After the retreat of the British armed forces from Dunkirk, Britain was invaded by Germany in July of 1940…and though the Brits initially put up a stiff struggle, the Hun eventually stymied The Resistance and restored law and order to Old Blighty. In 1944, World War II is still in progress but with German troops badly needed among the Ural Mountains front, control of Britain has been handed over to local volunteers who have thrown in with the German Army and the SS.
Pauline (Pauline Murray) is an Irish-born nurse who’s been evacuated from her rural village by the Germans and their collaborators and relocated to London; in the process, several of her friends are shot and killed in the crossfire resulting from a battle between the “relocators” and a group of British partisans. Pauline is apolitical when it comes to choosing sides in the conflict, but she’s seething with anger at the needless death of her friends…and once arriving in London, learns that she’ll have to join the Immediate Action Organization (IAO) if she wants to continue nursing. The effects of the IAO’s indoctrination quickly take hold of Pauline, and she begins to exhibit traces of fascism in her behavior despite the efforts of an old friend—Dr. Richard Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw)—to dispel her of such dangerous notions.
The “what if?” scenario of It Happened Here (1966)—the title is a nod to the classic Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here—was dreamed up by 18-year-old Kevin Brownlow in 1956, years before Brownlow achieved immortality as a film historian with such books as The Parade’s Gone By and documentaries on the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith, and Lon Chaney. Kevin collaborated with 16-year-old Andrew Mollo, a history buff (who later plied that interest into becoming a historian himself) who provided immeasurable help in insuring that their film was pin-point accurate in its authenticity. (Mollo had been collecting German uniforms and equipment from flea markets for years, and the two blokes eventually hooked up with another collector who owned an impressive cache of Nazi arms and vehicles—all stored at his country residence.) The amateur production took many years to finish (Brownlow and Mollo would have to suspend filming whenever the money ran out) but with an assist from directors Stanley Kubrick (who loaned them film stock from Dr. Strangelove) and Tony Richardson (who ponied up funds to finish the production) the film was completed in time for a premiere at the Cork Film Festival in September 1964.
The fascinating history of the making of It Happened Here is detailed in a book written by Brownlow that was published in 1968 (How It Happened Here), so I’ll hold back on this aspect of the movie only to say that it’s truly a masterpiece of independent filmmaking. Its black-and-white, cinema verité style is so starkly realistic (Brownlow didn’t use any actual newsreel footage for the movie…including the scene where the film’s heroine is watching a newsreel) I had to remind myself a couple of times that the movie is complete fiction. But the message of the film—that fascism can kick off its shoes and make itself to home under any set of normal circumstances—is a powerful one…and one that prompted more than a few critics at the time of its release to condemn the film, believing that the filmmakers were espousing that philosophy. When United Artists agreed to release the film for American audiences in 1966, they insisted on the excision of a six-minute sequence where IAO fascists discuss their support for euthanasia where Jews are concerned.
That sequence would later be restored to the finished product when Brownlow regained the rights to It Happened Here thirty years later, and the entirety of the film is available on DVD from Milestone Films—a familiar name here on the blog responsible for such DVD offerings as In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) and The Connection (1961). Milestone is currently having a “Dog Days of Summer” sale at their website, with select DVDs going for $10-15 and Blu-rays at $20. Ordinarily, I’d snatch up every Milestone release that I don’t already own during such an event…but because the fundage situation at Rancho Yesteryear continues to be a bleak one I could only afford one selection, and It Happened Here made the cut. (You’ll find several of their releases that have been reviewed here on the blog for sale, including Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.)
The first reel of It Happened Here is a little rough in the audio/visual department, but once you’re past that I think you’ll be blown away by how splendid the production is despite its microbudget. Because it was a shoestring operation, Brownlow and Rollo had to rely on a lot of amateur talent save for a few professionals like Sebastian Shaw, Reginald Marsh (“Sir” from The Good Life/Good Neighbors), and Fiona Leland. Pauline Murray, who plays the nurse (also named “Pauline Murray”), was a bit intimidated (despite having appeared in an earlier movie in 1948) about performing alongside those accomplished performers as Brownlow related in The Independent:
We realised we had that rarest of creatures, a natural actress…towards the end of the film, when she found herself playing opposite seasoned professionals like Sebastian Shaw and Fiona Leland, she wrote to me after seeing the rushes; “Sebastian and Fiona seemed alive, real people and I look like a vicious moron. If we hadn’t got so far, I’d say get someone else. I honestly feel the lack of expression on my face is disastrous and could ruin the whole thing for you.” Fortunately, we could see what she couldn’t—that in her restraint lay her strength. For Pauline Murray was the film.
Pauline Murray, despite the naturalness that works so well in It Happened Here (she’s really a most appealing heroine), never appeared in another movie (though she did dabble in community theatre). Brownlow and Mollo’s feature film is a true marvel and hey—at 10 bucks, it’s a bargain from Milestone. Buy it. I have spoken.