Nazi cruelty vs British pluck – one of the greatest stories of the Second World War

A scene from The Foreman Went to France
A scene from The Foreman Went to France - STUDIOCANAL FILMS LTD / Alamy Stock Photo

Ealing Studios’ The Foreman Went to France appeared in cinemas in June 1942 when British morale was low. The Blitz was over, a Nazi invasion looked unlikely, and America had entered the war; but Britain had suffered a defeat in Singapore four months earlier that had nearly cost Churchill his job, the tide was unturned against Rommel in North Africa, and there was no sign of a “second front” opening in Europe. So what better than to take a heroic story from earlier in the war about the exploits of a man called Melbourne Johns, who worked at a munitions factory in Grantham, and use it to remind people of the simple courage and determination of the British?

In real life, Johns, against his managers’ wishes, went to France around the time of Dunkirk to rescue, from a Hispano-Suiza factory, some deep-hole boring machines, used to drill the guns of Spitfires and Hurricanes. He teamed up with a group of soldiers, reached the factory just ahead of the German advance, to find its workers vanished, put the machines on an Army lorry and brought them back to England. The story is pretty faithfully told in the film.

Ealing had higher production values than most British studios at the time, with superior writing and the cream of the country’s actors. Clifford Evans played Johns’s character (known in the film as Fred Carrick) and was, like him, a Welshman. He was an interesting choice for two reasons. First, although in the title role, he was far less well-known than his co-stars: Tommy Trinder, the somewhat rasping, gorblimey comedian hugely popular at the time, not least because of his energetic work for Ensa entertaining the troops; and Constance Cummings, the celebrated American actress domiciled in England since her marriage in the early 1930s. Second, Evans was a conscientious objector, and acting was his war work. Inevitably, such men were not popular in 1942 among a general public burdened with sacrifices, so Ealing took a risk in casting him so prominently.

The film was produced by an outstanding team. The director was Charles Frend, who would go on to direct perhaps the greatest ever British war film, The Cruel Sea (1953), and perhaps the finest film about heroism, Scott of the Antarctic (1948). The writing team was led by J B Priestley, and the music was by William Walton.

Frend and his writers carefully ticked every propaganda box. Evans is an everyman of understated heroism, acting as any Briton might have to if the invasion came. Trinder is aggressively working class, his cheerful, cheeky cockney-chappy act showing the sense of humour that was not the least quality that won the war. Cummings, whom the men acquire at the factory where she has been working as a secretary, shows the determination of women (by this stage, almost every female between 18 and 40 was enlisted in some aspect of the national war effort) and also salutes our American ally. Gordon Jackson, in his first credited film role (he was just 18), plays a private who is killed in an air raid, reflecting Scotland’s contribution to the war.

The Foreman Went to France is a triumph of propaganda
The Foreman Went to France is a triumph of propaganda - STUDIOCANAL FILMS LTD / Alamy Stock Photo

Indeed, there is no sugar-coating in the film: women and children are machine-gunned in a refugee column; and when a cell of spies is encountered, they are taken out with ruthless violence. In that sense, the film anticipates another Ealing film then in production, Went the Day Well?, released in December 1942. By showing the innocents being slaughtered, the films ensured the right level of anti-Nazi hatred was maintained among the audience. 

Other important aspects of wartime behaviour are also highlighted: careless talk by Carrick puts a collaborationist mayor on to his trail, and leads to the spies and fifth columnists trying to stop him getting to the coast, and a boat for home. The boat is filled with refugees escaping to England, and they agree to leave their possessions behind to allow the machines to be loaded on. So the Free French are saluted, too. The film is starting to look its age, but it is a stunning work of propaganda. With the 80th anniversary of the end of the war now in sight, it is worth revisiting and appreciating if not as pure entertainment, then as a valuable historical document.

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