Film & Television

Tales of Women in Wartime

Why are so many wonderful books, series, and films inspired by World War II? 

I think it’s partly because there was so little gray area. If you were fighting on the side of the allies, and most of the titles I’m referring to come out of the U.S. and the U.K., you were battling a clear and present danger (apologies to Tom Clancy, but the words are apt). There was a definitive line between right (freedom, self-defense) and wrong (fascism, genocide). There were literally good guys and bad.

Another reason is that, unlike many recent conflicts, there was a concerted war effort that virtually all were a part of. Victory gardens, war bonds, keeping the home fires burning . . .  nearly every family did its part, because nearly everyone had a father, brother, or son fighting. This makes World War II a rich canvas for stories. 

Especially women’s stories.

In the new film Summerland, academic curmudgeon Alice (Gemma Arterton) has escaped most wartime woe. She lives in a modest (but exceptionally charming) cottage amidst England’s majestic Dover cliffs. Her esoteric studies focus around folklore’s recurring phenomenon of floating islands. Living alone, she has plenty of ration coupons — much to the dismay of a little girl longing for the chocolate bar Alice smugly takes for herself. Local village children call Alice a witch. Local parents and grandparents forbid those children to play near her property. This is fine with Alice. She appreciates her reputation and the solitude it provides.

One day, she receives an unexpected — and most unwelcome — delivery: Frank (Lucas Bond), a preteen refugee from London whose father is a pilot and whose mother works for the war office. Turns out Alice missed the letter informing her of this forced guardianship (local school boys fill her mail slot with garden debris on a regular basis and you get the sense she doesn’t receive enough mail to make it worth her while to clean it out). She refuses, then relents, but only for one week until an alternative can be found.

Despite a rocky start, Alice and Frank bond over her research, his love of model airplanes, and shared and treasured memories of their fathers. Alice opens up (for the first time, it seems) about an unconventional lost love and finds Frank to be a supportive listener. When tragedy strikes (as it tends to in these WWII properties), the two realize they have a stronger bond and more in common than they knew.

Arterton (Vita and Virginia) is, as usual, quite marvelous as Alice, and Bond, a sensitive young actor who already has a dozen credits, including The Miniaturist, is immensely likeable. The supporting cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), (LINK: ) Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) and compelling relative newcomer Dixie Egerickx, who stars in the new (and fourth) film adaptation of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, set for the first time just after World War II.

The story of Summerland is sweet but fairly predictable. There are a couple of twists that seem ridiculously unlikely but are later explained to some degree of satisfaction. The English coast and countryside are gorgeous. And, despite the aforementioned tragedy, the film’s ending is uplifting and gratifying. All in all, the film is a little too lightweight, despite its excellent cast, but definitely enjoyable.

Alice is an unlikely mother figure. More conventional, but caught up in extraordinary circumstances, is Rose Coyne (Hattie Morahan, Beauty and the Beast) the main character in Masterpiece Theatre’s My Mother and Other Strangers. The Northern Irish Coyne family: Rose, the local schoolteacher; husband Michael (Owen McDonnell), the pub keeper; and three children Emma (age 16), Francis (10), and Kate (7) find their world turned upside down when an American Air Force bomber base — with thousands of servicemen and women — is installed in their rural parish.

If the culture clash between the Yanks and the locals weren’t enough, some romances begin to simmer. Pretty Emma (Eileen O’Higgins, Brooklyn) catches the eye of dashing Lieutenant Barnhill (Corey Cott) much to her father’s dismay. But, more disturbing is the ever growing flirtation between Rose and Barnhill’s commanding officer, the gentle, poetry-quoting Captain Dreyfus (Aaron Staton, Mad Men). All may be fair in love and war, but the Coynes’ romantic triangle isn’t going to advance Irish-American relations. At least not in any political way.

The wives and daughters of Great Paxford, Cheshire, don’t have the same handsome distractions in Home Fires, another Masterpiece series inspired by World War II and based on the novel Jambusters, by Julie Summers. Dueling village matriarchs Frances (Samantha Bond, Downton Abbey) and Joyce (Francesca Annis) vie for leadership of the Women’s Institute (WI), which — after opposing the war until that was no longer an option — took on responsibility for food production and housing evacuees. 

What’s particularly interesting about Home Fires is that the women of Great Paxford take on so much more than simply keeping those eponymous flames burning. Home Fires is an ensemble piece with many fine actresses besides Bond and Annis, who are both delightful when they aren’t being ruthless — and especially delightful when they are. 

Clare Calbraith, another Downton alumna, plays Steph, a farmer’s wife who resists joining the women but eventually becomes an enterprising asset to their group. Claire Rushbrook is Pat, married to a physically abusive writer and only able to join the WI when he is called to work in London. Claire Price plays Miriam, the local butcher’s wife, who will do anything to keep her only son David from having to fight. Ruth Gemmell is Sarah, wife of the local pastor but attracted to a dashing pilot who is billeting with them. Fenella Woolgar is Alison, a widow and industrious bookkeeper who falls in love with her lodger Teresa (Leanne Best) despite the obvious obstacles. And Jodie Hamblet is Jenny, the Great Paxford switchboard operator and, consequently, the keeper of all gossip.

One of the greatest strengths of the series is how these women’s stories intertwine and how they support each other, even as they rise to the challenges of wartime. And one of the greatest pleasures of the series, if you happen to enjoy English dramas, is spotting familiar faces among the talented cast. Sadly, Home Fires was canceled after two seasons and the last episode left us with a great many storylines unfinished, not to mention a dramatic — literally explosive — cliffhanger. A dedicated and vocal fanbase demanded a conclusion if not a third season, and a four-part novelization was adapted from the series and is available for Kindle. 

Whether you want to devote two hours (Summerland), five episodes (My Mother and Other Strangers), or two full seasons and an audiobook conclusion (Home Fires), these masterful programs bring the war heroes (or, more precisely, heroines) behind the frontlines to life in memorable ways. Women going off to war, even today, is still the exception rather than the rule. But women’s lives uprooted, torn apart, or thrust heroically and compassionately together because of war is an age-old story.

As Frances asserts in a moving address to the Cheshire WI, “None understands the true cost of war better than women.” 

These titles are all available to rent or stream on Amazon Prime.


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