DVD An­drew Nick­olds

Direc­tor Wil­liam K Howard, 1937, Screen­bound 85 min­utes


De­scribed at the time by Gra­ham Greene as cap­tur­ing ‘the very spirit of an English pub­lic schoolmistress’s vi­sion of his­tory’, Fire Over Eng­land can also be seen as a wake-up call to ‘gen­tle­men in Eng­land now abed’ in the face of the grow­ing Nazi men­ace. Here the threat is from Spain, its Ar­mada about to be launched against Queen El­iz­a­beth’s navy while her court seethes with spies and in­trigue. Not to say ro­mance in the shape of pert lady-in­wait­ing Cyn­thia (Vivien Leigh) who en­ter­tains the smit­ten Michael In­golby (Lau­rence Olivier), their stolen em­braces often im­prob­a­bly con­ducted in full view of the jeal­ous and sour-faced El­iz­a­beth (Flora Robson) her­self.

In­golby is best de­scribed as ‘dash­ing’ as that’s what he does through­out, be­tween Eng­land and Spain where, while re­cov­er­ing from a broken arm sus­tained in a naval bat­tle, he finds both com­fort in the arms of the aris­to­cratic Elena (Ta­mara Desni) and dis­com­fort, as his fa­ther is burnt to death at the hands of the In­qui­si­tion. Bent on re­venge, In­golby re­turns to of­fer El­iz­a­beth his ser­vices and is despatched – to Cyn­thia’s cha­grin – back to Spain in the bearded guise of the traitor Hil­lary Vane (James Ma­son), who has leapt to his death rather than re­veal the name of his pro-span­ish co­con­spir­a­tors.

Quickly rum­bled by King Philip of Spain (Ray­mond Massey, with more than a touch of the Gestapo about him) In­golby is ar­rested but makes a swashbuckling es­cape helped by Elena’s hus­band (Robert New­ton) pet­ri­fied that her abet­ting a spy will be dis­cov­ered. Re­turn­ing to Til­bury in time to hear the Queen make her ‘I have the body of a weak and fee­ble woman’ ad­dress to the troops, In­golby is promptly com­manded to take charge of the fire ships which are launched against the Ar­mada moored off Calais, caus­ing it to scat­ter in dis­ar­ray. The rest is his­tory, or at least a ver­sion of his­tory in which the Vir­gin Queen is seen, not for the first or last time, as poignantly thwarted in love.

In re­al­ity, the fire ship at­tack hap­pened a good two weeks be­fore the Til­bury speech – cast­ing doubt on its be­ing El­iz­a­beth’s per­sonal brain­wave. But af­ter all Fire Over Eng­land was re­leased in a coro­na­tion year and the tone of the film was set from the open­ing ti­tles, de­scrib­ing how the might of Spain ‘chal­lenged the free peo­ple of a lit­tle is­land – Eng­land’.

Pro­ducer Alexan­der Korda was al­ways happy to help Win­ston Churchill – cur­rently on the po­lit­i­cal side­lines but a mi­na­tory pres­ence ad­vo­cat­ing greater rear­ma­ment – in his pa­tri­otic en­deav­ours by mak­ing sub­text-heavy films from Things To Come to The Four

Feath­ers and Lady Hamil­ton (known in the US as That Hamil­ton Woman).

This also starred Lau­rence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, by then a glam­orous cou­ple of Burton-and-tay­lor pro­por­tions and who also (as with Cleopa­tra) fell for each other on the set of Fire Over Eng­land. It gives the on­screen ro­mance, not to men­tion Flora Robson’s am­bigu­ous dis­ap­proval, an ex­tra di­men­sion which is wel­come in view of the sonorous qual­ity of much of the di­a­logue by the screen­writer and nov­el­ist Cle­mence Dane (‘You’ve made me your house­hold pet but you burned my fa­ther,’ says In­golby at one point, break­ing off from singing a Span­ish love song on the gui­tar).

Luck­ily the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion and the tech­ni­cal staff makes up for these short­com­ings: it was filmed at Korda’s Den­ham Stu­dios, the Rus­sian de­signer Lazare Meer­son worked on the op­u­lent sets, and the score was an early work by Richard Ad­din­sell. The film was shot by James Wong Howe, whose ca­reer be­gan with Ce­cil B Demille in the 1920s and who later added black-and-white lus­tre to Sweet Smell of Suc­cess and the Paul New­man western Hud for which he won an Os­car. Fire Over Eng­land was well directed by Wil­liam K Howard, who could move from an in­ti­mate mo­ment with the Queen and a courtier with gout to the scene at Til­bury in­volv­ing thou­sands of (non-cgi) ex­tras with­out break­ing step. To or­der for £10.99 in­clud­ing UK p&p ring 0844 3760 009, and quote The Oldie and of­fer code 169171.

Flora Robson in Fire Over Eng­land

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