It Happened Here (1964)

It Happened Here Film Review by Anthony C Green

What if?

Kevin Brownlow was only eighteen years old when he began work on what would become the low-budget, cult-classic, Alternative History movie It Happened Here. Already a keen amateur student of the history of cinema, he had only a single 16mm camera to his name as his project commenced.

It was 1956 and Brownlow’s native London still showed much evidence of the effects of the brutal world war that had ended a mere eleven years earlier. For him growing up, as for so many of his age group in every major town and city in the country, bomb sites had seemed to be a permanent feature of his physical environment. Now, although the speed of post-war reconstruction was gathering place, it was these physical reminders of the horrors of war that gave Brownlow the subject for his film. The question he pondered as he began work was a question that had already been explored by many, and would be explored by many, many more, through the mediums of both film and literature: That is, what if Hitler had won the war and Britain had, like so many European countries, been invaded and occupied by the Nazis?

We should perhaps state that initially, Brownlow was under no illusion that, given the extreme limitation of his resources, he could produce a whole, professional-looking movie alone. The best he hoped for at this stage was that he would be able to produce a few reels of sufficiently interesting quality to be able to hawk them around various film studios, impressing enough of the right people to make his dream of seeing his project reach the big screen into a reality.

His early efforts, by his own admission, were not great. For actors, he used friends, friends of friends, relatives, and any passers-by he came across who looked right and were willing to give their services for free. For costumes and props, it was very much a DIY, make-do-and-mend aesthetic. For example, Nazi uniforms were made by the simple expedient of sewing swastikas onto a job lot of American army uniforms that Brownlow had acquired cheaply from a local theatrical costumier.

Everything changed, and work on the film properly begun when, whilst buying German war-time helmets on Portobello market, Brownlow was introduced to somebody whom it was felt might be able to assist him with his project. That person was Andrew Mollo who, at mere sixteen years of age, was even younger and more precocious than Brownlow. As luck would have it, it was to the subject of military history and to the collection of military artifacts that young Andrew had decided to dedicate his time and single-focused dedication. Intrigued by what Brownlow told him about his nascent movie, he agreed to take a look at what progress had so far been made.

Crammed into Brownlow’s small flat, surrounded by rolls of film, empty film canisters, and Fascist magazines that had been bought purely for the purposes of research, Mollo was not at all impressed with what he saw projected onto a white sheet affixed to a wall. Calmly but firmly, he told Brownlow that almost every single detail as regards the military aspects of the film was wrong. He then went on to amaze Brownlow with his detailed knowledge of the work of Eric Von Stroheim.

Stroheim had been an Austrian-American filmmaker of the silent era who had acquired legendary status through his obsessive attention to detail. For instance, in period pieces, he would even insist that his actors wear underwear appropriate to the time in which the movie was set, even if there was never any intention that any of this underwear would ever be seen on screen. The original version of his classic 1924 movie Greed originally ran to more than nine hours, a length which was unsurprisingly cut to a little over two before Metro-Goldwyn Mayer deigned to release it. Stroheim was considered to be so difficult to work with that his career as a filmmaker effectively ended in the early 1930s, and he spent the remaining thirty or so years of his life as a well-regarded but little-known Hollywood character actor.

That Mollo had even heard of Stroheim hugely impressed Brownlow, and Andrew was soon on board as the joint Producer/Director of the film, on the mutually agreed understanding that as close to a Stroheim-like degree of accuracy would be applied to their joint creation as possible.

The film would take eight years to complete, and it would be a further two before it would gain a full cinematic release.

Though both have since admitted to there being some degree of ongoing creative tensions between the two of them, Brownlow and Mollo clearly complemented each other as far as their skills and areas of special interest were concerned. Whilst Mollo brought to the movie a degree of authenticity that lifted the film well beyond that of being a mere home-made curio, Brownlow brought to it a political dimension that made it different from anything else in the ‘What if Hitler had won’ cinematic, or literary canon, either before or since.

By 1956, just over a decade after its conclusion, many film adaptations of major events of the Second World War had already been made, including many which are rightly still regarded as classics to this day. But one thing, in particular, struck Brownlow about these films, and that was that ideology had essentially been removed from all known portrayals of the conflict. The German army, and even elite Nazi forces such as the SS, tended to be depicted as little different to any other generic movie bad guys. But, considered Brownlow, wasn’t the Second World War essentially a battle of competing ideologies, in a way that no other war had ever been? On the one side, we had the Allies, comprised as they were of an uneasy, and as it turned out unstable, between Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. On the other were the similar, though not identical ideologies of Japanese militarism, Italian Fascism, and most importantly of all, in the vanguard of the Axis powers, the philosophy of Hitlerite National Socialism. For Brownlow, as both a filmmaker and as a committed leftist, a clear understanding of what National Socialism was and what it was that National Socialists believed was essential.

This determination to show Nazism as a real live ideology, for which people were prepared to fight and, if necessary, to die, led Brownlow to make a decision that was to prove to be highly contentious: This was the decision to allow real-life, modern-day Nazis the opportunity to describe their own belief system, without the mediation of actors, or even of properly scripted dialogue. We will return to this subject shortly. Through sheer necessity, despite their determination to apply the greatest possible degree of historical accuracy, the low budget/homemade ethos of the film remained. Only three professional actors would be included in the finished product, each of them agreeing to work for the minimum scale of Equity pay, on the understanding that their parts would be relatively small, so that they could fit in other work around the filming schedule, and that they would be paid properly in the unlikely event that the movie would receive a cinematic release. The remainder of the roles continued to be played by amateurs, some of whom were enthusiastic battle reconstructionists, and some of whom were former members of Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, temporary actors who no doubt relished the opportunity to dig their old Blackshirt uniforms out from their guilty hiding place at the back of their wardrobes. The rest of the uniforms came from Mollo’s ever-expanding list of contacts in the sub-culture of collectors of militaria. These were supplemented by the cast-offs from mainstream movies, as Mollo started to get paid work in the props and art departments of various movies.

Brownlow and Mollo found their lead actor in Pauline Murray, a middle-aged, Dublin-born woman who at this time was living in Wales. Murray was introduced to Brownlow by his friend, the film critic, and journalist Derek Hill. She was a working nurse who had a passion for amateur dramatics, though she had also had a small amount of paid acting experience as a background artist in a handful of little-known British films. Extra layers of realism were added to the movie by the fact that the character she portrayed on-screen would also be called Pauline, and that the character would also be a nurse by profession.

Although a strictly part-time actor, Pauline Murray apparently put the professionals to shame when it came to the seriousness with which she applied herself to her role, turning up on set early each time she was required, despite the long journeys from Wales to London, and always word-perfect.

Despite the resolutely DIY nature of It Happened Here, the film would not have been completed without the assistance of two major cinematic figures. The first was the film director Tony Richardson who had just enjoyed success with one of the earliest, and best, examples of what came to be known as ‘Kitchen Sink’ British movie dramas. This film was called Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Intrigued by what he had heard of Brownlow and Mollo’s project, Richardson asked to see what progress had been made so far. After reviewing the raw footage, he asked that it be expanded from 16mm to 35mm so that he could get a clearer idea of what a finished product might look like in the cinema. Liking what he saw, he agreed to bankroll the movie on three conditions: Firstly, that it could be completed for £3000 or less; secondly; that the rest of the film be shot using 35mm film; and thirdly, that the filmmakers provide a workable script. Up until this point, they had been working without one, improvising scenes when and where they could, using what would later be called ‘Guerrilla filmmaking’ techniques around general themes and ideas.

This last point was no real problem. Brownlow and Mollo had enough of an idea of the general shape of the story to be able to formalise it into a decent enough script. The problem lay with the first and second points. 35mm film was expensive, and paying for that alone would undoubtedly take Brownlow and Mollo way over Richardson’s kindly given but limited budget.

It was here that another established filmmaker came to their rescue, the already well-respected and later legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Brownlow met Kubrick, rather ironically, at a showing of Von Stroheim’s Greed, and took the opportunity to tell him how much he’d enjoyed his recent film Paths of Glory, which was set during the First World War. At this time, Kubrick was in London working with Peter Sellers on the classic Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove. Hearing about It Happened Here, and like Richardson intrigued by what he heard, and also remembering the struggles of his own early attempts at film making, Kubrick agreed to provide Brownlow and Mollo with the 35mm ‘short ends’ (film left unused at the end of a roll) from his new work-in-progress free of charge.

Through the help of Richardson and Kubrick, the goodwill of all of those who gave their services freely or cheaply, the contacts of Mollo, and the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ dedication of both he and Brownlow, the movie was finally completed by the autumn of 1964, and a mere £3000 over the sum allocated to them by Richardson. It received showings at a couple of film festivals, and the reviews and word of mouth grapevine from these was positive enough to alert the interest of United Artists. Thus began two years of tortuous negotiation before the film would finally get its proper cinematic release.

The main sticking point in these negotiations was the filmmaker’s determination to proceed with the inclusion of the real-life British Nazis. United Artists insisted that this footage be cut.

The scene in question was a six-minute segment during which Pauline is undergoing ideological training through the Immediate Action Organisation. The IA, as it is generally known, is a kind of British equivalent of the Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, membership of which is required before workers are allowed to begin, or to continue with, their chosen profession, in the case of Pauline, that of nursing. As part of this training, she and a small group of others are shown discussing with three British SS officers. These officers are played by former members of Mosely’s BUF, and who at that time of filming, in the early 1960s, were current members of the National Socialist Movement, a small party that included amongst its leadership would-be British Fuhrer Colin Jordan (a few years before he was convicted of stealing women’s underwear), and future National Front and British National Party leader John Tyndall. The scene is largely improvised and, prompted by the questions of Pauline and her fellow trainees, the Nazis had the opportunity to put forward their views on such topics as the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ over the Jewish race, and the need for methods of ‘humane’ euthanasia to be used against the disabled, or ‘useless eaters’ as they are described. The scene was accused by United Artists of allowing Nazi propaganda to be put forward virtually unchallenged. The British Jewish Board of Deputies would go further and accuse the filmmakers themselves of being anti-Semitic, despite Brownlow’s (Mollo was and is, by his own testimony much less of a political animal) impeccable Leftist, anti-racist credentials.

This part of the film has also, perhaps more plausibly, been criticised on purely aesthetic grounds, including by Brownlow’s film critic friend Derek Hill. Hill believed that, though fascinating it its own right, the scene unnecessarily interrupted the narrative flow of the movie. It is indeed true that the scene does seem to be rather shoe-horned into place, and perhaps a bit more scripting may have proved useful in integrating it into the film as a whole. But, like Brownlow, I would argue that the segment simply has to be there. Its inclusion, particularly given the added knowledge that these filmic Nazis really are Nazis who are articulating their own true beliefs, rather than actors simply speaking words that have written for them by others, is a big part of what makes It Happened Here special; and what better indictment of National Socialist ideology could there be than to hear one of its advocates declare that not only is he in general approval of a law allowing for the ‘putting down’ of disabled children but that he would happily take matters into his own hands as regards to a disabled child of his own, should such a law not exist?

In the end, through a sheer desire to see their long and difficult creative journey come to a successful conclusion, Brownlow and Mollo let United Artists have their way, and the controversial scene was cut. This was a decision that Brownlow, in particular, seems to have always regretted; and it should almost go without saying that the scene has been restored to its rightful place in all subsequent media releases.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its origins and the struggle to get it made, It Happened Here was something of a success. Extras in the Blue Ray release show queues outside a cinema in the West End, and examples of giant billboards advertising it that had been erected at strategic points around the capital. The idea that the film was a ‘lost’ low budget masterpiece that disappeared without trace after its release, only to be discovered later by dedicated British film buffs, is simply wrong. In the six weeks of its initial run in the West End, it made a gross profit of £26000, not quite Hollywood blockbuster material by modern standards, but a still not insubstantial amount in 1966.

Unfortunately for Brownlow and Mollo, this money was swallowed up entirely by United Artists’ advertising campaign, a campaign which included expensive cinematic trailers in addition to the billboards, plus the belated payment of the professional actors, and other assorted ‘expenses.’ Despite being shown at many venues across the UK, and also in several countries outside the UK, the two people who had dedicated ten years of their lives to the realisation of the project made not a single penny from its relative success. So, what of the movie itself? I won’t give away too many spoilers as regards the plot. Suffice to say, that the action takes place in the period of 1944-5, in a universe where Britain has been occupied by the Germans following the surrender of the British armed forces after their military defeat at Dunkirk in 1940. It is never explicitly stated, but a background photograph of Oswald Mosely next to a portrait of Adolf Hitler suggests that the government is now in the hands of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley’s leadership, with guidance from the German occupying forces.

A full-scale armed resistance movement is under way, and one of the most powerful moments in the movie, in another scene that some have criticised on the grounds of being anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, is the fiery oration delivered by a British SS officer at the torch-lit funeral for one of his comrades, a comrade murdered in an ambush by ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ members of the resistance.

For me, two themes stand out most strongly in the film: Firstly, the explosion of the myth of British exceptionalism, the idea that, unlike our less than courageous allies on the other side of the Channel, ‘we’ would never have accepted defeat and collaborated with our conquerors, had the war been lost. In the world of It Happened Here, the British people behave exactly like the French, the Dutch, the Danish, and indeed the residents of the Guernsey Islands, the only British territory that actually did fall to German occupation. That is, some collaborate enthusiastically with the Nazis, some fight actively for their nation’s liberation, and the vast majority in the middle simply accept the reality of their predicament and make of it the best that they can, perhaps resisting in small ways, as shown by the dirty looks that Pauline receives on the bus the first time that she ventures out in her IA uniform. The second theme concerns the moral compromises that ordinary people are forced to make when faced with extra-ordinary situations, simply to get by, to earn a living, to survive and to support their families, compromises that, as is the case with Pauline, can lead them into the kind of actions that they would never have contemplated should the world they had known not been brought to a shocking halt.

These extra-ordinary actions of course apply equally to those who resist as to those who reluctantly collaborate, a point that is well illustrated close to the end of the film, when a resistance leader, following the brutal and summary execution of a group of British SS members, comments: ‘Sometimes in order to fight fascism, you must use fascist methods.’

Another high point of the film, and another moment of uber-realism, is the faux-German newsreel extolling the brotherhood of the German and British people, and the glories of the new National Socialist Britain. In the creation of this segment, Brownlow in particular was heavily influenced by Orson Wells use of a similar device in Citizen Kane.

The It Happened Here ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel was in fact so real that an Italian documentary film in the 1970s took it to be an actual German propaganda film explaining what a glorious opportunity for Britain an alliance with Germany would be. Within it, we see faked footage (and all of the footage in the movie was created by Brownlow and Mollo, as they took a conscious decision not to use any stock footage) of the Christmas Truce of 1914, and of occupying German soldiers behaving not as cartoon-villains or as brutal conquerors, but as living, breathing young lads on an adventure, posing for photographs at famous London landmarks, drinking in cafes and bars and flirting with local girls.

One particularly believable touch in this section is provided by a brief shot of young British boys laughing as they jokingly imitate the Nazi goosestep. If the film has a weakness, it is one caused simply by the budgetary limitations placed upon its creators. Chief amongst these is that Pauline is the only constant character in the movie. Other characters are either extras, or else they appear briefly in order to fulfil a narrative function, to illustrate a ‘type’, be it an enthusiastic Nazi, a reluctant collaborator, or a determined, politicised resistance fighter. These were the roles that were played by the three professional actors, the structure of the film and the brevity of their role designed specifically to allow them to do their bit and move on to more immediately remunerative work.

But if this is a quibble at all, then it is a very minor one. It Happened Here is a one-off, perhaps the best Alternative History movie ever made, and one of the best British films ever made. Given its humble beginnings, the extreme youth of its creators, and the shoe-string nature of its budget, it is a truly remarkable artistic achievement. Actually, to say that It Happened Here is a one-off, is not quite accurate. Brownlow and Mollo were to work together once more, on the film Winstanley, released in 1976, about the 17th Century writer and social reformer Gerrard Winstanley, one of the leading figures in the proto-communist Diggers movement during the English Civil War. This film also took a decade to make; was also made for next to nothing using a mostly amateur cast, and also made virtually nothing for its makers. It is a worthy companion movie to It Happened Here. Since this film, Brownlow has devoted himself to the silent movie era that is his abiding passion. He has written books and made documentary films on this subject, and most notably he played the primary role in restoring Abel Gance’s classic 1927 film Napoleon, the five-hour epic about the early life of the future French Emperor. Andrew Mollo has continued to be much in demand as a cinematic Art Director and advisor on matters military, in recent years working on such high-profile movies as The Pianist and Downfall.

The 2018 Blue Ray release of It Happened Here includes, as well as a the beautifully restored main feature, an excerpt from a documentary on the making of Winstanley, early unused footage from It Happened Here, a longer version of the ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel sequence, and a brilliant hour-long interview with Brownlow, during which he goes into much greater detail about the making of the film than has been possible here. It is fabulous value for money.

Directors: Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo Writers: Kevin Brownlow (story and screenplay), Andrew Mollo (screenplay) Stars: Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw, Bart Allison

Anthony C Green’s latest novel Better than the Beatles! is available as both a paperback and an eBook

Purchase It Happened Here

1 Comment »

  1. Great review Anthony!

    Like

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