Two Men Went to War (PG)
This captivating WWII drama harks back to the wonderful halcyon days of Ealing Studios, when a succession of eccentric stories hinted at an England unspoiled by the progress of time and populated by an array of oddballs who occupied every part of our lives.
Two Men Went to War is so peculiarly British it just has to be true. Certainly the film follows the line of the book Amateur Commandos and states ‘Most of what follows is true’ when setting up its admittedly tall tale.
The story centres on two soldiers, Sergeant King and Private Cuthbertson, both part of the Royal Dental Corps, who long for a taste of action as the war builds to its height in 1942. One night they decide to take off from their barracks and, with the aid of a liberated (read “stolen”) fishing boat, head across the Channel to occupied France.
Once there, armed with two revolvers, 20 rounds of ammunition and ten hand grenades, they embark on their own private war with the Germans. In the space of one barmy night they invade Nazi Europe, derail a troop train and attack and succeed in blowing up an enemy listening post. Then they head back to the beach where their boat awaits, bobbing up and down on the tide.
What makes Two Men Went to War so special is that it is quintessentially British throughout. This is a fabulous, funny, heart-warming and charming throwback to films from better, kinder times, with two excellent performances from acting stalwart Kenneth Cranham, as the curmudgeonly King, and Leo Bill as his gauche young protégé.
What makes the film so compelling and fun is the acting of the mismatched heroes and the strength of the supporting cast – a gallery of old reliables that includes Julian Glover, James Fleet, Anthony Valentine, Phyllida Law and Sir Derek Jacobi as an array of military types, all of whom inhabit cameo roles.
Yet the film belongs to Bill and, especially, Cranham, the latter absolutely spot-on as the grouchy old NCO whose time is past and who longs for an opportunity to prove his mettle before the war reaches its end.
More than one reviewer has written of the comparisons with Dad’s Army and, indeed, there is much to be said for the Captain Mainwaring/Private Pike relationship between King and Cuthbertson.
Still, this tale is based on fact, and the film’s denouement goes some way to cheering our hapless heroes when the real truth of their bit for the war effort is revealed.
Two Men Went to War is a cuckoo in the nest of the standard releases modern audiences have come to expect from contemporary cinema, mainly because its old-fashioned approach is out of step with 21st century movies. To my mind, it’s all the better because of it, and if the Americans get a whiff of the film and its central performances, then Cranham could find himself the new English darling of Hollywood cinema.
Star rating: ****