In the opening of Millions Like Us, a narrator reflects nostalgically on life in pre-World War II Britain, of beachside holidays and good beer, concluding with the image of slipping on an orange peel. After saying that, a subtitle appears:
“NOTE: The orange is a spherical pulpish fruit of reddish-yellow colour.”
It was only a minute in, and I already had to stop the film and contemplate this. Was that supposed to be a joke? Was it serious? Were there really people in 1943 who had no idea what an orange was? I started to do some research, and eventually discovered that, yes, production of just about all citrus fruits had slowed dramatically during World War II, being very difficult to ship outside of the United States. This caused worry about soldiers having Vitamin C deficiency until the invention of frozen concentrate, two years after this film was released.
So yes, there was a chance that people in the audience, especially younger people, might never have seen or tasted an orange before. The past is another country, to quote L. P. Hartley, and this film encapsulates this idea more than any other I’ve seen. Its focus on the British home front and the people and activities of that specific time means it has more use today as an accidental documentary then it did as a factory woman propaganda piece back then. The film is full of images that seem alien to us now, but were everyday occurrences in 1940s Britain. People filling every last bit of space on a train. Taxi drivers complaining about gas rations. Men not sure if the sandwiches they’re eating are spam or tuna paste. Accountants still working in bombed-out buildings. Soldiers placing mines along a beach, and then complaining about how this ruins it as a vacation spot.
The film focuses on the Crowson family and their relationship with the war effort. The main focus is on one of the daughters, Celia (Patricia Roc), as she is called up and assigned as a factory worker making airplane parts. She doesn’t want to though, as factory work is hardly the most romantic position a woman could have in the war. We witness a montage of Celia imagining herself in various positions in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, each one having her interacting with hunky attractive men and flirt and romance her. That seems to be the main reason many of the women characters join the war effort, to meet men. Celia’s sister, Phyllis (Joy Shelton), joins the Auxiliary Territorial Service and all we ever see is her is talking about or snogging her male compatriots.
This is an unfortunate bit of old timey sexism, but it gets to the heart of what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish with the film’s propaganda. The goal here is to show factory work as being as romantic as all those other services, that one is just as capable of finding a man and falling in love in such a situation. Kind of. Maybe. The thing is, while it would be accurate to classify this film as propaganda, it’s reluctant propaganda, trying to dip a toe both in romanticism and realism. Yes, being a factory worker does not exclude you from romance, but at the same time, romance is much more fragile in general during a war. There are two romances in the film, one of young people falling in love for the first time and another of two people separated by class, and neither of them get a Hollywood ending, so to speak.
Celia’s relationship with a Scottish flight sergeant, Fred (Gordon Jackson), is very light and soft, the kind of awkward fragile I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing first loves that most of us get out of the way in grade school, though these two are in their twenties. Gooey phone calls, lakeside cuddling, and the threat of falling apart with a single, simple miscommunication. It falls in sharp contrast with the relationship with an upper middle class factory worker named Jennifer (Anne Crawford) and a lower class supervisor named Charlie (Eric Portman), who bicker and verbally dual, but they’re actually in looooooove.
Jennifer and Charlie’s relationship is shot more like a traditional film relationship, with lukewarm attempts at Howard Hawks-style banter matched with romantically shot scenes on hilltops and train stations. However, even this isn’t safe from the fact that there’s a war on. It’s like the film WANTS to be romantic fantasy propaganda, wants to be this sooooo hard, but can’t escape the reality of the world. These romances are edited into documentary-style scenes of real factory workers (you know which ones are real and which ones are actors by whether or not they keep glancing into the camera) or scenes of people doing their part in the war effort, like removing street signs in hopes that should the Nazis wind up on British soil, maybe they’ll get lost.
To add to this schizophrenic tone, British comedy duo Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, best known for playing two cricket-opposed passengers in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, are cast as two older soldiers making comedic observations on the war. They’re not actually all that funny in this, but their presence here is like having Seth Rogen and James Franco cameos in your serious Iraq war movie. Not saying comedy and war can’t mix, I’m rather fond of MASH, but it fails here, and it just adds another contrasting ingredient to the pot.
Really, this film is much more interesting as a historical artifact than as a film. As a film, it can drag its feet at times, bring the pacing to a complete halt in it’s second half. But I would still recommend it as a window into a time long past, a point in time of war with no end in sight, but you got keep living, you got to keep making friends and cooking meals and falling in love. This film is more true to what life was like in World War II Britain than any other you might find, and it’s worth a watch for that alone.
Millions Like Us is available on Netflix Instant and Region 2 DVD.