Who Goes Next? (1938)

In this time of plague, self-isolation is probably necessary, but is no less frustrating for that. Still, life offers some consolations, and one of them is Talking Pictures, the Freeview TV channel that specialises in old British films, some of them very obscure.

I had never previously come across Who Goes Next? directed in 1938 by Maurice Elvey (a veteran of the silent screen who once, I remember reading, shared a mistress with Bertrand Russell).

The film is set in a First World War prisoner-of-war barracks where British officers are busy tunnelling their way out. What struck me very much was that this film of 1938 already contained many of the tropes that would become very familiar in the prisoner-of-war movies of the fifties. The British officers are determined and ingenious, and keep up their spirits with facetiousness. the Germans are stupid, bullying and easily fooled. The Commandant in particular is a fat and greedy figure whom the senior British officer keeps in his place by assuming mental and moral superiority.

The film would seem to be based on the escape from Holzminden in July 1918. British officers had spent nine months digging a sixty yard tunnel, and one night twenty-nine of them escaped through it, of whom ten would reach freedom.

That story is described by Hugh Durnford, one of the POWs, in a chapter of Tunnelling to Freedom (1932, a collection of escape stories with an introduction by J.R. Ackerley, recommended) and the film draws on Durnford’s account in several ways. For example, the film’s Commandant is an exaggeration of the one that Durnford describes:

I must just say one word about this commandant. Perhaps what jarred most in him was that he was so hopelessly infra dig and behaved more like a tiresome camp feldwebel than a commandant. he was a busybody. He prowled and pounced. He burst into our rooms in the morning to rout us out of bed. He kept us all on the jumps, including his own people. No one trusted him, and he was so cocksure and blatant that he wasn’t even an object of pity in his solitude. Even his own puppy didn’t like him.

The film uses several standard First World War tropes. There is even a caterpillar race, like the cockroach racing of Journey’s End. The weak link in the group of officers is a shell-shocker who is liable to blurt out talk about the tunnel at the wrong time.

Most of the prison camp story is on the Boys’ Own Paper level of gallant Brits versus stupid but nasty Germans, but things are complicated when the action switches from the camp to London, and the wife of Hamilton, the senior British officer. She has an affair with Beck (played by Jack Hawkins), an officer on leave.

Those of you who know the ways of film narratives will have guessed that Beck ends up in the same prison barracks as Hamilton. Those of you who know the ways of film morality will also guess that Beck has to die while ensuring that Hamilton escapes home to his wife.

The film ends with a dinner in London, where the surviving escapers have gathered. Hamilton makes a speech about how there must never be another war, they all drink a toast to the gallant Beck, and Hamilton’s wife arrives meekly. They are together again, but a sense of tension is conveyed.

It’s not a great film, but the escape sequences are gripping (though the London romantic interlude is less so). It’s the attitudes that interest me. First, as I said, much of the film prefigures that key genre of the fifties, the POW escape film. My wife popped in while I was viewing it, took a look at the screen and asked if I was watching Colditz.

But more than this – this seems to be a film that is preparing its audience for another war, showing how the guts, ingenuity and bravado of the British officer class will defeat German stupidity and cruelty.

3 Comments

  1. ROGER ALLEN
    Posted March 24, 2020 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    “the Germans are stupid, bullying and easily fooled. The Commandant in particular is a fat and greedy figure whom the senior British officer keeps in his place by assuming mental and moral superiority.”

    An interesting contrast with La Grande Illusion, where Rosenthal sympathises with a guard who has stomach problems but does not steal the sort of food he needs from the prisoners’ food parcels and de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein strike up a close friendship. A riposte to Renoir, perhaps?

  2. Posted March 25, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry I missed this. As I read your account, I kept thinking of La Grande Illusion, which must be better.

    • Posted March 25, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      La Grande Illusion is much much better, a film with great generosity of spirit, whereas this one is very stereotyped in its attitudes.


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