‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) is a naval war film in the same vein as ‘In Which We Serve’. Again, it stars John Mills, although this time he is the Captain rather than the Cockney tar, which does show that the great Sir John did have a good range. But it does at times seem that he single handedly won World War Two for us.
Mills’ co-star in this flick is Eric Portman, whom I am quite fond of. There’s something a bit unusual about him that I can’t quite fathom out. His northern accent sometimes seems forced, despite his being a Halifax boy. But he was undoubtedly a good actor and I enjoy watching him. He is the hero of ‘We Dive at Dawn’, his fluency in the German language saving his submarine and all the men aboard. He plays Germans well, as demonstrated in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The 49th Parallel’. This is something that adds to his unusual allure. To regularly play Germans and show a fluency in the language during the war years must have taken guts. I feel sure that he must have taken some flack for it – we all know that there are people out there who confuse what they see on the screen with reality. And this would have been even more pronounced in the war years, a less media savvy age full of fear and suspicion. I really wish I knew more about Portman’s life off screen in these times.
The hero that Portman portrays is flawed. He is human. His relationships with others are difficult and he has marital problems. When he has some shore leave, he returns home to find that his wife and son have gone to live with another man at the chip shop. Rather than maintain the standard British stiff upper lip he gets hopelessly drunk and confronts his wife – badly. He is not the only member of the crew to have difficulties in this area of life. One colleague is relieved to have his wedding cancelled and struggles to commit, while John Mills’ Captain is obviously stringing along an oblivious group of women. This just demonstrates the well known facts about what war and the associated long term separations did to couples, as proven by the peaking of divorce rates during the demob period. But the ending of ‘We Dive at Dawn’ threw up an interesting historical question. The submarine has been feared missing and its crew perished. So when they finally return to port there is an emotional welcome home from those that had previously forsaken their husband/fiancé. They have been given a second chance at life, and are given a second go at their relationships too. I wondered how much this happy ending was poetic licence/morale boosting and how much it reflected reality? How many divorces didn’t happen because a near death experience resulted in changed hearts? There will be no statistics to help us with this one. Perhaps there were as many reunions of this sort as there were divorces – some permanent, some temporary. Like seeking the real Mr Portman, we can only watch the screen and surmise.
|Hello Sailor. Portman by @aitchteee|
I will be publishing a new book shortly. This will be called 'The History Usherette's Second Seat Third Row.' It is set in London in 1944 and takes a look at an imaginary audience for another Portman film 'A Canterbury Tale'.
Keep watching my Twitter feed @agathadascoyne and watch out for it on Amazon Kindle.