Written Between the Shots: England and the Threat of World War II in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES
5 June 2011
It should come as little surprise one short year after he made The Lady Vanishes (1938) English-born Alfred Hitchcock permanently left England for America. Just prior to his move the threat of World War II was growing and Hitchcock, like the German Expressionists who preceded him, seemed to used cinema as a method of expressing his frustrations about the way England was (or was not) bracing for war. The Lady Vanishes is without a doubt a bold statement about the ignorance and arrogance Hitchcock witnessed in England during the years leading up to World War II; yet, the film leaves a hopeful message with the audience: with acceptance and retaliation, England can overcome its enemies, even in seemingly perilous circumstances.
One of the most striking examples of Hitchcock’s message about England’s blindness to WWII comes in the film’s famous shootout scene. The Lady Vanishes is adapted from the novel The Wheel Spins (1936), by British author Ethel Line White; however, the shootout scene is not in the novel; this scene was created specifically for cinema. The shootout occurs toward the end of the film, and is the climactic finish to standoff between the English passengers onboard a train back to their homeland and the Bandrika spies (people from a fictional country in Europe where the film takes place) following the train.
By the time of the shootout, the train gets derailed and halted by the Bandrikan spies. The only passengers left onboard are all the English characters (including the nun, a former foreign spy who now joined the English side) and only four Bandrikan characters (two dining car attendants and two engine workers). Although the Bandrikan’s close in, surrounding the train on foot, wearing military garb and bearing guns, many of the English passengers still refuse to believe there is any danger present. Hitchcock is making a point about England’s unwillingness to see danger, even when it is standing right in front of the country’s figurative face.
One of the spies, who’s costuming and demeanor reflective of a German soldier, boards the train, attempting to convince the passengers to exit and travel with him to safety. At first, the passengers see no harm in the spy climbing onboard, one passenger even says, “Well, they can’t possibly do anything to us; we are British subjects.” Again, Hitchcock is taking a jab at the arrogance often times associated with the British at this time. Additionally, the scene Hitchcock sets up mocks the British for being completely oblivious to reality because of their overconfidence. To consider themselves safe during a time of international conflict simply because they are British points out how sheltered and out of touch with reality the passengers, and by extension the English, actually are.
However, the nun (Catherine Lacey) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), two English passengers who can see the danger the spy represents, quickly work together to knock him out. In all the confusion, the Bandrikan dining car attendants slip off the train and tell the surrounding spies what is going on inside. Within the train, the other passengers, confused, are in an uproar about the nun and Gilbert’s actions. Charters (Basil Radford), who vocalized his disdain for Gilbert’s initial warnings of danger decides to exit the train, like the spy told him to do. Upon his exit, the spies fire at him, wounding him in the hand. He rejoins the English passengers onboard, giving almost everyone a better understanding of the danger existing right outside the door.
The only other passenger continuing to doubt the fatal threat from the spies is Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker). As the shootout begins, Todhunter refuses to fire or lend his gun to one of the other passengers; he is indignant. Finally, he decides to grab a white napkin, the symbol of surrender, and exit the train. As soon as he steps off the car, waiving his napkin, he is shot to death. His death confirms the degree of danger to the remaining passengers on the train.
Moreover, his death symbolizes how monstrous Hitchcock likely perceived threatening foreign forces were to England as WWII approached because despite Todhunter’s surrender, the spies ruthlessly gunned him down.
Yet, although outnumbered and without proper ammunition, the English passengers begin to work together. Mrs. Froy (Dame May Whitty), an English spy who the audience learns was the main target of the shootout, passes on a coded message to Gilbert, in hopes that one of them will be able to deliver it back to England’s Foreign Office. Mrs. Froy escapes the train into the forest, fearlessly fleeing the shootout in hopes of preserving the overall safety of her country. Gilbert and the rest of the passengers devise a plan to get the train running again by overtaking the engine workers.
At this point in the shootout, Hitchcock redirects his attention. Earlier, the shootout symbolized and dangers of egotism. That is, had the passengers understood the threat lurking around them earlier in the film, instead of maintaining their supercilious thinking, perhaps the situation would not have escalated to a shootout. Yet, when the English ban together and devise their plan, the shootout changes course, symbolizing the English resistance to danger. Hitchcock refocuses his attention on the English peoples’ ability to fight and overcome.
The plan is successful, and two engine workers get shot by their own side when the train begins moving again, further commenting on the callousness of the enemy who makes casualties of their own side. Eventually, the English passengers cross the border out of Bandrika and into safety. Mrs. Froy survived her daring escape and she and Gilbert are both able to deliver the coded message to England’s Foreign Office, ensuring the safety of the country.
When watching The Lady Vanishes, the audience is easily enticed by the impressive performances from Michael Redgrave and Dame May Whitty. The audience is also effortlessly entranced by the visual spectacle only few talents like Hitchcock could create in 1938. The hypnotic effect the film has is intentional on Hitchcock’s part. Hitchcock was experimenting with cinematics, which he did often to improve his filmmaking quality and the future of cinema; however, he was also creating a diversion. As the audience becomes increasingly engrossed in the film, viewers lose sight of the bigger connections Hitchcock is making to the world in The Lady Vanishes. Although he is not subtle when paralleling the fictional English character’s situation on the train to the very real situation English people were facing in 1938—in fact he exaggerated the situations to make and even grander likening—Hitchcock is intelligent enough to balance his film with inventive camerawork and a moving visual presence with his own propaganda.
Overall, in both the filmmaking and the messages “between the shots,” Hitchcock undeniably created a sensational film in The Lady Vanishes, but it is no surprise after making such a sensation Hitchcock opted to relocate out of England.