It Happened Here Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

The German invasion of England took place in July 1940, after the British retreat from Dunkirk. Strongly resisted at first, the German Army took many months to restore order. The resistance movement, lacking outside support, was finally crushed. For three years, it remained dormant. Collaboration increased as the population became adjusted to the tedium of occupation.

What if the Nazis had won the Second World War? What if the Roman Empire had not fallen in the fifth century, and continued flourishing well into the Middle Ages, or even into modern times? What if Napoleon had not been defeated at Waterloo? What if the Apollo program had never been able to land a man on the moon? These are the questions asked in the niche science fiction genre of 'alternate history', which delves into stories around historical 'what if?' scenarios and their possible political, social, and technological consequences.

Some entrants in the alternate history genre certainly contain overt science fiction elements, such as Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South", in which a time traveler returns to the year 1864 to give the Confederate Army a supply of Ak-47s, thereby sealing a Southern victory in the American Civil War. However, many other entrants into the genre contain no science fiction elements whatsoever, other than the story taking place in what could be considered an 'alternate universe', the staple of many a "Star Trek" episode. For example, Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail" details an alternate history of North America from 1777 to 1971 if the American Revolution had collapsed instead of succeeding, and Stephen Baxter's "Voyage" depicts the consequences on the American space program had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated in 1963.

Of course, alternate history stories have not been limited to only the printed word. Over the years, a number of alternate history films and television programs have been seen from time to time. Probably the most mainstream offering was the now-defunct "Sliders" television series, which detailed the adventures of Quinn Mallory and his friends as they traveled to parallel Earths. While the series quickly descended into camp, the show's first season showed much promise as it examined alternate histories where antibiotics had not been discovered or where the atomic bomb had never been invented.

New British Nazis are sworn in

However, it is in the arena of film where one of the most chilling examples of alternate history can be found, a little known and independently produced British film called "It Happened Here". Employing the ever-popular alternate history scenario of Nazi Germany winning the Second World War (which is also the scenario in Len Deighton's best-selling novel "SS-GB"), "It Happened Here" details the impact on everyday life of a successful German invasion following the English retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 (in reality, German forces stopped their advance). When the film originally made the rounds of several European film festivals in 1965, its depiction of English life under Nazi rule created quite a stir among British critics, who were offended by the film's depiction of the British capitulating so willingly to an occupation force. Unfortunately, the film's notoriety prevented wider distribution, and United Artists, who had purchased the distribution rights, ended up burying the film for three decades. It was not until 1993, when the rights transferred to Connoisseur, that the film was rediscovered on video. And now, with the advent of DVD, this powerful film is finding an even wider audience than ever before.

The German conquest was not over the people of Britain, but over their corrupt rulers. The army's arrival enabled the men who saw the truth to put their beliefs into action. Backed by the people of Britain, they formed England's first government with the full power to act. By outlawing Bolshevism, by establishing the corporate state, by helping to solve the Jewish problem, and by conquering unemployment with a labor front, the government brought Britain to her place of honor in the New Order. And now, the uniform of the Vermacht is not only worn by the Germans. The first winter of 1943 saw the formation of the first English volunteer legions. And now the English join the Germans in the spirit of true comradeship.
A German marching band in the streets of London

The story opens in the year 1944, four years into the German occupation, and is told through the eyes of Pauline (Pauline Murray), an Irish-born nurse hailing from the Salisbury area. When resistance forces unleash a guerilla campaign against the occupation forces, the Germans evacuate all the civilians from small towns throughout the English countryside, including the one where Pauline resides. After six of her closest friends are indiscriminately gunned down by a roving gang of resistance fighters, Pauline heads for the perceived safety of London's demilitarized zone.

Well, I prefer ordinary nursing.
No such thing in London! You either nurse with us, or you sit at home nursing an empty stomach. There's no two ways about it!

Unfortunately, once in London, she finds it is impossible to get a nursing position without joining the Nazi-administered Immediate Action Organization. Naively thinking that she can join the fascist organization without being brainwashed by the rhetoric, Pauline is trained in the doctrine, philosophy, and methods of the New Order, and is soon practicing nursing once again. Though she still believes that she has the luxury of 'sitting on the fence' with respect to her political beliefs, a number of momentous events and revelations finally open her eyes to the true evil that has engulfed her homeland.

I'm sorry, I don't want to join any organization.
Look, this isn't 1937... things have changed. The point is this-- the only way to counter the underground movement and all the subversive elements that make our life a misery is to be better organized than they are! We just can't have splendid people like you scattered all across the country look after their own means. If we can get them all together, working towards one end, we'll soon get the old country on its feet again!
But what if you don't agree to that one end?
Look, let's get the country back on its feet again and then we'll talk about that! If you don't want to be overrun by hordes of Bolsheviks, we've got to provide a united front... be better organized than they are!

Production of the "It Happened Here" began in 1956, the pet project of teenaged film enthusiast Kevin Brownlow and his Nazi regalia-collecting school chum Andrew Mollo (who eventually went on to design Imperial costumes for the "Star Wars" films). Though they originally envisioned the project as a low-budget exploitation film on a Nazi Britain, "It Happened Here" ended up mushrooming into a truly remarkable sociopolitical treatise.

I was hoping to continue with ordinary nursing, but I've seen an I.A. officer, and after what's happened, I've made the decision to join. I've decided that I can't stand on the sidelines any longer.
We don't accept your decisions... you accept ours.
Andrew Mollo plays a German soldier exterminating a village

Though the entire budget of the film amounted to 20,000 British pounds and was mostly shot on 16mm film (with a borrowed camera), the finished film looks as though it were a major studio production. With numerous scenes that echo an epic quality, such as row upon row of German soldiers marching in the shadow of Big Ben or "Citizen Kane"-like newsreels spewing fascist propaganda and images to the tune of military marches, "It Happened Here" looks like a much more expensive film. The film is also meticulous in its portrayal of an occupied England, with no small detail being overlooked in the production design, which involved the creation of fake posters, pamphlets, and signs to populate the sets. And thanks to the expert black-and-white lensing of cameraman Peter Sushitzky (who later went on to be cinematographer for "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Man in the Iron Mask") and some judicious editing by Brownlow, "It Happened Here" perfectly captures the look-and-feel of actual documentary footage from the Second World War. Mind you, the production does occasionally betray its low-budget roots, mainly in the area of sound, but overall, it is a testament to the tenacity and ingenuity of its creators.

We can have no 'passengers' in our state. The true citizen of our state has certain rights, but also corresponding duties. The rights include educational benefits, cultural benefits, protection, and a standard of life worthy of our people. Yet, if there are people who fail the state, they will have to be removed with other criminal anti-social elements. It should not be expected that such a virile state be expected to support such human dross. They are ruthless eaters... to deny this is illogical.

Over the eight-year long period that the 'guerilla production' was shot, Brownlow and Mollo did whatever was needed in order to get their film made. Mollo scrounged together authentic Nazi uniforms and weapons for use in the film, including one German tank, which was used in countless shots to simulate an entire army of mechanized vehicles. The filmmakers, in a bid to capture an occupied London on film, begged tourists to dress up in Nazi uniforms and wander around London's famous monuments. The filmmakers also received assistance from real newsreel voice-over artists to lend a touch of authenticity to the newsreels within the film. In addition, Brownlow and Mollo found an unlikely savior in the late Stanley Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut"), who donated spare film stock when his production of "Dr. Strangelove" wrapped up.

And despite having an eight-year long production, "It Happened Here" holds up remarkably well in both the narrative and technical aspects. In watching the film, it is almost impossible to tell that the film was shot in numerous short sessions, mainly on weekends. Lead actress Murray, who wasn't a professional actress at the start of the production, gradually became more experienced as the production dragged on, which actually helped with the character she played. As one watches the film, in which the scenes were shot in mostly chronological order, it is noteworthy to see Murray's rising thespian abilities nicely mirroring the emotional and moral awakening of her character.

Well, don't you remember what it was like after the invasion? Short of water, black market food, families herded into one room? Within a couple of months, the authorities had everything running smoothly. I do like things organized... I hate a mess.
Mess? We're still in a mess.
Well, there you are then. What are you worried about? You'll be helping to get it straightened out.

Of course, the power of the film resides in the ideas being presented. For complacent British audiences of the Sixties, the thought of British citizens surrendering and collaborating with Nazis was unthinkable, especially in light of Churchill's words of inspiration during the Battle of Britain. To them, "It Happened Here" was a wake-up call that illustrated how the social upheaval and atrocities that took place in other Nazi-occupied countries during the Second World War could have easily occurred on British soil. In a sense, "It Happened Here" illustrates how easy it is for society in general to succumb to such depravity, under the right conditions. Many of the characters in the film are prepared to live under the Nazi yoke, as long as it got their lives back to normal and put food on the table. Elements of the British left-wing are put into positions of power to administer the new Nazi state, and they use the media to reassure the population of their methods. And in what is perhaps one of the film's more chilling scenes, a cold-blooded execution of captured German soldiers is carried out by American-backed resistance fighters at the film's close.

Oh, for heaven's sake Dick, stop calling me a fascist! I know as much about politics as a lamp post. My point is that we've fought a war and lost it. There's been a terrible amount of suffering on both sides. So why prolong that suffering? The only way to get back to normal is to support law and order, whatever law and order we've got. And that's what I'm doing... and I'm not ashamed of it.

The most controversial aspect of "It Happened Here" was a seven-minute scene in which a real British neo-Nazi, Colin Jordan, gives an incendiary (and ad-libbed) speech during a funeral. Not surprisingly, a number of Jewish groups found the scene offensive and accused the two filmmakers of providing a soapbox for such hate-mongers to voice their anti-Semetic rhetoric. As a result, the British release of the film saw this seven-minute sequence removed, which has only now been restored for the video and DVD releases. Interestingly enough, Colin Jordan probably did more of a disservice to himself with his fanatical diatribe against the Jewish people, and it probably would have made more sense to keep the sequence in the film, thereby allowing the general public to see how truly absurd his beliefs, and his followers, were.

Whether you classify "It Happened Here" as science fiction or not, it still remains a compelling account of what might have been in a world where Hitler prevailed over Great Britain, allowing the Nazi propaganda and war machine to reshape British society into its own likeness. Despite its low-budget origins and cast of mostly volunteer actors, "It Happened Here" possesses enough epic scope, scathing social insight, and haunting images to truly be considered a classic-- which is remarkable, considering that it was almost never seen.

Images courtesy of Image Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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