In Which We Serve (1942) Films in flashback

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In Which We Serve (1942) Flashback Notes:

In Which We Serve (1942)

The flashback structuration is a concealed compromise between two different mimetic aims on one hand and Hollywood conventions of storytelling and filmmaking on the other. (Turim, 2014: 274)

In Which We Serve

In Which We Serve (1942) Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean is a story of a British warship in World War 2. A patriotic/propaganda film sponsored by the British Government filmed in the war. A film told in Flashback by the Captain and other members of the crew. As the ship is damaged in an air attack by Nazi planes and with the ship sinking, the captain is revealed in the water sinking with his ship. As he floats to the bottom there is a slow dissolve using the imagery of the waves a rippling effect and a fade to black opening to a scene back to when the ship was being commissioned and before sailing. The rippling effects continue into this flashback scene to link the two scenes together. At the same time the music changes to something that invokes a memory of the movement of water. The rippling effect is used again just before the Captains wedding photo is found The flashback ends with a rippling effect and cross fade to the Captain who is still sinking to the depths of the ocean but again using the visual rippling effect and change in music the spectator is returned to the scene of the ships commissioning tied up at the docks and the Captain leaving for home in a chauffeured car. The homecoming scene a pleasant time revealed in flashback as the happy couple toast the scene begins to ripple and the flashback ends with a return to the sinking of the ship, as the Captain floats to the surface and re-joins the chronological timeline the ship appears upside down threatening the lives of the survivors as it begins to roll over with its propellors still turning, the sailors swim through the oily waters to the life raft as the Nazi planes continue to attack strafing the survivors with their machine guns. In Which We Serve Life RaftOne of the men in the life raft appears to be recalling a memory and calls out the name Kath, the visuals of the rippling water is once again deployed to flashback to a scene of home before the war. This time the flashback visuals are accompanied by the sound of the sea overlayed onto the music as the shot cross dissolves to a shot of two people one of them the sailor discussing the likelihood of coming of the war. The scene matching the one between the Captain and his wife, two households at each end of the social classes seemingly in agreement that war is coming and that despite the difference in social class they are all in this together. As the scene plays out the ripple effect visuals and the sound of the sea prepare the spectator for a return to the chronological time line but instead it flashbacks cross fading back in time returning to the scene of the commissioning of the ship and the address by the Captain to the ship’s crew before their first voyage. This would initially confuse the spectator until part of the scene plays out and the disorientation ends? The flashback is sequence provides essential information, the preparedness of the ship and its crew as war is declared. As Turim states “[t]his logic of time and space is ultimately what helps the viewer to distinguish a flashback from a purely imaginary sequence or an arbitrary narrative disruption”. (Turim, 2013: 11)
As war is declared the shot is of the crew on the ship, as the flashback ends with the rippling effect the spectator is returned to the chronological timeline and the crews survivor’s clinging onto and in the life raft with the Nazi planes still flying overhead strafing them. As the Captain looks to the still floating but overturned ship a voiceover from the past a memory of the blessing of the ship and all who sail in her, this precedes the visual of the rippling effect and sound of the waves into a flashback, to a shot of the ships company engaged in singing hymns, it’s Christmas on the ship. In Which We Serve ChristmasAs the flashback continues the scene joins each of the main protagonists as they celebrate Christmas at their respective homes, each separated by class but joined together in celebration, again promoting this feeling of they are all in this war together. As the scene comes to an end the Captains wife echo’s the words from the narration at the start of the flashback, and with the shot rippling, the music overlayed with the sound of the waves the shot crossfades back to the chronological timeline and re-joins the survivors in the life raft as they contemplate the loss of their ship as it begins to sink below the surface. The flashbacks in this film appear to be derived from the personal memories of each of the protagonists and as Turim suggests “If flashbacks give us images of memory, the personal archives of the past, they also give us images of history, the shared and recorded past.” (Turim, 2014: 2) The flashbacks occur with increasing regularity as the survivor’s each revisit memories of events of their home and relationships before the ship sailed, each a personal memory of their lives before the war. Triggered by events and linked through images and sounds, for example the tattoo on the injured sailors arm says ‘Freda’ which links back to a memory of the first meeting between the survivor and Freda on a train journey. This, his future wife, which through another flashback the spectator joins the scene of their marriage before returning back to the chronological timeline and the scene of the life raft.


  • Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.
  • Turim, M. C. (2014) Flashbacks in film : Memory & history. Routledge.