Double excited about finding The Small Back Room after I’d just finished watching the incredibly intense 70s series Danger UXB. Excited and intrigued to add this World War Two bomb disposal drama to my movie night. The other exciting news for me was the chance to see yet another film from the The Archers production company.
I’d been captivated by the filmmaking partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger over the last few months. The incredible A Matter Of Life and Death had been beamed back in my retina after my small brush with heaven inside a fever dream! Intrigued? I’d watched the 49th Parallel moving on to One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing before seeing my favourite of those three, The Spy In Black. Oh the joys of being relatively new to watching the classics is when you find a whole succession of gems from one director. Well two in this case.
Then came the nuns! In Black Narcissus. A bunch of nuns all going slightly potty up in the Himalayas. A visually gorgeous film with one sister standing out. One Sister Ruth. A sister with a crazed look in her eye and unique beauty. This naughty nun was Kathleen Byron. Wishing to see more I found that Powell and Pressburger reunited her with her Black Narcissus leading man, David Farrar. Unexploded bombs, World War Two and a chance to see more of Kathleen Byron. I was shortly to find that The Small Back Room was going to offer more than I had expected.
Opening dialogue – “Jerry’s dropping a new secret weapon. So secret we don’t know what it is or whether he is dropping it.. or not? What I really want is some expert guessing and some expert advice on how to handle it when we get our hands on one?”……. “Sammy Rice is your man!“
Britain had been littered with bombs, incendiary devices and devilish booby trapped explosives by the Germans during World War Two. Brave men were brought forward as bomb disposal units. With a big percentage of bombs failing or sickenly forced not to detonate, these men had to defuse, make safe and clear these heinous devices. One man, Sammy Rice (David Farrar) was one of the best. Sammy was fully aware of the dangers. He’d been blown up before. Pain forever crushing in his leg. Stabbing unbearable pain right through to his artificial foot. The tormented agony drove him insane. The pills took the edge off a little. Whisky combined with the pills worked best. Sammy had become an alcoholic. Self-destructive, angry and broken. With the insane torment and post-traumatic stress he struggled daily to keep it together.
Lucky for Sammy he had Susan (Kathleen Byron). She, along with her portrait sitting on the sideboard, always kept a watchful eye on him. An unopened bottle of whisky sat next to it. They would joke about opening it. Sammy would grab it, desperate and deranged for a few seconds. Oh just to relieve that goddamn pain. “I must have a drink! Ask me to have a drink woman!” “Have a drink Sammy.” “A whisky?” “Yes” “No thank you Susan.” and he would put it down. A continuous cycle. It helped.
One glance from Susan’s loving, angelic eyes he’d put it back. Almost felt better. Still, beer was ok! Took a tiny edge off the misery. He was allowed a quota of beer down the pub. The landlord and his good friend Knucksie (Sid James) made sure he didn’t abuse his beer rations. Though Sammy had a temper. When he was in that place there wasn’t much reasoning. No Susan here to calm him.
Sammy Rice – “Whisky or conversation Knucksie? Or I’ll start breaking up the place!“
Sammy was back to work. Pushed off into an incredibly Small Back Room of an old school building. Shacked up with a bunch of scientists trying to come up with ingenious ideas and ways to defuse bombs. Boffins crammed into a cupboard sized square. Whereas his “superior” the rather slimy ex-salesman come CEO R.B. Waring (Jack Hawkins) had triple the size room just for him and enough room for his colossal cocky smile.
Sammy is a tortured soul. Still through all the pain and his self destructive nature he still manages to somehow pull himself together. He has to. The army need his bomb disposal knowledge and skills as soon as possible. A series of booby trapped thermos flask looking bombs have been dropped across the south coast. Already killing unexpecting victims intrigued by these harmless looking death devices. Sammy needs to sober up. Sober up quick. Come join Sammy on his fretful journey through pain, addition, love and his complete contempt for war time politics.
A Few Things
- Powell and Pressburger don’t just direct their films they produce and write the screenplays too.
- Based on a novel of the same name written by Nigel Balchin. I see he wrote another interesting book turned into a film called Mine Own Executioner. I’m off to investigate.
- The Small Back Room is also known by the title Hour Of Glory.
- Look out for Robert Morley playing the nincompoop visiting Minister.
Apart from all the heartache and pain we feel for Sammy, we also get to see his life on the scientific board as he has to deal with the imbecile world of politicians. The soul destroying process of seeing how every little detail has to go through to get passed on through government. Each department pushing differing politics of complete and utter nonsense. Pointless, unproductive procedures are shown in all their bureaucratic splendour.
There’s some amazing scenes in here too. Stonehenge being trampled by a small army test firing a giant machine gun cannon is a scene you could never imagine happening now. Plus the beautiful scenic landscape of Chesil Beach makes a very tense setting. The film even finds time to squeeze in a feverish surreal nightmare vision of giant booze bottles as Sammy fights his demons.
Still the beating heart of this film is the enchanting love both Sammy and Susan have for each other. You feel their beloving, aching bond to each other as all the pressure of the war and addiction comes between them. You care and feel for them immensely even when Sammy’s, well being a bit of a twat!
If like me you haven’t seen this one then I believe you are in for a right treat. It’s one of those films that you think not much happened until to reminisce back through it and realise the extent of the journey. It’s a wonderful film.
Like a dog (or a wolf) movies are a man’s (and females) best friend.
Enjoy their company.
PS Please feel free to recommend any other Kathleen Byron films if you know them. Thanks.