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Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars (1945) is one of the finest World War II films to come out of Great Britain, but, in a strange way, it's not really a "war" film at all, at least not in the accepted genre sense that it's filled with fiery battles and strategic maneuvering of troops. Although it was made by actors and technicians who were just finishing their own involvement in the greatest conflict in human history, this is more a story of how men and women find ways to cope when war has torn their lives asunder.
This wasn't initially the case. But by the time Asquith and his writer, Terence Rattigan, managed to get the film off the ground, the air base in Yorkshire where they were set to shoot was basically deserted. The war against the Nazis still raged on, but was obviously in its waning stages. So Asquith chose to open The Way to the Stars with a brief documentary passage depicting the empty base, with a narrator saying "This was an airfield." Then the film flashes back to a major turning point in the war.
Michael Redgrave portrays a British flight lieutenant who leaves a wife (Rosamund John) behind when he's killed in action. The woman is then comforted by a soldier named Johnny (Douglass Montgomery), but then he, too, is killed during battle. This establishes the basic playing field for a rather brilliant screenplay that follows another romance between a pilot (John Mills) and the woman he loves (Renee Asherson), as well as the uneasy alliance between British and American pilots. Asquith and Rattigan's eye for telling detail obviously arises from having just experienced many of the same emotional wartime dilemmas that face their characters.
Various reminisces about Asquith, whose nickname was "Puffin," suggest a man who was as committed to a project as humanly possible, and whose get-it-down-on film perfection endeared him to both his cast and crew. "Puffin as a director," Mills once said, "was a marvelous audience. His enthusiasm was quite fantastic. There were times during the shooting when he was so deeply moved that one could see the tears pouring down his cheek. Puffin would have called that 'floods.'"
Rattigan recalled script conferences that took place during actual German buzz-bomb raids, not that such a thing could sway Asquith from getting down to the business at hand. "Puffin kept walking up and down the room, talking rapidly as always and incessantly. We heard the buzz-bomb, but he was obviously quite unconscious that there was any sound other than his own voice. The bomb came closer and closer and then suddenly we heard the cut-off." Rattigan and a co-worker immediately ran into a hallway and hit the floor, lying on top of one another, and prepared for the possible percussion.
When the bomb missed the building where the men were working - they could hear the explosion nearby - they re-entered the room and found Asquith still walking and talking! "This is no time for games," he said to the two astonished men, "We are supposed to be getting on with the script of The Way of the Stars." One could imagine Graham Chapman and his absurdly stiff upper lip portraying Asquith in a Monty Python skit!
Rattigan recalled Asquith's bravery with awe. "The strange thing about Puffin," he once said in an interview, "is that nothing could ever frighten him. He had absolutely no fear. His courage was really marvelous. He would have done anything in the war if it was necessary and even if it wasn't. He took all sorts of dangerous risks in order to get authenticity for his pictures. And he expected others to do the same."
This expectation of bravery (or, if you will, recklessness) extended to the pilots who were filmed flying in formation for The Way to the Stars. "I wish they would fly closer together," Asquith was heard to say while his camera crew framed the shot. "Why are they so far apart?" After being told it was simply too dangerous to align the planes any closer to each other, Asquith replied, "It can't be dangerous if they aren't actually touching."
Director: Anthony Asquith
Screenplay: Terence Rattigan (Poems by John Pudney)
Producer: Anatole de Grunwald
Cinematographer: Derick Williams
Editor: Fergus McDonell
Casting: Irene Howard
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Cast: Michael Redgrave (David Archdale), John Mills (Peter Penrose), Rosamund John (Miss "Toddy" Todd), Douglas Montgomery (John Hollis), Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton), Stanley Holloway (Mr. Palmer), Basil Radford (Tiny Williams), Felix Aylmer (Rev. Charles Moss), Bonar Colleano (Joe Friselli), Joyce Carey (Miss Winterton), Trevor Howard (Squadron Leader Carter.)
by Paul Tatara