In Which We Serve (1942): Oscar Nominated Film, Co-Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean

Though an overtly a patriotic propaganda film, the U.K. epic production, In Which We Serve, co-directed by Noel Coward and David Lean at the height of WWII, is significant for all kinds of reasons–cinematic, political, and historical–past and present.
Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
Among other reasons, this ambitious movie features the directorial debut of Lean, previously an editor, who would become a major international filmmaker with such epic spectacles as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), both Oscar-winning pictures.
In Which We Serve
In Which We Serve poster.jpg

US Theatrical poster


Narrative Structure (Detailed Analysis of how the Plot Unfolds)

The film opens and concludes with the narration: “This is the story of a ship,” suggesting that it’s a typical story or a typical ship, which, of course, it is not.

In 1941, HMS Torrin, engages German transports in nocturnal action during the Battle of Crete. But at dawn, when he destroyer comes under attack from German bombers, a critical hit forces the crew to abandon ship. Some officers and ratings manage to find a Carley float while being strafed by passing German planes.

Then in a series of flashback, the ship’s story is told using their memories.

Captain Kinross is the first to recall the summer of 1939 when the Torrin is being rushed into commission as the war looms in the background.

The ship spends Christmas in the north of Scotland during the Phoney War. But in 1940, the Torrin fights its first engagement during the Battle of Narvik. During the action, the ship is struck by a torpedo, and the damaged Torrin is towed back to port.

Back in harbor, Captain Kinross tells the ship’s company that during the battle nearly all the crew performed as expected, except for one man. Nonetheless, he let him off, admitting that, as Captain, he failed to make him understand his duty.

Returning to the present, the float survivors watch the capsized Torrin take on water and slowly sink. The raft is strafed by German planes and some men are killed or wounded.

Shorty Blake then recalls in flashback how he met his wife-to-be Freda (Kay Walsh) on a train while on leave. She is related to the Torrin’s Chief Petty Officer Hardy. When both men return to sea, Freda moves in with Hardy’s wife and mother-in-law.

Torrin participates in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Blake then gets a letter to say that Freda has given birth to his son during the Plymouth Blitz but that Hardy’s wife and mother-in-law were killed. He’s forced to tell Hardy, who’s writing letter home, the bitter news.

The survivors on the life raft watch the Torrin finally sink, while Captain Kinross leads a final “three cheers” for the Torrin. A British destroyer begins rescuing the men, and Captain Kinross talks to the survivors and gets addresses from the dying.

Kinross addresses the ship’s survivors in military depot in Alexandria in Egypt, telling them that, though they lost their ship and friends who now “lie together in fifteen hundred fathoms,” these losses should inspire them to fight harder. Captain Kinross then shakes hands with the ratings as they leave. When the last man goes, the captain acknowledges his surviving officers before walking away.

An epilogue concludes: bigger and stronger ships are being launched to avenge the Torrin; Britain is an island nation with proud, indefatigable people. Captain Kinross is  command of a battleship, tasked with firing its guns against the enemy.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Picture, produced by Noel Coward
Screenplay (Original): Noel Coward

Oscar Awards: 1

Special Award: Noel Coward for his outstanding production achievement.

Oscar Context:

This was the last year, in which ten films were nominated for Best Picture. In 1944, the top category was standardized to include five nominees (as in most categories).

In 1943, “In Which We Serve” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “Casablanca” (which won), “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Human Comedy,” “Madame Curie,” “The More the Merrier,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and “Watch on the Rhine.”

The most nominated films were “The Song of Bernadette” (10), followed by “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (9). Though at the top of his form, Bogart lost the Oscar to Paul Lukas for “Watch on the Rhine,” which won the Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Considering its epic scale and large ensemble, In Which We Serve was made on a very modest budget.  Released in the U.S. during the first years of the American involvement in WWII (which began in December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor), the picture was universally acclaimed by critics and embraced by viewers, who made it a box-office hit.


Noël Coward as Captain E.V. Kinross
Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy
John Mills as Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake
Celia Johnson as Alix Kinross
Joyce Carey as Kath Hardy
Kay Walsh as Freda Lewis
Michael Wilding as Flags
Derek Elphinstone as No. 1
Leslie Dwyer as Parkinson
James Donald as Doc
Philip Friend as Torps
Frederick Piper as Edgecombe
Richard Attenborough as Young Stoker
Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Blake
George Carney as Mr. Blake
Daniel Massey as Bobby Kinross
Ann Stephens as Lavinia Kinross
Walter Fitzgerald as Colonel Lumsden
Hubert Gregg as Pilot
Penelope Dudley-Ward as Maureen
Juliet Mills (John Mills’ daughter) as Shorty Blake’s baby


United Artists (Two Cities Production)

Directed by Noël Coward, David Lean (action scenes)
Produced, written by Noël Coward, who also starred
Written by Noël Coward
Narrated by Leslie Howard
Music by Noël Coward and Clifton Parker
Cinematography Ronald Neame
Edited by Thelma Connell, David Lean
Distributed by British Lion Film (UK)
United Artists (US)
Release date: September 17, 1942 (UK)
Running time 115 minutes
Budget £240,000
Box office £300,000 (UK); $2 million (US rentals)