How do you become a looked-to leader of men without it fluffing up your ego? In THE WAY AHEAD (released in the United States as THE IMMORTAL BATTALION) David Niven embodies that very quality, playing an unassuming, quietly self-assured Army lieutenant who toughens up his batch of whiny conscripted malcontents and eventually converts them into efficient military fighting men. As a nod to verisimilitude, David Niven at the time was, in real life, a wartime Rifle Brigade Major when he was approached about a film project promoting the British Army. Accordingly, Carol Reed's 44-minute-long, 1943 training film THE NEW LOT was expanded into this involving 1944 war drama. And since Carol Reed also helms this one, it was bound to not suck. And if you've only ever seen the severely edited U.S.-released THE IMMORTAL BATTALION, you should get your mitts on this one. THE WAY AHEAD is half an hour longer and so fleshes out the narrative more.
I remember reading a brief WWII anecdote about David Niven who, to alleviate his men's nervousness as he was about to lead them into battle, told them: "Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!" I hope this really happened, because if it did, David Niven is the friggin' MAN!
If you've seen one, you've seen loads. THE WAY AHEAD doesn't really offer anything new, except that the cast is across-the-board solid, playing identifiable characters, even those seven or eight grumbling recruits who simply can't fathom why their tough drill sergeant is being allowed to bully them so. These grousers come from diverse walks of life, from middle- to working-class, all quite unprepared for the rigors of basic training. Niven's Lt. Jim Perry initially stays in the background, and it's not until this bunch deliberately sabotages a training exercise does he rip into them as only a refined British gentleman can. After that, you can sense Perry's determination to take a more hands-on approach and whip this sorry lot into shape.
We watch these discontented recruits bond together and evolve into skilled and willing infantrymen, and a thought may sneak in that this is what the Army wanted you to see: that this isn't a bunch of shirkers and complainers, but, rather, just ordinary men caught up in frightening times, buffeted and feeling the pinch and striving to cope. They do come around, and I think that was the message the British Army wanted to send out. We note the eventual show of camaraderie among the grunts and Lt. Perry and Sgt. Fletcher, and there's no surprise there. But Carol Reed's craftsmanship overcomes the triteness of the plot, and so even though these are all familiar beats, you're still become engrossed in gritty, high-spirited drama. It's a sleight-of-hand knack which the best directors can do in their sleep.
Boot camp in the rear view, training completed, backbones all shored up, Lt. Perry's now well-disciplined regiment finally gets a crack at the war. Anticipating a role in the invasion of North Africa and tangling with Field Marshal Rommel and "the greatest professional army in the world," our British Tommies are thwarted when their transport ship almost capsizes. Still, they do eventually get in on the action as they make a stand guarding a tiny town overseas (Tunisia?), and abetted by a young Peter Ustinov playing a French-talking Arab cafe owner. Interestingly, THE WAY AHEAD is one of those rare war pictures that features a low body count. Also, instead of the typical "The End," it closes out with "The Beginning," as we watch the British infantry walk away from the camera, ready to take the fight to the enemy. I wonder what sort of pep talk David Niven told them before they sallied forth?