Newly released on Blu-ray, It Happened Here (1964) stands beside Peter Watkins’ what-if nuclear apocalypse drama The War Game (1965) as one of the most disconcerting acts of speculation in our screen history.
Directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, it’s set in a London that’s been the capital of a Nazi satellite state since Britain was conquered after Dunkirk – an unthinkable state of affairs that’s since been explored in dramas like the BBC adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB (2017), and such lampoons as Churchill: The War Years (2004) and the puppet animation Jackboots on Whitehall (2010).
While the Second World War was still being fought, however, the Ministry of Information had to be careful to strike a balance between being alarmist and complacent. It also had to capture the viewing public’s imagination, as it was estimated that only half the population had bothered to read their official pamphlets on the prospect of invasion.
Audiences were quick to switch off during overtly propagandist or preachy shorts, so filmmakers had to conceal their messages about the threat of invasion within relatable storylines or larky comedies, in which the likes of George Formby, the Crazy Gang, Will Hay and Arthur Askey brought Nazi spies and fifth columnists to book.
If vigilance was the watchword during the war, the focus shifted on to heroics once victory had been achieved. Yet, even though the cunning foe was often shown getting close to its objective, there were always some plucky Brits standing in their way, such as the Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon in the classic Dad’s Army episode ‘The Deadly Attachment’, famous for Captain Mainwaring’s immortal words: “Don’t tell him, Pike!”
Here are 10 of the most notable films about Nazi spies and invaders on British soil.
Cottage to Let (1941)
Director Anthony Asquith
In this diverting adaptation of a long-running play, the action invites the audience to guess who inventor Leslie Banks can trust, as birdwatcher Alastair Sim, piano tuner Roddy Hughes, wounded Spitfire pilot John Mills and Sherlock Holmes-obsessed evacuee George Cole descend on a cottage in the grounds of a Tayside estate. It’s here that Banks and German-educated assistant Michael Wilding are working on a top-secret bombsight that’s being coveted by a nest of Nazi spies.
Sim had brushed with fifth columnists in Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941) and here he effortlessly slips between geniality and malevolence, with director Anthony Asquith stressing the need to work together. Warning of the dangers of careless talk, Cottage to Let weaves a twisting plot that culminates in a bazaar tent full of distorting mirrors.
The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)
Directors Will Hay and Basil Dearden
Hitler must have hated Will Hay, as, for all his incompetence and bluster, he was one of British cinema’s most effective Nazi hunters. He unmasked the spy exploiting the curse of a Skye castle in The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941), and posed as a British agent to infiltrate a German espionage school in The Goose Steps Out (1942). Here, as the owner of a shady correspondence college who is mistaken for an expert on economic affairs, Hay joins forces with ex-student John Mills to root out the fifth columnists seeking to sabotage a South American trade deal.
The humour’s rather broad, but Hay gets to disguise himself as a Scotland Yard flatfoot, a hotel porter, a railway ticket inspector and a female nurse. In his inimitable manner, he also banters with villains Felix Aylmer and Basil Sydney, and BBC stalwart Leslie Mitchell, during a priceless radio broadcast on the complexities of foreign commerce.
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti
No British wartime film more graphically depicted the ferocity of civilian courage in the face of a ruthless foe than this account of the rearguard fought in the village of Bramley End over the Whitsun weekend of 1942.
Graham Greene’s source story, ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, had been published exclusively in Collier’s Weekly in June 1940 to remind isolationist America of Britain’s increasingly lonely struggle against the Third Reich. Yet, in truth, the screenwriters used little of it. The resulting film was known at various times during production as They Came in Khaki and Strong in Heart, and might well have featured Ralph Richardson as the traitorous squire, James Mason as the Nazi lieutenant, Edith Evans as the lady of the manor, Will Hay as the murdered bobby and George Cole as the Cockney evacuee. But you wouldn’t want to change the cast we ended up with – least of all, Muriel George as a merciless, axe-wielding postmistress.
The Silent Village (1943)
Director Humphrey Jennings
Several films and TV programmes have recalled the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, including Appointment with Venus (1951), Island at War (2004) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018), while Resistance (2011) imagined Wales under the jackboot. But the most poignant wartime study of Nazi tyranny saw the Welsh mining village of Cwmgiedd stand in for its Czechoslovakian counterpart, Lidice. This was The Silent Village, Humphrey Jennings’ masterly tribute to the 173 men and boys who were massacred on Hitler’s orders in reprisal for the assassination of Deputy Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.
Demonstrating the solidarity of workers everywhere, Jennings’ film is an impeccably judged docu-dramatic blend of sombre lyricism and restrained outrage. It makes telling contrast between the loudhailer music and announcements emanating from the sinister vehicle prowling the narrow streets and the defiant choral renditions of ‘Land of My Fathers’ and ‘Men of Harlech’.
Ministry of Fear (1944)
Director Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang once approached Graham Greene in a Los Angeles bar to apologise for his noirish adaptation of this wartime thriller, which he claimed he only made under the threat of a breach-of-contract suit. As an admirer of Lang’s silent work, Greene felt betrayed that he had made such a “very bad” film from his personal favourite among his ‘entertainments’.
But, while Ministry of Fear may not be authentic Greene, it’s still riveting Lang. Everyone’s a suspect as Ray Milland encounters fifth columnists using the charity Mothers of the Free Nations as a front for their nefarious activities. Production designer Hal Pereira’s recreation of Blitz London scarcely passes muster, but he provides ominously atmospheric settings for a nocturnal village fete, a train-board brush with a blind man, a murderous séance, a tube-station confession and an appointment with a tailor brandishing some terrifyingly outsize scissors.
Director Basil Dearden
Adapted from a fact-based play by Ronald Millar, this social-problem picture confronted audiences with a different kind of Nazi, challenging them to consider how they would react to a German in their peacetime midst.
Many of the locals in the sleepy town of Denfield have lost loved ones or been wounded in the war that’s still raging on the continent, so Mai Zetterling expects a hostile reception after marrying David Farrar (the POW she helped escape) in a bombed-out Polish church. As her own parents had been killed in an air raid, she also feels victimised, particularly by Farrar’s anti-German MP aunt, Flora Robson.
The action becomes more melodramatic after Zetterling’s fugitive brother shows up, details of his war record emerging shortly after she sees newsreel footage from Bergen-Belsen. Nevertheless, the simmering xenophobic undercurrent gives this picture a disconcerting relevance.
It Happened Here (1964)
Directors Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo
The shock provided by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s remarkable debut is not that Britain is conquered by Germany in 1940, but the ease with which a pernicious ideology permeates society and not only becomes accepted but also normal.
Eager to continue her vocation, Irish nurse Pauline Murray retrains with the Immediate Action Organisation and finds herself participating in an experimental euthanasia programme. Indeed, it’s only when she agrees to treat a wounded partisan that she begins to recover the humanity sapped by her unwitting indoctrination.
Embarking on the project as teenagers, Brownlow and Mollo were so committed to authenticity that they invited fascist idealogue Frank Bennett to vent his views on racial purity in a scene that was cut by distributor United Artists after a protest by the Jewish Chronicle. It has since been restored, while the filmmakers had the dubious privilege of having their occupation footage credited to Reichsfilmintendant Fritz Hippler in an Italian TV documentary.
The McKenzie Break (1970)
Director Lamont Johnson
Adapted from Sidney Shelley’s book The Bowmanville Break, this is a rare film about Nazis trying to leave rather than invade Britain. Inspired by escape attempts made by German POWs in Cumbria and Ontario, the action adheres closely to genre convention. But, instead of focusing on the exploits of the intrepid escapers, The McKenzie Break lingers on the battle of wits between submariner Helmut Griem and Brian Keith, a maverick Irish captain sent to Scotland to discover why camp commander Ian Hendry is having so many disciplinary problems.
Mirroring the tensions between Hendry and Keith with those between the U-boat and Luftwaffe huts, the camp scenes explore the emasculation experienced by both the captives and their jailers, as Keith uses fire-hoses and lockouts in the rain to impose his will upon the devious Griem. Plausibility is at more of a premium, however, after 28 Germans slip through a tunnel and make for the coast to rendezvous with a sub.
The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Director John Sturges
Upping the stakes from Went the Day Well? by adding the abduction of Winston Churchill from a Norfolk country house, this involving take on Jack Higgins’ bestseller saw The Great Escape director John Sturges bring down the curtain on a remarkable career. Sadly, he was reportedly only interested in earning money to fund fishing trips and his heart wasn’t really in the project – with some shakey performances as the result.
Notwithstanding Donald Sutherland’s Oirish accent, Michael Caine does a nice line in Teutonic honour, as he is plucked from a punishment assignment on Alderney to lead a daring raid on the village of Studley Constable. And there’s enough in the scenario and Anne V. Coates’ editing to ensure that this is surprisingly suspenseful for a thriller whose outcome will be known to most viewers from the outset.
Eye of the Needle (1981)
Director Richard Marquand
Essentially reinventing Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an espionage thriller, this adaptation of Ken Follett’s bestseller also contains echoes of Michael Powell’s classic The Spy in Black (1939), as Donald Sutherland’s ruthlessly resourceful agent shares several traits with Conrad Veidt’s Great War U-boat commander.
Codenamed ‘The Needle’ because of his penchant for dispatching victims with a stiletto to the ribs, Sutherland’s loner has a murky backstory that makes him both enigmatic and irresistible to Kate Nelligan, when he washes up on Storm Island off the Scottish coast. Grateful for a connection with somebody other than her embittered, disabled husband, Nelligan knows nothing about Sutherland’s need to get proof of bogus Allied forces massed on the East Anglian coast to Berlin before D-Day.
In truth, Sutherland could have saved himself a lot of trouble by simply finding a radio. But future Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand judges the shift from romance to suspense with an affecting sense of melancholy.