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Fantasia Obscura: ‘It Happened Here’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it can take us a while to imagine how it all could have gone horribly, horribly wrong…

It Happened Here (1964)
Distributed by Lopert Pictures Corporation (in US)
Directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo

More often than not, AltHis works usually present us with dystopias.

We probably get a lot of these works to make ourselves feel better about where we are. As much as we complain about how things have turned out, we take some comfort from ending up living a society like ours as opposed to one which, say, failed to embrace egalitarianism, or didn’t stop fascism before we lived under such a system.

Must. Resist. Obvious. Comment…

Among such counterfactual crises, there are those where the English lost to the Nazis early in the war. With the Germans having gone so far as to plan for an invasion of England, code named Operation Sea Lion, with part of said plan being carried out leading to the occupation of the Channel Islands and the Battle of Britain, it’s understandable that this would be a topic visited again and again. The BBC would look at this in the 1978 miniseries An Englishman’s Castle, Len Deighton would give us his version in his novel SS-GB, and we’d even get a taste of this in, of all things, the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Amazingly, all of these professional attempts were preceded and eclipsed by a film made slowly by amateurs who begged and borrowed to get their production mounted:

We open with an establishing narration and animation that suggests the Why We Fight series. We’re told that right after the BEF returned from Dunkirk, the Wehrmacht immediately started a cross-channel invasion, one that met strong resistance for months before being broken.

We’re told that when our film takes place in 1948, the USSR’s counter-offensive from beyond the Urals is making headway, forcing the Germans to leave behind only minimal occupation forces and English volunteer collaboration units, while the bulk of their regular troops go to Russia. Soon after that, the US Navy deploys the Seventh Fleet to the Irish Sea, where aircraft carriers are now used to supply new resistance cells popping up in the UK.

Once the setting’s established, we watch as the occupying Germans get ready to engage in a “pacification action” in Salisbury. This requires that all civilians must be evacuated to London beforehand, as anyone dressed as a civilian after the action begins will be shot on sight.

As the action starts (along with the inevitable atrocities in concert with it), we focus on Pauline (Pauline Murray in her only theatrical role). She’s a bit miffed that the order to evacuate Shaftesbury came suddenly, and only after the counterinsurgency began. To add to her problems, there’s no room for her or six of her neighbors on the transports out. Trying to make the best if it, Pauline invites everyone into her home for the night to stay out of everyone’s way, hoping for a ride out the attack until the morning.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out. Partisans have broken into her house and taken up positions there, so she leads everyone outside hoping the trucks come back soon. When a patrol stops to query them, the partisans spring an ambush; everyone Pauline was trying to save is killed in the firefight, and the troops who survived take her out of there to get to London.

London in this 1948 is a dismal place; the scars of the bombings are still evident, with most Londoners facing depravation, while the Jewish population is herded into a walled-off ghetto. We discover as she gets into town that Pauline is a trained district nurse and an Irish national, who’s stuck in England and would rather ride out the whole mess without getting involved in politics, especially after what happened in Shaftesbury.

The occupational government, dedicated completely to National Socialism, has other plans, and drafts her into its militarized first responders corps. At first she’s happy to have something to do, which comes with all the spoils of collaboration, like new shoes, even though her fellow co-conspirators are complete bores, and she gets cold stares and nasty pranks from other Londoners.

This becomes especially problematic when Pauline re-connects with old friends from before the invasion, Doctor Richard Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw) and his wife Helen (Fiona Weyland in her only feature). They don’t realize until too late that their friend is working for the enemy, learning this when Pauline visits on the same night a wounded partisan is hiding upstairs. There’s an argument about collaboration versus resistance, and at the end of it Pauline decides to try and sneak some morphine out of her unit to help her friends treat their patient.

Which doesn’t work out at all; Pauline doesn’t get them the drugs before the SS-UK take in the Fletchers, who give up Pauline before they die in custody. The only thing that saves Pauline from similar fate is her nursing skills, as they need someone with training for a TB ward in the country. It’s not much of a comfort, though, when Pauline realizes that the ward’s been turned into an extermination camp, forcing her to make tough decisions in the face of unexpected adversity…

Which is one of the most interesting things about the film: It uses this supposition scenario to examine a deep quandary, what’s the best course of action you can take under a hostile fascist occupation. The character of Pauline is in a perfect position to be the lens through which the issue is argued; she has no hard fondness for fascism, but has dreadful experience from seeing the fight first-hand. Her argument with Richard is surprisingly civil, with practical considerations and appeals for freedom both getting an airing, making this more thoughtful than a film about resisting the Nazis might seem otherwise. (It’s interesting to observe that these arguments were carried out in real life in the actually occupied countries more often than they were in films about the war…)

Director Kevin Brownlow, on the set in 1957

Speaking of interesting aspects of the film, the production history is a fascinating one in and of itself. Brownlow started working on his project in 1956, at the age of 18 after a three-year apprenticeship in the film industry, during which he went from office boy to film editor. At the start of filming, he was winging it by the seat of his pants, working with only a vague idea as to what he wanted beyond his one-sentence pitch. This lack of a wide outline likely influenced his decision to favor close-ups and hand-held shots, which gives the film an intimacy that works with the film he ultimately made.

Over the course of eight years, Brownlow would gradually get help as the project moved forward in fits and starts. He’d pick up his co-director (who was two years younger than Brownlow) who helped him get the uniforms and vehicles used in the film. The two of them, with Dinah Brooke and Jonathan Ingrams, would gradually turn the idea into a screenplay. Early in the shooting, Brownlow would discover Pauline Murray, who lived in the home where he’d gotten permission to shoot scenes in. There were a number of acts of generosity from members of the British film industry who wanted to see the film completed, including Stanley Kubrick gifting Brownlow with unused film stock left over from Dr. Strangelove, and Tony Richardson coming in at the last minute to help fund the film.

There were also plenty of volunteers who were willing to be in the film just for the sake of making the movie. There were a few science fiction clubs that offered members as extras, including reportedly Michael Moorcock (whose work ended up on the cutting room floor). There were also volunteers who took on roles they were very familiar with in real life, including members of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts serving as Pauline’s co-workers, whose scenes praising National Socialism were excised from the film for 30 years after the movie’s premiere, thanks to their connection with that movement.

The film about an occupied England took longer to make than it did for the UK to fight and win the war in reality. The end result is a triumph of craftsmanship that didn’t rely on tools available to bigger productions, a thoughtful consideration not only of what occupation might have looked like there, but how one might come to terms with the horrors of conquest and resistance. It’s a thoughtful, personal film that in bigger hands might have lost some of the intimate perspectives that come through here.

The more one thinks about what It Happened Here might have looked like had it been a bigger production, the more dystopic the alternative seems…

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