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How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines
Remind Me

How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines

John Ford earned two Academy Awards while serving as head of the Navy's Field Photographic unit in World War II, for his short documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th. Those films, which were widely seen by servicemen and, in the case of Midway, civilians, were exceptions to his service. "Our job was to photograph both for the records and for our intelligence assessment, the work of guerillas, saboteurs, Resistance outfits," Ford explained in a 1962 interview. Under the command of William "Wild Bill" Donovan and his newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the modern CIA, he primarily made films for use by the military, from classified documentary reports and studies seen only by high-ranking officers and government officials to training and informational films.

How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), also known as Undercover, is exactly what it sounds like. The hour-long production, a how-to film woven into a dramatic narrative, was the first film to teach practical spycraft to wartime intelligence agents and was made for military use only, unseen by civilians until it was eventually declassified. Even now the film is rarely seen and often overlooked in John Ford filmographies. While it's not exactly John Ford's lost spy film, it's an oddly entertaining production designed to hold the attention of viewers while imparting information and advice.

Apart from a framing sequence designed to encourage discussion among the viewers, the film puts its lessons in preparation, proper behavior, and attention to detail for American undercover operatives behind enemy lines in the parallel stories of two agents: the conscientious, modest, careful "Student Al" and the arrogant, impulsive, showboating "Student Charles." The locations and nationalities are beyond vague--Al travels to "Enemytown" before ending up in "The Capitol," where the patrolling soldiers wear uniforms decorated in fictional insignias that suggest Nazi swastikas--but the lessons (and the consequences of slipping up even a little) are real. Where Al crams for his assignment, Charles sloughs off the hard work of studying his cover and his mission. While he's not exactly a live-action Private Snafu (he doesn't blow himself up with his gaffs), the same lessons apply. Just as in the opening clip--a spy movie with a furtive Peter Lorre sneaking through town and looking about conspicuous as can be--Charles is "just the kind of agent you aren't going to be."

Stock footage and newsreel clips are used to cut costs while the dramatic sequences have the production values of a cheap poverty row B-movie: generic sets and backlot locations and a cast of nobodies delivering performances between stiff and stereotype. It's a utilitarian production that Ford directs with more attention than such films usually receive. He moves the camera judiciously to give otherwise static scenes a little visual flair (watch him open in close-up and pull the camera back to a full shot, a touch you simply don't see in other training films) and moves the lesson along with crosscutting and narrative digressions designed to illustrate a point. The focus, however, is always on the information and the lesson. Ford's job is to energize what could easily turn into a dull lecture to keep his audience attentive and with the help of editor Robert Parrish, who also cut his Oscar-winning military documentaries The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943), he achieves his goal.

There is one aspect of How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines that makes it stand out in Ford's illustrious career: it features his only appearance in one of his films. This is no Hitchcock cameo, mind you. He plays an OSS agent who, under the guise of a businessman in a fake office, give student Charles his evaluation and his orders. His performance might not pass muster against a professional cast from one of his Hollywood pictures, but he's just fine next to the budget-minded cast of this training film. "He went through the whole monkey business," recalled Admiral Bulkeley to Ford biographer Joseph McBride. "He played that guy--he loved to do that." It's probably no coincidence that Ford gave his only real screen performance in a film restricted to OSS personnel; not even enlisted men would see this, and certainly none of his fellow directors or any of the Hollywood actors serving in the military.

By Sean Axmaker

Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014.
Searching For John Ford, Joseph McBride. St. Martin's Press, 2001.