Movie Countdown: 20 – 16

20: Escape (1948)

In 1943 Sherriff had pleaded with Twentieth Century Fox (TCF) to allow him to terminate his contract, so that he might try to organise a passage back to the UK. TCF acquiesced, but on the understanding that Sherriff would owe them some further weeks once he was re-established at home. There was some disagreement between them over the following couple of years as to how much time he owed them, and whether he had to undertake the work in the US or the UK, but the disagreements came to an end when Sherriff agreed to undertake several weeks work on the Fox movie Escape in August 1947.

Escape was an adaptation of John Galsworthy’s play of the same name, which had run successfully in the West End and Broadway in the late 1920s. The story concerned an upstanding former RAF squadron leader (played in the film by Rex Harrison) who accidentally kills a police detective while assisting the prostitute whom the policeman is trying to arrest. Sentenced to jail for manslaughter, he escapes and is hunted as he embarks on a journey through the English landscape, during which he meets a wide range of people. As director Joseph Mankiewicz (with whom Sherriff had worked on Three Comrades) put it to Fox Producer Daryl Zanuck: ‘Galsworthy wrote the play as a study of the various reactions of various strata of British Society to the problem of an escaped convict.  At the time he wrote it, it was sensational both in treatment and subject matter.  Today it is neither of those but its underlying theme is still a provocative one.’

Mankiewicz came to England to work on the film at Denham, where he complained bitterly to Fox executives on a regular basis – about the rooms he stayed in, the office he was given to work in, the people the Rank organisation employed at Denham, and on and on… But he and Sherriff seemed to work well together.

Before the start date of his contract Sherriff had been handed a copy of the script, which he had annotated with all of his suggested dialogue alterations and improvements. There were at least two scenes which Sherriff then went on to revise but no copy of these redrafts – nor, indeed, of any others – seem to exist, so his influence on the final film is unclear.

Sherriff had been promised a screenwriting credit, ‘in accordance with the terms of the current agreement between the British Film Producers’ Association and the Screen Writers Association’, but the impact of his changes on the script – unlike with Odd Man Out – was not sufficient to get his name on the board, so the credit went entirely to Philip Dunne. When the film was released it was generally well received  despite the wordiness which betrayed its stage origins. It’s certainly worth watching, and can currently be found, in its entirety, on YouTube.


19: Dunkirk (1958)

Towards the end of 1955 Sherriff started working on a commission from Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios: the dramatisation of the events at Dunkirk. This was not a simple adaptation. Rather, he was challenged with devising a story line from the various accounts that were already available, including the official report, and two novels: The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor, and Hunter and Bradford’s Dunkirk.

The difficulty he faced was how to dramatise an event which was relatively short (lasting a couple of weeks at its peak), but featured a variety of different military forces, and resulted from a number of complex political and military factors. Early on in the process he sketched out a possible treatment, focusing on four men: Viscount Gort (the Commander-in-Chief at the time); a Colonel of an Infantry Regiment; a lance corporal separated, with four of his men, from his own regiment; and the owner of a small cabin cruiser who sails to France to help pick the men up. His aim was to ‘hold an even balance between the strategic side of the campaign and the human side.’ His first draft script, completed in March 1956, hewed fairly closely to this template, except for losing the Viscount Gort aspect, and focusing on just the three other men. It did an impressive job of conveying the events which led up to the evacuation at Dunkirk, as well as the organisation behind taking the men off the beaches.

After receiving the script Balcon wrote a memo to Leslie Norman (the Director, who had been away in Australia filming while Sherriff worked on the script). He had a number of criticisms, most of which can be boiled down to the view that things took too long to get going (much of the early part explored the strategic build up to the conflict); that characterisation was too limited, and left too late (much time is spent at the beginning with the Colonel, for example, who then does not feature until towards the very end); and that there was an absence of any significant Belgian or French perspective. He also felt that the owner of the cabin cruiser (Thompson) was initially shown as too smug and complacent, when ‘at the time of Dunkirk there was a realisation of the position and one felt the first real stirring of the soul of the nation’.⁠

Sherriff responded by taking on Balcon’s criticisms one by one and making a stout defence of his script, while remaining open to ways in which it could be improved. Overall he set out not just a cogent case for the screenplay he had written, but almost a manual of his approach to screenwriting. The discussion between them came to a halt at that point, at least for a couple of months, but when Sherriff then enquired how things were going he was told that the Producers had hired David Divine to write another draft, and they were sending it to Sherriff  ‘for your comments and any additional scenes and dialogue that may be required.’⁠ He was extremely unhappy with Ealing, feeling that he had delivered the script as promised, and that it was not his fault if it had taken them months to decide it was not what they wanted, by which time he had moved on to other work. They suggested that his contract stipulated that he should be ready to offer amendments, but he insisted this only referred to his own script, not to subsequent scripts prepared by others. He took no further part in the project.

Dunkirk was released in 1958, to good box office and favourable reviews. It starred John Mills as Binns (Sherriff’s lance-corporal character, although designated a corporal in the film), and Richard Attenborough as one of the small-boat skippers (although not the same character as Sherriff had delineated, and, curiously, one who was even less committed to the war effort than the Thompson character that Balcon had criticised). Interestingly, the film was much more negative about the failures that lay behind the disaster than Sherriff had been, and omitted most of the positive examples which Sherriff had included to demonstrate the Navy’s organisation behind the small flotillas. Despite having criticised Sherriff for not including the Belgian and French perspectives, the film largely skipped over them as well.


18: Major Barbara (1941)

In autumn of 1939, after his work on Korda’s Manon Lescaut had been shelved, Sherriff turned to another intriguing project offered to him by Producer Gabriel Pascal: adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara for the screen.

Pascal had enjoyed great success the previous year with the film version of Pygmalion (starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller), to the point of receiving an Academy Award nomination for Production, and was becoming known for his collaborations with Bernard Shaw, who thought very highly of him indeed. The contract with Pascal was due to begin at the end of September, but Sherriff wrote to him asking to delay it for a week – with petrol rationing he could no longer simply motor up and down to Denham in his Rolls-Royce, and he would need time to rent a house closer to the Studios. There were further delays thereafter, mainly to do with Pascal seeking authorisation to begin production, and with construction of a complete scenario. Sherriff was reluctant to get dragged into the process too early and told Pascal that he would move closer to him once the picture had received production approval, and a final draft script was in hand.

He finally started work on the script at the beginning of November, staying at Stoke Court, near Denham and cycling to Pascal’s house each day. After a couple of weeks, however, Pascal decided to finish the job down at his house in Devon, and asked Sherriff to come along, which he did, albeit a little reluctantly. They, together with Pascal’s script editor Marjorie Deans,  finished work on the script in time for Sherriff to return home for Christmas.

The film and the script would carry on in development without him, so that when it was finally distributed in May 1941 his name was not attached to the writing credits. Whatever impact Sherriff’s work had, the film is an excellent version of the play, with a brilliant performance by Wendy Hiller as the eponymous heroine, and first-class support from the likes of Rex Harrison, Robert Newton, Robert Morley and Sybil Thorndike. Deborah Kerr also pops up in her first credited role. Well worth watching.


17: Home at Seven (1952)

Sherriff’s play, Home at Seven, had premiered in 1950, with Ralph Richardson in the role of David Preston, a senior bank clerk who comes home one evening to find that he has been missing for a whole day, and that he may have been responsible for a robbery and murder. It was highly successful, both in London and the provinces, and within a year or so the Producer Maurice Cowan had come enquiring after the film rights.

Sherriff felt that Cowan was unlikely to secure stars such as Richardson on his own, and that a better plan would be for him to operate with British Lion Films, in which Alex Korda had taken a major shareholding. Korda was under pressure to keep costs contained at British Lion, and so Home at Seven was something of an experiment – a play which would be rehearsed for three weeks on the set at Shepperton, and then shot within a fortnight – compared with the eight weeks that would normally be taken. Rather than directing it himself, Korda handed the reins to Ralph Richardson, who worked to a script prepared by the very experienced Anatole de Grunwald (who had over 20 screen credits to his name, including Rattigan’s Winslow Boy and the wonderful Leslie Howard wartime propaganda movie Pimpernel Smith). Alongside Richardson in the cast were two of Korda’s contract players, Margaret Leighton (as Preston’s wife) and Jack Hawkins as Doctor Sparling. The film was released in the UK in 1952, and in the US (as Murder on Monday) in 1953, to rather lacklustre reviews (‘static, wordy – in short, “stagy”’ – according to the Guardian).

Although he had handed the film over to Cowan and Korda, Sherriff had remained on hand for advice (Shepperton could be reached from his home in Esher in just twenty-five minutes in the new Rolls-Royce he had recently purchased), so he would likely have felt the dismissive reviews rather personally, not least since much of the complaint was about the structure of the play and its denouement. But since the play is not often performed these days, the film is as good a way as any of seeing how expertly Sherriff builds the pressure on the hapless Preston.


16: The Road Back (1937)

When Sherriff went to Hollywood for the first time in March 1932 he was set to work adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Entitled The Road Back, it told the story of a group of young Germans returned from the front at the end of the war, and of their problems adjusting to a society in turmoil.

Sherriff’s script was a marvellously economical account of the book, trimming many of the side plots and secondary characters, but leaving intact the boys’ sense of betrayal and confusion: his friend James Whale, who was to direct the film for Universal, called it ‘magnificent’.⁠ Once it was completed it was submitted to the censors at the MPPDA (the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) who felt that the film ‘should be an outstanding production.’⁠ But pressure from the Nazis in Germany, and budget constraints at Universal meant that the film was put up on the shelf, to await production at a more propitious moment.

That moment finally came towards the end of 1936. Universal was under new management, and with their interests in Germany much reduced, they called Sherriff over to Hollywood to make some urgent changes to the script, before it went into production at the beginning of 1937. But the Nazis were still intent on sabotaging it, and the German consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, took great pains to make their dissatisfaction with the film quite clear. If the Producers went ahead, not only would the film not be shown in Germany, but the Studio’s entire slate might be at risk. Then he went a step too far, threatening to block any other films which involved any of the main actors or producers in The Road Back. The State Department was outraged and Gyssling was rebuked by the German authorities. But the damage had been done, and the Producers (and the censors) bent over backwards to assuage German concerns.

In redrafting his 1932 script, Sherriff made a number of changes, along with the writer Charles Kenyon, principally changing the tone by adding some broad comedy scenes. The other notable change is the introduction of Elsa, girlfriend of Ernst (the hero), who does not feature in the book at all, so her inclusion at this point is probably, at its simplest, an attempt to increase the number of female characters. One additional scene, which is surprisingly effective, is that of the tattered remains of the Company parading before its demobilisation, to be joined by the spectral images of their dead comrades, showing just how large and proud it had stood, before the war had shattered it so completely. And there is one very obvious Sherriff trademark: in the final scene, when Ernst and his friend Ludwig encounter a group of schoolboys being led in military manoeuvres by an adult officer, Ernst remarks ‘It all seems rather silly, doesn’t it?’, and Ludwig replies: ‘Yes – and the silliest thing is that everybody knows it’s silly.’

The film was eventually signed off by the censors on 26 May, and it premiered in New York on 17 June, but not before Variety⁠ reported that Universal had made seventeen cuts to the movie to please the German ambassador (who still would not assure the Studio that the movie would get a showing in Germany.) The Reviews were not kind. Frank Nugent, of the New York Times, felt that while Sherriff and Whale had done workmanlike jobs, the casting of Slim Summerville and Andy Devine in the (partially) comic roles of Tjaden and Willy had unbalanced the film. The studio was not happy at the film’s reception, and felt that it would not be well received on general release. So they called back Ernst and Elsa (John King and Jean Rouverol), together with a different Director (Edward Sloman) to shoot additional scenes before its general release in July, adding a syrupy and utterly unconvincing ending. If they thought the film would then be better received they were sadly mistaken – the new cut was savaged by the critics and ignored by the public, and James Whale even took out a full-page advert in the Hollywood Reporter to praise his friend Bob Sherriff, and wash his hands of the film.

Even in its final version, however, the film is worth watching, because a large part of Whale’s and Sherriff’s work remains: the initial scenes after the armistice are very powerful, the disillusion of the boys is clearly portrayed as is the upheaval in post-war Germany. Just make sure to fast-forward through the Ernst and Elsa scenes.