laevatia, and by issuing a misleading prospectus for his newly formed shipbuilding company. As a result, just as the town is beginning to recover – orders are being placed for ships, and men returning to work – Warren is sentenced to 5 years for fraud. He accepts his punishment, arguing that it was well deserved, but that his fraud had achieved its objective. When he emerges from prison he returns to Sharples to find a plaque in his honour on the shipyard wall, and the girl, inevitably, waiting for him.

The book is ripe for translation to the screen, even although it incorporates a fair dose of city high finance (which is difficult to convey). There are several key scenes which would work well on film: Warren’s flight from home and sickness on his walk, the scenes in the Sharples hospital, the contrast in the town between its depressed and recovered state, and a number of scenes in Laevatia, in particular a night club in which he ensures the success of his transaction with the assistance of some of the hostesses. All of these feature in Sherriff’s script,⁠ though he adds an additional one from his own memory banks – namely when Warren and Miss McMahon spend the day together at Henley Royal Regatta (which, owing to his love of rowing, was an annual highlight for Sherriff). He also simplifies the story somewhat, bringing together different characters into composites, just for ease of narrative drive. Thankfully, he also discards some of the more obvious racism in the book.

But the biggest change he brings to the film is in the two main characters. Henry Warren in the book is far from likeable – a humourless workaholic with a keen sense of entitlement – we can well understand why his wife looked elsewhere for comfort.  And Alice McMahon in the book is very much younger than Warren, and never on anything like equal terms with him. In Sherriff’s script, however, Warren is humanised, and Miss McMahon spars with him on several occasions – so much so that it is not difficult to imagine the two parts being taken by the usual duelling Hollywood couples that were such a feature of the late 30s and 40s. Whether it was Sherriff’s deliberate intention to change Warren’s character, or that he fell (perhaps with the benefit of comments from others at MGM) into the style of the time, the relationship between the two main characters is undoubtedly more sympathetic in the film than in the book.

Sherriff’s script is dated January 1939. It is subtitled ‘Revisions’, and from some of the notes inside it is clear that it was at least a second draft if not later. After he delivered it, the Producer, Victor Saville, continued to work on it – and even as late as August 1939 was having conferences on it in Hollywood. But wartime exigencies means that MGM’s production schedules were cut and refocused, so that Ruined City unfortunately never made it onto the screen.


21: Forever and a Day (1943)

Forever and a Day was a unique film, representing the Hollywood British community’s attempt, during the war, at a pro-British movie which would raise funds for good causes. The film had been conceived in March 1940⁠ just as the Brits in Hollywood were beginning to come under sustained criticism for shirking their responsibilities back home, and the idea was that it would harness the talents of expat writers, directors and stars to produce a charity film which would also bang the drum for Britain.

It was conceived as an episodic film, which would be easier to make as people became available during their existing movie work. The approach adopted followed Noel Cowards’ hugely successful play (and later film), Cavalcade, featuring a house in Britain during a passage of time: in Cavalcade it was from 1899 to 1929; in this film it would be from 1804, although the exact end-date was not known at the beginning of development. The script took some time to finish (the story and treatment being credited to W P Lipscomb and Robert Stevenson) and shooting eventually began at the RKO Studio in May 1941. The film contained five sequences at this point:

  • The building of the house by an old English Admiral (C Aubrey Smith, inevitably) returning from the Napoleonic Wars in 1804; (Directed by Herbert Wilcox)
  • The ousting of the Admiral’s family from the house, some years later, by a jealous neighbour (Claude Rains), and the house’s revenge on him; (Directed by Robert Stevenson);
  • The reuniting of the neighbour’s family and the Admiral’s, in a comedy scene, set in 1845, featuring the fitting of a new bath (with one of the plumbers played by Buster Keaton); (Directed by Victor Saville)
  • A scene set at the time of Queen Victoria’s funeral procession, when one of the maids of the house (played by Ida Lupino) runs away to the US with a coalman; (Directed by Rene Clair)
  • A scene set towards the end of the First World War, when the house has become a boarding-house, and a young American soldier (the son of the maid who ran away) begins a romance with the hotel secretary (Merle Oberon). (Directed by Edmund Goulding)

Filming continued periodically through 1941, and the first five sequences were complete by 14 December 1941. But the question then was what the final scene should be, and how to link the scenes together. In the event, the entry of the US into the war crystallised support for a scene which would take place in the cellar of the house, now being used as an air raid shelter. During the course of the scene the camera lingers on an , installed by the Admiral all those years before, which welcomes ‘All who shelter here.’ This section (Directed by Frank Lloyd) featured no significant UK stars, since a number of those who had said they would take part had pulled out, and RKO was by now getting sufficiently concerned about cost overruns that they forced the filmmakers to begin filming with two of their relatively unknown leads lent to the production (Kent Smith and Ruth Warrick).

The film was released in March 1943 and much was made in the publicity of the vast collaborative effort undertaken. Seven Directors were named in the trailer and the film opens with a lengthy list of the stars involved (and a comment to the effect that there were others who would like to have participated but were ‘unavailable’), and 21 writers (including Sherriff).  With such a lengthy list it is not easy to detect Sherriff’s hand, although he was definitely involved in discussions on the final section, and may also have commented on the first section given his expertise in the Napoleonic era (eg his play St Helena, and his film on Nelson and Lady Hamilton for Alex Korda).

The reviews from the quality press were as condescending as might be expected – but this was never intended to be high art. Othere were prepared to see it for the entertainment it was: Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, for example, commented on the ‘amusing and affecting passages’, while the Evening Standard commended the film’s ‘charm and comedy and emotion’. Add in the fact that there were some excellent performances, and it is a film that is well worth viewing, especially for a game of ‘spot-the-actor’ in the cameos (Victor McLaglen as a doorman, for example, or June Duprez and Elsa Lanchester popping up briefly). By the time it was released, of course, the US was firmly engaged in the war and the sentiment against the Hollywood Brits had long vanished, so its propaganda elements were less required. But after RKO’s costs were settled it still succeeded in raising over $800,000 for charitable causes, with donations made in each of the countries in which it played, many to the Red Cross.⁠