In the Army Now
I've lost track of the number of movies I have watched which feature reluctant troops being drummed into shape as new recruits in the army before seeing action, from outright comedies such as "Carry on Sergeant" to Clint Eastwood's "Heartbreak Ridge". But whilst it is a frequently used storyline it is a good one and none more so in the British war movie "The Way Ahead" whose roots come from an Army training movie called "The New Lot," and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill asking David Niven if a movie could be made to pay homage to the British army and this training movie was expanded into a full movie. As you would expect "The Way Ahead" is familiar when it comes to the story but it has an exceptionally good British cast and a depth which slowly reveals itself in such away that for a war movie it is surprisingly charming.
After war is declared a collection of men from different walks of life are conscripted into the army from Ted (Stanley Holloway) a boiler repair man to Stainer (Jimmy Hanley), a wealthy dandy. Most of the men don't want to be there and some such as Bill Parsons (Hugh Burden) have personal reasons for wanting to leave and with tough drill sergeant Ned Fletcher (William Hartnell) shouting at them they all feel like they are being victimized, looking for the easy way out of drills and practices. But over time their attitude changes as they get what it means to be part of the regiment and the importance of doing your bit as others rely on you. After being sent to the Middle East they find themselves away from action and under Lieutenant Jim Perry (David Niven) do their best to keep moral up until finally seeing action and putting in to use everything they have learned.
In truth I could say that "The Way Ahead" is a by the book army training movie and shares similar elements with all those other army training movies from reluctant conscripts, a bellowing drill sergeant and the camaraderie which grows over time. But it does more than just serve up these familiar elements and scenes such as the men training; we get to really see how attitudes change and how they become a unified group. The biggest and in a way the most charming aspect of this is how the men relate to sergeant Ned Fletcher and Lieutenant Jim Perry as we watch them go from feeling victimized by them to realising that in truth they have their best interest at hearts and are really good guys who will stand by their men. It is one of the many aspects which come across, that being in the army makes you part of a group where you have people to help you out and you are not alone even when you have personal problems.
"The Way Ahead" also shows what day to day life is like from sitting around waiting to manual chores such as peeling spuds and whilst it is certainly not a comedy the mundane aspects of life in the army has its share of humour. From Pvt. Sid Beck being very keen to learn to the men in the Middle East playing darts with the miserable Rispoli the cafe owner. As I said it is not so much comedy but just humour in the moment which makes you smile.
For me what makes "The Way Ahead" special is the cavalcade of British stars that make up the cast which includes Trevor Howard making his movie debut. Now I say for me because I am a big fan of old British movies so instantly recognized many of the stars such as Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley, Stanley Holloway and the unforgettable John Laurie but more importantly they all play their parts well. William Hartnell is first rate as the shouting sergeant Ned Fletcher whilst James Donald delivers the sceptical side of his character quite brilliant. But of course "The Way Ahead" stars David Niven who plays to his perceived poshness but does so in a nicely restrained manner which makes him one of the guys.
What this all boils down to is that "The Way Ahead" is now a familiar movie with its story of reluctant army recruits but it is one of the better examples with a depth and a whole crop of some of Britain's finest actors. It's not perfect some of the actors were most certainly too old for their parts but it doesn't matter because they play their characters well which contributes to its charm.