The Battle of Arnhem and conflict on film

Helion’s new book features at a book signing and talk at the Open Book Literary Festival, Hertfordshire on 29 July 2017

By Allan Esler-Smith

Co-author Allan Esler Smith

Think back to all those UK war films that you may have watched over the decades and consider which is the greatest. I’d suggest dismissing works of fiction and those that try to appeal with a tag line ‘based on a true story’ and go on to serve up information which some take in as fact. Authenticity, I would suggest is vital. So how many on your shortlist were made by the veterans who actually fought at the battle? Then reduce your list to only those films made on the actual ground of the battle? How many are on your list now? Then scale the endeavours of the veteran actors. For instance, how many feature veterans asked to return to a location where they were defeated and, importantly, within a year of the defeat. Then sprinkle in some thoughts that would tip any ordinary man over the edge. During breaks in filming the veterans identified shallow field graves where their comrades were still buried.

Soldiers tend to get on with the job without complaint- a soldier’s lot. But returning to the scene of their defeat you just have to wonder how often the veterans’ minds turned to thoughts of how they were outgunned by enemy heavy armour that they were never told about. Then, just to complete the mix and your selection of UK war films that make the grade, try giving some credit for ‘going the extra mile’. For instance, were the buildings used as set locations still mined with enemy explosives? Would the veterans-turned-actors be returning into a civilian population who were briefly liberated and then left behind with an enemy who extracted retribution? By any standards Theirs is the Glory, released on 17 September 1946 and filmed in the late summer of 1945, is the most unique and, I would say, greatest of all war films made in the UK. 

Further factors can then be added into the mix to help an appreciate the accolade just given. The film’s director banned the use of any studio actors taking a role.

This was to be the veterans’ film; soldiers can do many things but acting isn’t high on the list of required attributes, so the strength, vision and motivation of the director is important.

Then we have the outcome on the film’s release on the second anniversary of The Battle of Arnhem. The reception and applause almost defies belief. It became the biggest grossing war film in the UK for a decade (pipped by Battle of the River Plate in 1956). It received a Royal Command from King George VI for a screening at Balmoral and both Queen Mary and the Prime Minister attended screenings in London.

Unique, and unequalled, the film Theirs is the Glory was always going to be the centre piece of a new book written by Arnhem expert David Truesdale and myself and launched by Helion and Company in September 2016 with the title Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film. The film’s importance in conflict film history results in us devoting just over half the book to the veterans of Arnhem telling their story on film. We set the scene with how the battle of Arnhem fitted into the war for Europe; detail the armaments carried from the air down into battle; play out the film scene-by-scene and day-by-day. Significantly, we name the veterans who, at the time and in respect to their comrades who died in the battle, did not take credits on the big screen. Our vision was for an archival book as this approach will help you view the film as never before and each viewing will reveal more and more of the insights left by the veterans.

I need to explain my role as co-author of Helion’s new book. I look after the Estate of my Uncle, Brian Desmond Hurst – the film’s director, shaper and motivation. I am fortunate to have in our archives and contacts a large resource that helps shine a light onto this film as never done before. Some context about my Uncle is therefore vital to understanding how he achieved the results…

 

Brian Desmond Hurst, director of Theirs is the Glory

My Uncle was born in East Belfast in 1895 and christened Hans Moore Hawthorn Hurst. He was the ‘lucky’ seventh child. Not that he had much early luck with his mother dying in childbirth when Hans was just four years old and his father, a shipyard worker, dying when he was 16. Hans was very much on his own. Bored with Belfast, he volunteered for the army, served as an infantry  private and survived the cruel slaughter at Gallipoli. Half his colleagues were dead or wounded and many more lost their minds. His defeated battalion was air-brushed from history. Warfare, at its very worst, is something that most of us will never comprehend but it is also a cauldron of turmoil that spits out moments of genius and especially so in the arts.

So how did young Hans get into film directing? Wounded at Gallipoli, he was transferred to the Labour Corp and hated it. He solved the problem by deserting and re-enlisting and changing his name to cover his tracks whilst on the run. Medals sent to the local police station as a lure were never collected and eventually the street fighting in Belfast during the Irish War of Independence in 1919 and 1920 wore him down. This was not what he fought for and so he changed his name again and became Brian Desmond Hurst (giving a nod to ancient Irish regal names). A grant helped him to Canada and art school. Chance encounters then brought set design work in Hollywood and a meeting with John Ford who became his mentor and greatest friend.  Perhaps the luck of the seventh child had started to kick in?

On returning to the UK, Brian settled in Belgravia but still visited Ulster for what he called ‘a spiritual bath’. Brian built a formidable directing career and helped launch many careers including Terence Young director of the early Bond films, Sir Roger Moore and Lord Attenborough. Openly gay but never convicted, he also caused controversy with some films. His first film Tell Tale Heart (1934) was thought too horrible to show in some cinemas. His Irish war of independence story Ourselves Alone (1936 – the title is a translation of Sinn Fein) attracted glowing comment in The Irish Times: “I am confident that this film… will be declared picture of the year”. It was misunderstood and banned in his homeland Northern Ireland. He later converted from Protestant to Catholicism.

He also broke ground directing one of Britain’s first film noirs in 1939 – On the Night of the Fire, and then went on direct big box office successes including the Christmas classic Scrooge (1951) and Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1950).  With more than 30 films to his credit, the list reveals a genre that could be missed at first glance, but then when you look closely, one in three films has conflict at its core. Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem and Conlict on Film therefore profiles and examines his nine other conflict films and his message as an artist on his vast film canvas:

Ourselves Alone (1936). Conflict in Ireland. “A miracle has just happened in Ireland; two people out of three who are going to be happy.”

The Lion Has Wings (1939). The first film of the Second World War. “This is Britain, where we believe in freedom.”

A Call For Arms (1940). Ministry of Information. “A rallying call for war production and more women to work in the factories.”

Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940). Ministry of Information. “Preparing, but not alarming, the nation for an invasion by Germany.”

Dangerous Moonlight (1941). “The fall of Poland and how her airmen came to the rescue of Britain.”

A Letter From Ulster (1942). The Crown Film Unit profiles the US army training in Northern Ireland for the war in Europe. “Treat your allies well.”

Malta Story (1953). The isolated island of Malta in the Second World War. “We spend ourselves for the common good.”

 

Simba (1955). Kenya, the Mau Mau and the end of colonial rule. “We must make friends with these people, as otherwise you’ll find yourself not fighting a few thousand fanatics, but five million angry people.”

The Black Tent (1956). The Second World War in the North African Desert and a brother’s loss and his adventure to find the truth. “Loss, the need for truth, reconciliation and difficult decisions.”

The book also chronicles his war in Gallipoli to help give an insight into some of the themes that emerge in his films and especially his Arnhem film where the read-across is compelling. Intelligence failings, a defeat, a withdrawal and significant losses… Hurst’s colleagues in the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles were airbrushed from history after Gallipoli but he helped ensure the same fate would not meet the 1st Airborne after Arnhem.

Brian Desmond Hurst died penniless and intestate in September 1986. His epitaph in 1986 may have read: “an East Belfast gay man who converted from Protestant to Catholicism and deserted during the First World War.” In 1986 Belfast was deep in the midst of its own internal conflict and the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in Northern Ireland only came about in 1982, so Belfast may have been inclined to pass over the story of its son.

Fast forward 30 years and Hurst is now recognised as Northern Ireland’s greatest film director. He has been applauded with two blue plaques in Belfast together with the naming of the Hurst Film Sound Stage at Titanic Quarter. September 2016 saw Helion’s publication of Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film. The years of research by David Truesdale and myself was absorbing, illuminating and allowed us to lift the lid, partially, on a brilliant man whose film direction leaves us with a unique catalogue of conflict on film and, I would say again, the greatest war film made in the UK.

I will be talking about this at the Open Book Literary Festival on 29th July 2017 at the British Schools Museum in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with an introduction by military author, Hugh Bicheno. The festival is about authors sharing their passion for their books with ‘books, beer and banter’ and more information and tickets at only £4 can be found at the www.britishschoolsmuseum.co.uk and go to ‘Open Book- Literary Festival’.

Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film by David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith can be ordered here or Allan will be signing copies at the Open Book Literary Festival on 29th July 2017.

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