Saturday, 20 August 2016

War horse… A Couple of Down-And-Outs (1923) at BFI with John Sweeney

Eight million horses are estimated to have died during the First World War as mechanisation and weapons of mass destruction quickly showed them to be ineffective front-line weapons – in the last British cavalry charge in March 1918 all but 4 of the 150 horses involved were killed. They were used extensively behind the lines, able to pull their weight even in the hopeless mud behind the trenches.

The film was the first to be directed by Walter Summers who went on to great success with battle recreations for British Instructional Films such as Ypres (1925), Mons (1926), Nelson (1926) and the marvelous The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) (reviewed here).

Rex Davis and friend
It’s a far more straightforward tale than what was to come but shows evidence of Summers’ own wartime experience that led him to become what David Robinson terms, British cinema’s war poet.

In addition to Bryony Dixon, the film was also introduced by Sir Sydney Samuelson whose father, GB Samuelson not only produced the film but also photographed it and played a role in the writing. Samuelson Senior had an extraordinary career and was involved in over a hundred films of which, sadly, only around a tenth survive, so when this film was rediscovered in a loft somewhere in Holland there was much cause for celebration.

Now restored by the BFI from this last surviving print (now held by EYE) the film has English intertitles and is a delight for the eye.

Summers staged some huge reconstructions for the film
It’s fascinating to tap into British sensibilities just five years after what they were already calling The Great War: there’s a resilience to officiousness and unthinking authority and yet a respect for our institutions, our fighting men – and horses – and an eagerness to stand together and support our fellow man.

That easy going, clear-eyed great Britain can spot a phoney a mile off and someone in need of genuine help all at the same time: war-hardened and quick-witted there was no time to be wasted on fripperies.

A Britain still mourning
Our hero – an unnamed horse (two to be precise) and/or an unemployed ex-soldier, Danny Creath (Rex Davis) – are both left down and out after the War and it’s fascinating to see this being dealt with so openly at a time when “the returned” were still be re-assimilated into society.

Danny can’t find work and traipses around hoping for the best when it seems society has passed him by. At the docks, where he has once again failed to find work, he spots a familiar-looking horse… It’s one the animals used by his unit to pull the guns and he recognises not only its distinctive white head and “socks” but also the scar it gained when they were both wounded in battle.

Danny takes action and the pals escape
It’s due for shipment to Belgium and the knackers yard but he can’t let this brave animal bow out in this way and old courage returned and old certainties of duty clear he knocks two of the cruel handlers down and, with the ready help of the dock workers, who pile on the helpless men, makes his escape on the back of his old friend.

The scenes at the dock are an evocation of trade past and as Danny rides through narrow terraced streets we can see the wider environment – Wapping? – he knocks over a peeler on his escape but manages to find a house with a stable.

Molly confronts the strange man in her yard
Molly Roarke (Edna Best) is the young woman of the house and comes outside to find out what the noise was. An instant, post-war bond is made as she sizes up this medalled young man – who reminds her so much of the brother she lost in the war – how many households were unscathed?

By the time the Police come calling she’s already decided whose side she’s on… As she makes Danny some of her excellent coffee we learn the story in flash back. There are scenes from Jutland – mighty battle cruisers firing their 18 inch guns – where her brother died and then on the front where Danny and the horse fought. Some of this may be stock footage but its assembly and production clearly foreshadow Summers' later work.

Edna Best
There’s a lovely interplay between Molly and Danny and when her father (George Foley) – the Policeman who Danny knocked over – arrives for a “break” the subtleties of his relationship with his daughter almost pass the young man by…

The film is a balm for an audience still feeling the losses of the conflict as well as the economic impact. There’s a telling moment at the dock when Danny sneers at boxes of toy soldier all “Made in Germany”… then, as now the problem was always what the other fellas are doing but, in truth, the situation in Germany was far worse. But since when have facts influenced local sentiments?

Here to help: George Foley
Even now, A Couple of Down-And-Outs makes you feel better and it’s not just the skill of the film making…

John Sweeney accompanied with his usual verve – foot-sure improvisations that moved with the surprisingly sentimental and optimistic subject. He’d earlier improvised over a few minutes of footage showing the studios used by this and other Samuelson films. Sight-unseen he produced the perfect background for set painting, dancing rehearsals and directing: he could play along to accounting or even marketing and make it interesting!

The film is available on the EFG portal which shows the EYE copy with Dutch subtitles although an English translation is available.

No comments:

Post a Comment