Things in War Movies

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels made canine cameo appearances in four of the Powell & Pressburger films. They turn up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and I Know Where I’m Going! Their last appearance is in Dr Reeves’ camera obscura in 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death.

The following letter regarding the dogs’ acting careers appeared in David McGillivray’s ‘Now You Know’ column in the magazine Films and Filming (June 1983), as a response to a reader enquiry:

My thanks to Michael Powell for passing on to me the following communication.

“Our names are Erik and Spangle and your letter has been dropped in on our celestial kennel by a passing astronaut. Our dear owner on earth was Mr Michael Powell, who had something to do with films – we never found exactly what. Erik is named for Erik the Red and Spangle’s name comes from a film in which Wallace Beery says to Jean Harlow ‘I don’t like all those spangles on your dress’, a remark which prompts Robert Benchley’s ‘I had a spangle once, a cocker spangle’. Mr Pressburger wrote us into the scripts of the films you mention, but the camera obscura scene was our own idea.

P.S. If you see Colonel Blimp again, watch when we arrive in the house in London Square. Erik was so excited that he cocked his leg on a piece of Chippendale.

(The film referred to is probably China Seas, which featured all three actors and was released in 1935, so about the right time to have inspired the name of a thespian dog working in the early forties.)

Erik and Spangle in the Camera Obscura in A Matter of Life and Death
A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

The great celestial escalator leading up to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death is one of the film’s most enduring images, referenced in everything from architecture to pop videos (‘Go West’ by Pet Shop Boys and Pulp’s ‘Help the Aged’ both feature clear references to it). Radio adaptations of the story even took the title ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The escalator itself was made by Rowson and Clydesdale for the production, at a cost of £3,000 (in 1946 money). It featured 106 steps, each 20 feet wide, and was powered by a 12hp motor. The engineers who built it nicknamed it ‘Ethel’.

Went the Day Well?

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Alberto Cavalcanti’s remarkable 1942 propaganda film Went the Day Well? tells the story of a small English village that finds itself unexpectedly overrun by Nazis (but not by Christopher Lee).

The village chosen for filming was Turville in Buckinghamshire. Today it still has a population of only 311, and is a popular filming location, especially for detective shows: Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Jonathan Creek have all been filmed here.

Turville also provided exteriors for The Vicar of Dibley, and other big-screen appearances include Ealing’s Dead of Night (also directed by Cavalvanti), and more recently, An Education.

Went the Day Well?

Went the Day Well? (1942)

There is a rumour going around that Christopher Lee makes a very early appearance in the 1942 war film Went the Day Well? The rumour seems to have originated with the IMDb listing for the film, which features the actor in an uncredited part.

Given that the film was made several years before his first generally recognised credit, and that even posters on his official website are sceptical, it’s probably safe to say that, went the day well or ill, it almost certainly went without Christopher Lee.

There is also the possibility that it’s somebody else of the same name; the IMDb listing appears to have been amended to support this theory.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The “Colonel Bogey March”, or “theme from the Bridge on the River Kwai” as it’s occasionally mistakenly called, began life in 1914, when it was pseudonymously written by Lieutenant F. J. Ricketts, inspired by a golfer and military man who would apparently give a two-note whistle in place of shouting ‘fore!’. Those two notes provide the beginning of each line of the melody.

It was originally a tune without lyrics, but people soon began to put words to it. Many informal sets of lyrics exist, but arguably the most famous, and the one that’s being referred to in Bridge on the River Kwai is “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”.

Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim’lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all!

(Director David Lean had originally wanted the soldiers to be singing the lyrics when they arrived in the camp, but they were considered to be too obscene, so the whistling was a compromise.)

It’s been suggested that these lyrics were originally written as propaganda by Tony O’Brien, who worked for the British Council, and originally had Göring with one ball and Hitler with the two little ones. There’s a huge number of different versions of the song, including extended versions, which are catalogued in dizzying detail on Wikipedia.

As you might imagine, Youtube isn’t exactly short of versions of the song either: see Colonel Bogey March.