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It is the Second World War. The Nazis have invaded Britain. There is a split between the resistance and those who prefer to collaborate with the invaders for a quiet life. The protagonist, a nurse, is caught in the middle. Written by
'It Happened Here' is the only British war film which gives a true and accurate idea of what war is about: it is about civilians.
All war films, with the exception of this one and a tiny handful of others, deal with boys in their uniforms shooting at each other in glorious Technicolour. The army obey codes of engagement and the goodies win. We identify with the heroes and frown at the villains, we feel sad when the second-stringer dies and exhilarated when the actor with the comic role survives, and so on.
Civilians have no such luxury under occupation. This film deals with the dilemmas of surviving. with having to collaborate to a varying extent in order to earn a living, in fact with the real dilemmas which only those who lived through the Nazi occupation can truly understand. Collaboration is a slippery slope, well handled in the film as it is too in the French film 'Lacombe Lucien', where a feckless young man, rebuffed by the resistance, slips almost accidentally into collaboration for a bit of an adventure and some status.
A recent article in the London press explained that the lengthy disquisition on the necessity of fascism in occupied Britain, as voiced by an English militiaman in the film, was in fact a pro-fascist argument put forward by a real leading British fascist, who made use of the film to expound his views. Within the context of the film, the views are seductively subversive and dangerously convincing. Think Goebbels when he presented the war against Russia as a European effort to eliminate the Bolshevist menace. This argument appealed to many 'right-thinking' people in occupied Europe as, barely a couple of years after the war, many right-thinking people thought that the communist menace should be eliminated.
As a result of the filmed fascist diatribe, United Artists ordered Brownlow to remove this section (6 minutes, I think) and the film was originally screened without it.
When the resistance to foreign occupation in Iraq is labelled terrorism, well, that is exactly what the German occupiers said about all resistance movements in Europe. Resistance movements included brigands, double-agents and ruthless operators as well as heroes. At the end of the war, these movements settled scores with collaborators and presumed collaborators, with unofficial executions running into the tens of thousands.
Nothing wrong then, in having the British resistance in this film shown as behaving mercilessly. That is what real war is about and if we can't identify with it, then so much the better for those of us who never had to identify with an armed occupation either.
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