It Happened Here (1964)


It Happened Here (also known as It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler’s England) is a black-and white 1964 British World War II film written, produced and directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, who began work on the film as teenagers. The film’s largely amateur production took some eight years, using volunteer actors with some support from professional filmmakers.

It Happened Here shows an alternative history where the United Kingdom has been invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The plot follows the experiences of an Irish nurse working in England, who encounters people who believe collaboration with the invaders is for the best whilst others are involved in the resistance movement against the occupiers and their local collaborators.

Set in 1944–1945, the story focuses on an apolitical Irish district nurse, Pauline. Following an upsurge in partisan activity in her area, she is forcibly evacuated from her village by the Germans and their collaborators and witnesses an attack on German forces by a group of British partisans, during which a number of her friends from the village are killed in the crossfire. The attack (and more particularly the deaths) influences her subsequent views and decisions.

She is evacuated to London, where she reluctantly becomes a collaborator, joining the medical wing of the Immediate Action Organisation (IAO), a kind of quasi-paramilitary medical corps and is re-trained as an ambulance attendant. Although at first reluctant and intent on remaining apolitical, Pauline begins to show the effects of fascist indoctrination in her behaviour. It is a reunion with old friends (an antifascist doctor and his wife) that gives Pauline pause and when she subsequently discovers they are harbouring an injured partisan she reluctantly agrees to help.

Gradually Pauline learns more about the impacts of the German occupation and she sees her friends arrested. The discovery of her association with the antifascist couple by her superiors in the IAO leads to her demotion and transfer to another part of the country. She welcomes the move at first, as her new job appears to have less of the paramilitary trappings. However Pauline discovers that she has unwittingly taken part in a forced euthanasia programme and killed a group of foreign forced labourers who had contracted tuberculosis.

The film ends with Pauline being arrested after protesting and refusing to continue but before she can be put on trial, she is captured by the resurgent British Resistance and agrees to work for them as they fight to liberate the country with the help of arriving American troops. In the finale, Pauline tends a group of wounded partisans while, out of her view, a large group of soldiers from the Black Prince Regiment of the British Legion of the Waffen-SS who had surrendered are summarily shot, a scene reminiscent of an SS massacre of civilians earlier in the film.

The film was directed by Kevin Brownlow, who later became a prominent film historian, and Andrew Mollo, who later become a leading military historian. Brownlow developed the concept of the film when he was 18 years old, in 1956. He turned to Mollo, a 16-year-old history buff, to help him with the design of costumes and sets. Mollo was intrigued by the project, and became his collaborator. The film was in the making for the next eight years, which the Guinness Book of World Records (as of 2003) calls the longest ever production schedule.

It Happened Here was shot in black and white on 16 mm film, giving it a grainy, newsreel feel (no actual stock footage was used). Most of the equipment used in the production was borrowed. The audio quality (and lighting) on the opening reel is rather poor, which makes the dialogue difficult to follow for the first few minutes. Stanley Kubrick, who was intrigued by the project, donated film stock from Dr. Strangelove to Brownlow to help him finish the film. Veteran wartime BBC radio announcers Alvar Lidell and John Snagge gave their services free to voice reconstructed newsreels and radio broadcasts.[1] Support was also given by director Tony Richardson, who helped to pay for the final production.

The film had a cast of hundreds, all volunteers, with several professional actors among them Sebastian Shaw, Reginald Marsh. A number of the extras in the film were members of British science fiction fandom, and a portion was previewed at a science fiction convention in Peterborough. Many of the British fascists in the film were former members of the British Union of Fascists, and similarly, German ex-servicemen portrayed SS and Wehrmacht soldiers and airmen. The key role of Pauline, a nurse evacuated from Salisbury to London, was played by Pauline Murray. The film was partially shot in Grim’s Dyke. Though the cast was almost entirely amateur, It Happened Here helped to launch the career of its cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, who went on to work on such films as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Empire Strikes Back.