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The Way To The Stars
cast: Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Rosamund John, Douglass Montgomery, Stanley Holloway

director: Anthony Asquith

104 minutes (U) 1945
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
In the opening sequence of The Way To The Stars (aka: Johnny In The Clouds), a series of long tracking shots take us round the abandoned airfield at Halfpenny Field. It's now derelict. But how different it was during wartime. We go back to 1940, when Peter Penrose (John Mills) arrives at Halfpenny Field, a busy RAF base. Soon, he's mentored by Flight Lieutenant David Archdale (Michael Redgrave), who is attracted to Miss Todd, who runs the Golden Lion in nearby Shipley.
   The Way To The Stars, an original screenplay by Terrence Rattigan (from a story by him and the film's producer Anatole de Grunwald), takes place between 1940 and 1944. Although it isn't based on a stage play, it could well be one, as there are really only two locations, the base and the Golden Lion (spot the symbolic name). Rattigan is somewhat out of fashion nowadays (though he has his defenders, such as David Mamet), with a general view that his work is mired in, and unquestioning of, the social values of a bygone age, and that he is generally unwilling to deal with aspects of his own personality - such as his homosexuality - more interesting to today's audience. (Though he did do that to some extent in The Browning Version.) There is truth in some of these charges, but on the other hand there's a lot of pleasure to be hand in sheer craftsmanship, and Rattigan was a craftsman like few others. Look closely at the prologue: the camera picks out objects that will have some importance in the hour and three quarters to come. Rattigan structures the film into two halves. In the second part, the Americans arrive, and the film shows mutual mistrust and competitiveness shading gradually into camaraderie and friendship. Rattigan's dialogue is often funny - this is a film where humour and tragedy coexist - and revealing of character, and even minor characters such as Friselli (Bonar Colleano) get to grow from being a stereotypical crass Yank aboard to featuring in a heartbreaking scene where he has to stand in for one of his colleagues at a children's party, unable to tell them that the one they were expecting has just been killed. This is a war film with no combat scenes. Apart from one brief but vital shot near the end, we never see inside an aeroplane and stay firmly on the ground. But the film is structured round two deaths. Rattigan pulls a considerable surprise on the audience by killing a major character off very early, but in both cases the tragedy is all the more moving for its understatement.
   Anthony Asquith is, rightly, often seen as a director prone to staginess. He would never be any kind of visual stylist, but given material as good as this he doesn't put a foot wrong, and comes up with memorable sequences such as a wedding interrupted by an air raid. In the supporting cast look out for Bill Owen (acting under his real name of Bill Rowbotham), Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons.
   The Way To The Stars is an archetypal British war film. It's easy to send this up, but by all accounts this film gets as close as possible to portraying just what it was like. This is a film that suggests that the best way to defend a way of life is to continue living it... and to make a superb film about it.
   Carlton's DVD is full-frame, respecting the film's original Academy ratio. The black and white camerawork is well conveyed, if slightly over-brightly, by this DVD transfer. The mono soundtrack is Dolby digital 2.0. There are no extras, not even a trailer.

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