Cast: Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw
Extras: Seven minutes of added material
Imagine a world in which Great Britain is defeated in World War Two and subjected to rule by a regime of Nazi collaborators. That is precisely the alternate reality that two teenaged filmmakers, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, set out to create in ’It Happened Here.’
Shot on a shoestring budget over the course of seven years, the resulting film is a powerful reminder that fascism can happen anywhere. Understandably, this documentary-like depiction of a Britain rife with fascists was quite controversial upon its release in 1965. The amount of detail that went into every aspect of this production, from military uniforms right down to propaganda posters, allows the viewer to fully suspend disbelief and become immersed in this alternate world. The ensuing sense of unease that what is being watched is not fiction, surely added to the controversy.
The story is told through the experiences of Pauline (Pauline Murray), a young nurse who is fleeing the outbreak of fighting between German troops and local resistance fighters. Witnessing the atrocities committed in the name of restoring freedom, Pauline decides that a return to normalcy is in order and sets about joining the local Nazi-controlled organization. What follows during her training are harrowing images of jack-booted soldiers marching through London and violent speeches by raging Nazi Englishmen that would do Hitler proud. The only thing that keeps her from becoming completely indoctrinated into this religion of hate is her relationship with the pro-resistance Dr. Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw) — a relationship that her superiors are not unaware of.
The video quality is about what one would expect from a low-budget film shot on 16mm with some 35mm stock footage thrown in. That being said, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does. In trying to emulate a documentary feel, the film purposely exhibits a great deal of grain and uses a very harsh contrast setting that eliminates all shades of gray — rendering the world into strict black and white. The aspect ratio is a full-frame 1.33:1 which only adds to the impression that you’re watching a typical WWII documentary.
The audio is, unfortunately, rather poor. The combination of hiss, fluctuating volume levels, and very heavy accents renders much of the dialogue unintelligible. Again, some of these problems can be traced back to the low-budget nature of the film but I’m sure that the soundtrack would have greatly benefited from even a minor restoration effort, just as subtitles would have helped make this piece a little more understandable.
As for extras, there are none save the advertised insertion of an additional seven minutes of footage that was too controversial for the original release. Unfortunately, nowhere is it indicated how to identify this added footage.
As part of Image’s ’Milestone Collection’ of important films, ’It Happened Here’ is a powerful piece of filmmaking that feels so much like the WWII documentaries it emulates that it is almost believable. Contributing to this sense of realism is the fact that the movie itself is strictly neutral in its depiction of a fascist-controlled Britain. By not taking sides, the filmmakers force the viewer to wade through what is being seen, without the benefit of arbitrary cues that explicitly state who is right and who is wrong.
So, what we are left with is a DVD with average video, poor audio, and no extras. Bearing all that in mind I still give ’It Happened Here’ a strong recommendation. As this isn’t a film that’s likely to be revisited anytime soon, if ever, it would be a shame to miss out on what stands as one of the finest examples of alternate history ever to grace the screen just because the DVD itself isn’t quite up to snuff.
P.S. — And what ever happened to the intrepid creators of this minor masterpiece? Kevin Brownlow went on to become one of the foremost film historians of the Silent Age and Andrew Mollo later became a technical advisor, designing the costumes for a little film called ’Star Wars’ as well as consulting on the excellent ’Sharpe’ and ’Hornblower’ mini-series.