Not only was Robert Donat one of the finest screen actors of his generation, but I’ll go so far as to say he was also one of the best actors in film history.He does some of his greatest work playing Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy. If you want to see Robert’s subtle scene stealing ability at its peak, then you should look no further than his masterful performance in this gem.
The Winslow Boy is directed by Anthony Asquith(The Browning Version, Carrington V.C.) and produced by Anatole de Grunwald. The film is based upon the 1946 stage play of the same name by Terence Rattigan(Separate Tables, The Browning Version). Anatole de Grunwald and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the screenplay.
Both the film and the play are based upon a real life incident from 1908, which concerned a boy called George Archer- Shee and a stolen postal order. The incident and the subsequent trial became front page news and caused a sensation here in Britain.
George Archer-Shee was a young British Naval cadet from a wealthy Roman Catholic family. He was training at the Royal Naval College at Osborne House on the Isle Of Wight.On the 7th of October, 1908, another cadet called Terence Back received a postal order from a relative costing five shillings. That same afternoon, George Archer-Shee received permission to leave the Naval college grounds and go to a local post office to buy a postal order and a stamp so that he could buy a model train costing 15 shillings and sixpence.
When he returned to the college, Archer-Shee learnt that Terence Back had reported that his postal order had been stolen.The postmistress produced Terence Back’s cashed postal order. She reported only two cadets visited that afternoon and claimed that the cadet who had brought the postal order for 15 shillings and 6 pence was the same one who cashed the five shilling postal order.
George Archer-Shee strongly protested his innocence but the college found him guilty of theft. When the college wrote to his father informing him of the situation and that his son would be expelled, his father refused to believe his son guilty of the crime.
George’s elder brother, Martin Archer-Shee, obtained the services of Sir Edward Carson, who was not only one of the best barristers in the country, but was also an MP and the former Solicitor General.
Before he agreed to take on the case, Sir Edward exhaustively questioned George Archer-Shee until he was satisfied that the boy was indeed innocent.
Upon taking on the boy’s defence, it quickly became apparent to Sir Edward that this would not be a straightforward case. Because the boy was a Naval cadet he was excluded from the jurisdiction of the Civil Court. As he was not enlisted in the Royal Navy he was not eligible to face a Court Martial. Sir Edward brought a petition of right against the Crown in order to get the case before the courts. The Archer-Shee case eventually came before the courts on the 26th of July, 1910.
“A boy 13 years old has been labelled and ticketed for all his future life as a thief and a forger. Gentlemen, I protest against the injustice to a child, without communication with his parents, without his case ever being put, or an opportunity of its ever being put forward by those on his behalf. That little boy from the day that he was first charged, up to this moment, whether in the ordeal of being called in before his Commander and his Captain, or whether under the softer influences of the persuasion of his own loving parents, has never faltered in the statement that he is innocent.” Sir Edward Carson’s opening remarks to the court concerning the Archer-Shee case.
Sir Edward proved that the grounds on which George Archer-Shee was dismissed from Osborne were unsubstantiated. The postmistress admitted she may have been mistaken in what she had said at the time. She was also unable to identify George Archer-Shee from among the other cadets. On the fourth day of the trial the Solicitor General accepted that the boy was innocent of the crime. The Archer-Shee family received several thousand pounds in compensation from the British Admiralty the following year. While the case had a happy ending tragedy lurked just around the corner. George Archer-Shee served as a lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment during WW1. He was killed at the Battle Of Ypres in 1914. He was just 19 years old.
The Winslow Boy is a powerful and touching tale of standing up for what is right and just, even if doing so costs you personally. The film is also one of the most moving tales of the unshakable love of a parent for their child. At the heart of the film is the issue of the right of every person to be able to defend themselves and receive a fair trial in a court of law when accused of a crime. In addition to all of this, the film is also a very touching drama about a family risking not only their standing in society, but also their fortune, in order to help their young relative get justice.
The film sticks very close to the facts of the Archer-Shee case but changes several things, such as Ronnie Winslow cashing his postal order to buy an air pistol rather than a model train, as well as changing the names of the key figures involved in the real case and setting the events in 1912, rather than having events take place between 1908 and 1911.
A few screenshots from the film.
The film also makes the Winslow family much less wealthier than their real life counterparts were. Unlike the play and the 1999 film remake, this film adaptation also takes us inside the courtroom to witness the trial unfolding, a decision which allows us to bear witness to Morton’s great skill as a barrister.
The film presents Ronnie’s elder brother as being more interested in music and having a good time, rather than taking life seriously, when in reality the elder brother wasn’t like that at all. Both the play and the film also present Ronnie Winslow’s elder sister Catherine as being a suffragette and early feminist, and someone to whom Sir Robert Morton takes quite a fancy, when in reality the sister was very different and no hint of romance existed between her and Sir Edward Carson. While these changes may seem strange, they do work wonderfully well for the film, especially the money worries experienced by the family and Catherine’s determination to gain equal footing in life with men.
Ronnie Winslow(Neil North)is a Naval Cadet at Osborne on the Isle Of Wight. Accused of stealing and cashing the postal order of a fellow cadet, he is found guilty by his commanding officer and expelled from the college. He never relents in protesting his innocence.
Ronnie’s father, Arthur Winslow(Cedric Hardwicke), is riddled with Arthritis and has had to retire from his job as a bank manager. Mr. Winslow doesn’t for one second believe his son to be guilty of the crime he has been accused of, and despite his bad health, he pushes himself to the limit supporting his son and trying to arrange legal help for him.
He eventually obtains the services of distinguished barrister and MP, Sir Robert Morton(Robert Donat), who agrees to meet Ronnie before deciding whether or not he will take on his case. After subjecting the boy to intense and prolonged questioning, Sir Robert is convinced of his innocence and agrees to defend him.
During meetings with the Winslow family an attraction develops between Sir Robert Morton and Ronnie’s elder sister, Catherine(Margaret Leighton).
Sparks fly between the pair and the more they discuss things, the more it becomes clear that they think along similar lines about so much in life.
Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Robert Donat and Margaret Leighton. Both actors are clearly having fun with the verbal sparring that their characters engage in and both do a wonderful job through looks, gestures, vocal tones etc of conveying the unspoken feelings that the pair are starting to develop for one another.
While the whole cast are all superb, it is Robert Donat who single-handedly steals the show. Although he doesn’t appear in the film for 43 minutes, once he is a part of the film you miss him when he leaves a scene and he has your undivided attention whenever he is on screen.
Whether he’s subtly scene stealing through glances and body language alone, or delivering powerful speeches, Robert Donat utterly commands the screen in this film.
I love how well he captures the soft spoken Robert Morton’s languid, seemingly disinterested and cool exterior, while at the same time showing us the impassioned and decent soul beneath that exterior. I especially love his performance during the scene in Parliament, where another MP says the following while debating the case of the Winslow Boy:
“Chief criticism against the admiralty appears to centre on the purely legal question of the petition of right brought by Mr. Arthur Winslow and the admiralty’s demurrer thereto. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that in certain cases, private rights may have to be sacrificed for the public good. And moreover His Majesty’s government cannot be and will not be expected to yield to threats and grandiloquent gestures from any source whatsoever.”
All through that speech, Sir Robert is casually sitting on the opposition bench reading a book and seemingly acting disinterested. When the other MP says that rights may have to be sacrificed, Sir Robert looks disgusted, loudly slams shut his book and shoots a withering look at the man speaking and storms out of the House.
I love how Robert Donat acts out that moment and how he makes Sir Robert’s actions so effective. Sir Robert is a man who does everything for a reason and chooses his moments to fight very carefully. A little later on in the film, Sir Robert shows us just what he is made of when he delivers a powerful rebuttal speech in Parliament. Part of that speech is as follows:
” And I believe, with all my heart, that this House will accept my view that there is only one course left open to the government. Namely this. Let them not rest till the attorney general has endorsed Mr. Winslow’s petition with the time honoured phrase, the phrase that has always stirred an Englishman and I hope always will stir him, wherever he may be – in his castle, in his backyard…or in the humblest little public house at the corner of the humblest little street: Let right be done”.
Let right be done are the four words that this whole film rests upon. Sometimes it can be difficult and costly to do the right thing, but choosing the right way over the wrong or easy way should always be the way we go. Robert Morton incurs the wrath of government for standing up for what is right and refusing to stop supporting Ronnie Winslow.
The Winslow family also sacrifice and suffer a great deal due to protesting Ronnie’s innocence – the elder brother, Dickie(Jack Watling), loses out on his place at Oxford,while Catherine loses her marriage settlement and has her engagement broken off because her fiances father wants nothing to do with her family. Gossip runs rampant as the case is discussed and tried in the court of public opinion, but right is done and the boy receives justice in the end. It was a difficult process but it was all necessary and worth the effort and pain.
Cedric Hardwicke is heartbreaking as Ronnie’s ill father who thinks only of getting justice for his boy. He does such a terrific job of conveying Arthur’s incredible inner strength and also his failing physical health. He and Margaret Leighton have a lovely chemistry together. Margaret is equally superb and I love how she conveys Catherine’s iron will, an inner strength to rival her father’s, as well as her compassionate and gentle nature.
Although Arthur is happily married, his relationship with his wife(Marie Lohr) is not really one of true companionship. His only true companion is his daughter. The pair seem to only be able to bear their souls and confide all to each other, rather than to anyone else. They have that kind of special relationship where each can tell instantly when something is wrong with the other.
Mrs. Winslow, Violet and Dickie Winslow. Screenshots by me.
Marie Lohr is terrific as the loving and protective Mrs. Winslow. Kathleen Harrison(who had been in the play) is lovable and hilarious as the Winslow’s maid, Violet. Jack Watling does a fine job as Dickie, the eldest Winslow son. Neil North is great as young Ronnie, especially in the scene where he is questioned by Sir Robert and starts to cry. Neil North plays the First Lord Of The Admiralty in the very good 1999 remake, starring Jeremy Northam as Sir Robert.
The Winslow Boy is not only one of the best screen adaptations of a Terence Rattigan play, but it is also one of the best films of the 1940’s. The film remains extremely relevant for modern audiences given its subject matter. Highly recommended for fans of Robert Donat and Terence Rattigan.