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War Without Hate

Philip Reeve celebrates a classic film, and the book on which it was based.

I was born more than twenty years after the end of the Second World War, but as a child I could almost have been forgiven for thinking that it was still going on.  We boys of the 1970's played Tommies vs Huns in the school playground, spent our evenings sticking together model Spitfires and Hurricanes, and whenever we switched on the TV there seemed to be either a wartime drama playing (Colditz, Secret Army) or one of the old war movies which the British film industry turned out in huge numbers both during the war and in the decades after it.  The 'seventies were a grim decade for this country, so I suppose it's only natural that we liked looking back to the last time we actually achieved anything, but in retrospect it all seems slightly sad; a washed-up culture, forever looking back.  It's one of the greatest and least recognised achievements of George Lucas that he finally brought World War II to an end; after Star Wars came out the 00-gauge Spitfires that dangled from our bedroom ceilings were replaced by X-wing fighters, and schoolboys learned to make blaster noises instead of straining their young vocal cords with the stertorous egh-egh-egh-egh-egh of Schmeissers and Tommy-guns.  War movies (which had by then been degraded to the level of brutish fantasies like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare) were replaced by a new sort of fantasy; there were no more chipper Tommies on our screens; cinematic GIs were embroiled in a far more dubious war in Vietnam, and Nazi-slaughtering had been outsourced to Indiana Jones, who seemed happy enough to do it on a freelance basis.  TV channels still stuffed the gaps in their schedules with old war films, but they began to look rather quaint - quite unfairly so, as many of them were actually very workmanlike productions, made in the days when Britain still had a film industry worthy of the name, and often based on the memoirs of people who had done extraordinary things between 1939 and 1945.

My favourite of them, though, was one of the later ones, and its story (as far as I know) is pure fiction*.  Released in 1958 and adapted from his own novel by Christopher Landon, Ice Cold in Alex is that rare beast, a war movie with almost no actual war in it.  It tells the story of a captain in the British Ambulance Division, his sergeant major, and a nursing sister who, after the fall of Tobruk, make a long and difficult journey across the desert in a battered army ambulance to escape the advancing Afrika Korps and reach British-held Alexandria.  Along the way they pick up a South African officer, whom they gradually start to suspect may really be a German spy.  Here's an absolutely splendid trailer for it ("North Airfrica: The Bettlefield of Giants... ").

The movie is a classic, and very easily available on DVD even if you haven't caught it on the telly, where it's frequently re-run.  Directed by J. Lee Thompson, it stars John Mills as Captain Anson, Sylvia Syms  as the nurse, Diana, Harry Andrews as Sergeant Major Pugh and Anthony Quayle as the South African hitch-hiker, van der Poel.  It was released in the US under the gung-ho sounding title Desert Attack!, which is rather misleading, since the only attack in the whole movie is the  bombardment of Tobruk by off-screen Germans which starts the story off; once our heroes are on the road in their ambulance their main enemy is the desert, and the important set-pieces are not their encounters with Afrika Korps patrols (who mostly behave with a regard for the Geneva Convention that would have been unimaginable in the screen Nazis of a decade before) but the tense crossing of abandoned minefields and treacherous salt-flats.  The unforgettable scene in which the ambulance has to be cranked by hand up a seemingly endless incline - twice - is worthy of Clouzot's Wages of Fear.  It's such a good film that I'm almost afraid to mention it, in case another reference on Google leads some bright spark in Hollywood to do a remake starring Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and sky-loads of CGI Stukas...

The book on which the film was based is less well-known these days, but thanks to the miracle of buying second hand books on the internet I was able to come by a copy recently.  I'm pleased to say that it is every bit as good as the film,  and although the film is faithful to it (except for one rather startling change which I shall come to in a moment) there is enough extra detail, enough fleshing out of characters and historical background, that I was never bored by knowing what was coming next.  Christopher Landon could write, and he was writing here about something he understood, having served in ambulances during the desert war himself.  He is remarkably honest about the psychological strain of it all (Anson is on the verge of a nervous breakdown as the story opens, and increasingly dependent on drink).  He's also scrupulously humane.  'A War without Hate' was what the Germans called the conflict in north Africa**.  Since their lot started it that was hardly for them to say, and one imagines there must have a bit of hatred washing about in those savage and deadly desert battles.  But it's true that there seem to have been no atrocities, that both sides treated prisoners and enemy casualties well, and that a certain respect and almost affection seems to have existed between them.  This Landon captures well, and he is always careful to remind us that the Germans are as human as his heroes.  Even when the widowed Tom Pugh thinks of his wife, killed in Plymouth by 'a lone raider, the fighters on his tail, dropping his load... to get more speed for the desperate run home', he is aware that 'There had been no hate in the mind that loosed those bombs, he knew, only fear.  And in him, now, there was no hate either.'  These small asides underline one of the main themes of both book and film; the possibility of comradeship between the Brits and their German passenger; enemies united against 'the greater enemy: the desert.'

But the big surprise of the book, to someone who knows the film, is that it is Sergeant Major Pugh, not Captain Anson, who is really the hero.  Anson is sympathetic and admirable, and the friendship between the two men is at the heart of the story, but far more of it is told through Anson's eyes than Pugh's, and crucially, unlike in the film, it's Pugh who gets the girl.

What was at the root of that change, I wonder?  Did John Mills, as the bigger star, have to be given the love scene?  But if that's the case, why could he not have played Pugh instead of Anson?  Was only the officer class allowed to have love interest in British cinema of the '50s?  In some ways the relationship between Anson and Diana in the film is more interesting than the Pugh/Diana pairing in the book - it has an awkward, one-night-stand quality which leaves us in some doubt as to whether it will continue once they get to Alexandria, while Pugh and Diana in the book are clearly going to get married and head back happily to his village on the Tamar.  But it leaves the always excellent Harry Andrews playing something of a stereotype; the indomitable, uncomplaining, basically sexless sergeant major who keeps things running smoothly for his more sensitive commanding officer.

In the end, I can't help feeling that by making this change in his screenplay, Mr Landon slightly betrayed his own novel.  But then movies always betray the books on which they're based, and I suppose if he hadn't done it, someone else would, and might have made a far worse job of it.  And if there had not been a film, not only would be the poorer for the lack of it, but the book would probably have vanished into obscurity by now, one of many such novels written, in the years after the war, by men who'd seen a thing or two and had stories to tell.

*The trailer and poster both seem to suggest that it's a true story, but there is no mention of that in the novel.

*Also the title of a very good history of the period by John Bierman and Colin Smith

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