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Immortal Battalion (1944), released in the United Kingdom as The Way Ahead, was borne out of a forty-four minute short produced for the British Army on the nature of military life called The New Lot. British filmmaker Carol Reed was tapped by the Army to direct the film with the full cooperation of the Army and the Department of Army Psychology. According to Nicholas Wapshott in his biography Carol Reed, the short was not that well received when it was screened before a committee of generals, one of whom said, "You can't call these men soldiers; they do nothing but grumble. Real soldiers never grumble." The short was actually banned from being shown to new recruits but it did encourage the British Army to take the forty-four minute short and develop it into a feature-length morale booster to rival two other patriotic British films - In Which We Serve (1942), which honored the British Navy, and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), which honored the Royal Air Force. Reed's participation in the feature length film was not the motivating force behind the project, however, as the British Army had asked actor and Rifle Brigade Major David Niven to lend his support to a film that showed the British Army keeping a stiff upper lip under the onslaught of Nazi Germany. It was actually Niven who brought Reed onboard once he viewed The New Lot and realized that Reed was the ideal director for the film. The British Army and Two Cities, the private film studio producing the picture, approved the film as a successor to Reed's training film, only this one would be more positive and have a broader commercial appeal.
The plot of Immortal Battalion focuses on the exploits of a small group of soldiers who are whipped into shape by Lt. Perry and led into battle in Egypt against Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein. But writer Eric Ambler's treatment of the script was not met with universal acceptance by the military brass. One of the commanders had scrawled all over the script, "Tripe! Why can't we have a full-blooded story by a full-blooded soldier?" The Army approved the script and the film only after Niven agreed to play the lead role of the commanding officer, in addition to supervising the production. Filipio del Giudice, the head of Two Cities, was also relieved when Niven agreed to headline the cast, for if the picture stood any chance of performing well in America, it would have to feature an international star like Niven.
As the executive producer in charge of the overall production, Niven laid down four guidelines in a memorandum that stated his intentions for the film (cited in the Carol Reed biography The Man Between):
1) The film must have one object only, and that is to make everyone who sees it say either, 'There, that's what our Bert is doing: isn't it wonderful?' or 'See, we old-timers started something in the last lot' or, in the case of an American audience, 'The British Army is OK.'
2) In order to accomplish the above, the film must be on a really important scale and must certainly not be just a small propaganda short.
3) The movie-going public, which in this country, the Dominions and the U.S. numbers nearly 200 million, after three years of war can smell pure propaganda a mile off.
4) Therefore the film must be of first-class entertainment value, with the benefit to army prestige coming as a natural result of the story.
Immortal Battalion was a modest success with audiences and critics, in the U.K and the U.S. But more importantly, the film's importance had a symbolic significance as a sign of things to come for Hitler and his Fascist minions. Also, the film did not close with the traditional final titles of "The End," but with "The Beginning." But timing was everything; the picture made its debut in British theaters on June 6, 1944, while action in a very different theater - the beaches of Normandy, France - was tearing down the walls of Nazi Germany's Fortress Europe.
An interesting footnote to Immortal Battalion: the film marked the film debut of Trevor Howard as a merchant navy officer and it provided Peter Ustinov with one of his earliest film roles as a French speaking Arab cafe owner. During the course of the film, Ustinov's character is slowly converted into an Anglophile through his introduction to the British pastime of dart throwing!
Producer: John Sutro, Norman Walker
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Eric Ambler, Peter Ustinov
Art Direction: David Rawnsley
Cinematography: Guy Green
Editing: Fergus McDonell
Music: William Alwyn
Cast: David Niven (Lt. Jim Perry), Stanley Holloway (Pvt. Ted Brewer), James Donald (Pvt. Lloyd), John Laurie (Pvt. Luke), Reginald Tate (Training Company Commanding Officer), Leo Genn (Captain Edwards), Leslie Dwyer (Pvt. Sid Beck), Peter Ustinov (Rispoli).
by Scott McGee