||In 1941 in the Rhondda Valley, Wales, on the night of April 29th, something unimaginable happened. Even though there was a World War on, rural areas were left alone by the Blitzkrieg of Nazi bombing raids, by and large, since it was the big cities and industrial regions that would suffer the most damage – both for the war machine and for the amount of lives lost amongst the civilian population. But in the remote village of Cwmparc, death rained from the sky, killing twenty-nine people apparently for the reason the Luftwaffe aeroplanes overhead wanted rid of their load, all the better to fly home to Germany faster.
This horror became emblematic of the ghastliness of what war reduced people to, and at Ealing Studios, it was obviously playing on some minds, for in 1944 they produced a film that attempted to encapsulate the worries citizens were having about the conflict at a time when it had been dragging on for five years and many were wondering if it would ever end, and when or if it did, what the globe would look like in the aftermath. Heck, what would Britain look like? Would there be any of it left worth living in? With the death toll reaching millions, the mood was apocalyptic, even though there was an end in sight.
The Halfway House was the film, part of a body of work that was preoccupied with the afterlife, much as culture had been during the First World War, as many pondered the fate of those loved ones they had lost. This gave rise to spiritualism, a pseudo-religion kicked off by exploitative charlatans like The Fox Sisters, but containing such a potent premise - you could contact those who had died, and they could even give you advice - that it continues today in various guises, be it a professional medium making profit from bereaved or simply someone dusting off the Ouija board and holding a séance as a party game.
What did this have to do with The Halfway House? Made by Ealing Studios before they really took off with post-war comedy, it had been drawn from a play The Peaceful Inn by Dennis Ogden, but radically reworked from its murder mystery plot to centre around the reservations the British nation were having about their involvement in the battles. The screenwriters were Angus MacPhail, who was no stranger to penning wartime propaganda, and Diana Morgan, whose Welsh provenance must be interpreted as being behind the veiled tribute to the dead of Cwmparc the Ogden material was rewritten to include.
The plot now was that a set of strangers were staying over at the inn of the title, and in a manner not unlike the portmanteau films that were intermittently popular with British audiences, from Friday the Thirteenth (not that one) to the W. Somerset Maugham adaptations, or more pertinently McPhail's script for Ealing's classic chiller Dead of Night. Therefore we dropped in on the lives of these folks, such as the conductor being forced to give up the job he loves because he is in danger of dying of some unspecified illness, or the divorcing couple whose precocious young daughter is determined to reunite them during the stay.
They were all encouraged, supernaturally, as it turned out, to do the best for the world by engaging with it instead of running away from it and their resulting problems. The encouragers were the landlord and his daughter, played by actual father and daughter Mervyn Johns and Glynis Johns (the latter best known as Mrs Banks from Mary Poppins), who as we suspect, and have those suspicions confirmed across the course of the drama, are not entirely of this corporeal realm anymore. They have, however, decided to stick around on the anniversary of the inn's destruction in a bombing raid, to impart words of wisdom.
It was a very benevolent view of the dead, that they are now so much at peace that they want nothing more than to ensure the living are reassured and guided to exist at their best performance, for if they did not, the dead's elimination from this vale of tears would have been pointless at best, an utter waste at worst. There was a séance here, which the holidaymakers hold under the mediumship of a Frenchwoman (Françoise Rosay) who has lost her son, but ends cruelly as her sceptical husband, himself utterly disillusioned, plays a trick on her. He is ultimately proven wrong, as the characters are brought back to the world, including the Irishman who was previously opting for neutrality, and once again enter the fray. The message was clear - the dead, of Cwmparc, of Britain, of Europe and the whole planet, must not die in vain, and unity was of paramount importance. A strange, strange film, veering from broad comedy to sincere spirituality, but haunting too.
[Studio Canal release The Halfway House on restored Blu-ray and DVD, looking pristine, with an overview from Matthew Sweet and a stills gallery as extras. Click here to read an article on the Cwmparc disaster.]