Alf and Freddy, both in their early twenties, were virgins of a sort. They had slept with women, but they had never shot men.
Most of the other chaps in the East London Resistance cell had been in uniform five years earlier, when the Germans had invaded. They’d fired rifles, perhaps shed blood. But Alf and Freddy had been just a year too young to serve before the jerries took over and disbanded His Majesty’s armed services.
Now, in 1945, they walked towards a cinema, trying not to look conspicuous as they shadowed the two German soldiers they hoped to kill.
The revolvers in their jacket pockets did not bulge out noticeably, as Alf could swear they did, nor did the grip of flesh on metal cause some loud, rattling ping, as Freddy’s imagination made him halfway think.
The two occupation soldiers went to the box office. Both sported sergeant’s stripes. They were older, heftier men, the sort of second- or third-line reservists who could be spared for occupation duty in Great Britain whilst war still raged east of Moscow.
Alf and Freddy, casually as they could, got in line behind them. The one with an old scar along his face saw them and made a polite gesture: “After you!”
“No, no! We couldn’t,” Alf said.
“I insist,” the German said, with only a light accent. “I am still trying to convince my dummkopf kamrad to attend the film. He is afraid of Wilhelm Shakespeare. His English is too poor, and his brain is too small!”
The other jerry grinned and elbowed him. He said something in German, surely profane.
How pleasant it all was. Everyone was smiling.
You had to give the krauts credit for brains. For the past five years, every soldier had patiently waited in queues, and had paid shopkeepers at the posted prices. They didn’t give offence when it was not necessary, clearly by order from the top.
These fellows weren’t even armed.
Of course, jerry soldiers on holiday could go about unarmed because if one of them were to be killed by some rash resistance fighter, then fifty Brits picked at random would be machine-gunned in the street; no one had dared try it for over a year.
So what had changed, that Alf and Freddy had been sent on this mission?
The meeting had taken place in the cellar of a pub. The cell leader was the proprietor, and his wife and daughters were pulling the taps upstairs while he conducted the meeting below.
“Something’s in the wind, lads,” he said to them. “I’ve got guns for all of you now. We’re not just a talking shop anymore. We’re going to hit them hard.”
Considering how eager they had all been to get started, the fifteen men crowded in amongst beer kegs and cleaning supplies looked scared.
“It looks as though the invasion’s on-” the publican/cell leader said, then stopped and made a shush gesture.
“We’re all to pick a target tomorrow. Upon a pre-arranged signal, stalk, then kill a single German soldier, every one of you. Then, start sniping at will. Our mission is to deny the jerries freedom of movement. I believe that the Americans and Canadians are going to invade, and that anything we can do in that way will help them succeed.”
Everyone could follow the same logic: the orders made no sense unless an invasion was imminent. But could even the Americans, with all their dollars and shipyards and warm bodies, have actually built an invasion armada that would be able to strike across the Atlantic? That was even now sailing towards Great Britain? It sounded impossible.
How would the Americans be able to carry enough tonnage in bombs aboard even a dozen aircraft carriers to destroy the Luftwaffe bases?
But if one didn’t believe that, the only alternative would be to accept that the Germans would stay here . . . forever.
Some protested. “They’ll do example killings at a 50-to-1 ratio!” “Reign of terror by the SS!” “London shall burn down!”
“No!” the cell leader had said. “You have to trust that the day is coming which we have worked for all these years! We must make a hash of their ability to move about freely. Here, let me pass about the guns. Look where they came from, if you need some reason to believe! If these didn’t get here from a submarine, I’ll be buggered.”
And they all had to look at their Smith & Wesson revolvers, stamped in Massachusetts, and trust.
“Now, there shall be a signal. A giant explosion, I have been told. It will be unmistakable. As it has been given to me, if you are not sure that it is the signal . . . it is not. It will be something unmistakable.”
The cinema was packed. There was an old pre-war cartoon to start them off, then a propaganda newsreel.
Canada may be cold, but it is very comfortable, said the title card.
“Ottawa, September 1945,” William Joyce, the Germans’ favorite English language announcer, said sprightly. “Snow is already on the ground! But Sir Winston Churchill makes up for it by warming his lungs with only the finest Cuban cigars!” And there was sour, fat Churchill walking around outdoors among Canadian officials, puffing a huge stogie. “Seeing him so comfortably ensconced, it is hard to believe this is the same fellow who fled his country in such haste, five years ago next month. Definitely not his finest hour!”
A titter escaped the audience, reluctantly. No one really blamed old Winnie for keeping the legitimate government intact in exile. The Germans had surrounded London and were filtering ever northward when he climbed aboard that plane.
Still, he was in Canada.
“What was that stirring speech he made?” Joyce asked in a mocking, bouncy voice. “How did it run? Ah, now we remember!”
Churchill’s voice from 1940 spoke as the Churchill of 1945 cavorted across the screen.
“We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.” Churchill cut a piece of steak at a formal dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” Churchill danced at some function – probably on a White House visit, not in Ottawa – with Ilo Wallace, wife of U. S. President Henry Wallace.
“We shall never surrender.” A still photograph (but panned to give movement) showed him painting an unexceptional landscape.
“And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” In a tuxedo, he lifted a glass in a toast (he apparently had little to do in Ottawa except attend functions).
“Guess they couldn’t find no film of him riding round on horseback splashing mud on the serfs, eh?” Alf said.
Freddy nodded. “Only thing that would’ve made it more perfect.” They both chuckled.
But Alf lapsed into a scowl he was entirely unconscious of. They did it up proper, they did. The sequence had filled him with rage, not against anyone in German uniform or any collaborator, but against the British government in exile, which was doing everything it could to free Blighty from occupation. Alf knew the lackeys who had fixed up the newsreel were trying to wrest such a feeling out of him . . . and they still got it.
It was worth a scowl.
Heinrich, he of the scarred face, sighed at the newsreel. Propaganda was the salt of modern Germany, poured on every consumable. Before Hitler took power, German cinema had been inventive, surreal, passionate.
The party line lies tired him. But even worse was being forced to hear it in another language.
Alf found the next bit of “news” reassuring, because the bastards were clearly trying to put the best face on a cock-up.
The bloody Germans might have conquered Western Europe up to the west coast of Ulster. But their Japanese allies were not doing so well.
Chichijima: the giant American graveyard! This piece was read by “distinguished American poet” Ezra Pound, who had lived in Italy and praised Mussolini’s Fascist state even before Hitler came to power.
“The valiant Japanese have no word in their language for ‘surrender.’” Pound asserted. “At every battle, they have made the poor saps forced into Red Henry Wallace’s Army pay with their lives.” Unsettling Japanese-provided footage showed dead American Marines (not Army soldiers, as the poet had sloppily said) in heaps on sandy beaches.
Pound did not mention that, no matter how terrible the price, the yanks now owned Chichijima.
Chichijima, eh? thought Heinrich. He wasn’t too happy about that.
There was nothing left now between the Americans and the Japanese main islands. Japan had been an important distraction for wealthy, populous America; of course, Japan was also the reason the Americans had joined the war and reinvigorated the flagging Commonwealth cause. As one who had seen close combat on the Russian front, he wanted the war to be over.
He wished the Japanese and their language-that-didn’t-have-a-word-for-surrender had stayed the hell out of it all.
The film started. In color.
A solitary figure walked along a beach, the water luridly green, the sky powder-blue.
Heinrich felt a thrill of anticipation. He wished his parents, both schoolteachers, were alive and sitting here with him now. He had re-read the play in its antiquated English to prepare for this.
Laurence Olivier is
William Shakespeare’s RICHARD III
A Film by DAVID LEAN
MICHAEL REDGRAVE as Buckingham
VIVIAN LEIGH as Anne
and DAVID NIVEN as Richmond
As the credits finished, the solitary figure came close enough to see the hump on the right shoulder, the curly pitch-black hair, the hooked, Semitic putty nose. Underneath it all was the handsome matinee idol who had starred in Wuthering Heights only a few years ago.
“Now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this sun of York. / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
“Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / our bruis’ed arms hung up for monuments, / our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings, / our dreadful marches to delightful measures.”
Heinrich took it all in, and nodded sagely as the future king detailed his own evil plans.
I see they took care of the Jewish issue right off the bat, Sepp thought. Olivier had been made up as the standard anti-Semitic caricature, although there was not one line in the play that suggested Richard III was a Jew.
His Shakespeare-mad buddy Heinrich had been bored and disgusted by the German-produced The Merchant of Venice when they had seen it some months back; Nazi strictures on how Jews could be portrayed had shredded Shakespeare’s play; Shylock’s daughter Jessica could not fall in love with the gentile Lorenzo; Shylock could not convert to Catholicism in the end; and the famous “hath not a Jew eyes” speech had been cut!
“God bless the Royal Navy,” Alf said under his breath. Even sitting next to him, Freddy could just barely hear him.
“Yeah,” said Freddy, his throat full.
It was something the Germans who had approved the film for distribution could not have noticed. By setting the opening soliloquy next to the coastline, the director (and probably good old Larry Olivier and a few others in cahoots with him!) had freighted it with a whole new meaning.
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Indeed, the Royal Navy was buried. After the British army in France had surrendered at Dunkirk (and with it the bulk of the Royal Air Force, which had been unwisely committed to the continent), the lads on those ships had taken dreadful losses against the dive bombers as they vainly attempted to stop the reinforcement of the German beachheads. The invasion had started on September 15, 1940, and by winter – the winter of discontent indeed! – it was over. Their weapons were now monuments, all right; the Germans had left burned-out hulks of British tanks on the outskirts of the city as tourist attractions for newly-arrived garrison troops.
The propaganda short about Churchill dancing and dining in North America could not begin to be so effective as this. Rage seethed in both of the young men.
Alf and Freddy had been friends since childhood. Both were named Alfred, after the only British king who had ever earned the appellation “. . . the Great.” As boys, they had solemnly divided the name. Now, they both tried to live up to the full of it.
“If everyone else calls him ‘Clarence’ how come he says ‘my name is George’?” Sepp whispered.
Annoyed, Heinrich quickly tried to explain British royal titles while watching the screen: “He’s George, Duke of Clarence, everyone calls him by his title of Clarence.” Despite the fact that he was speaking in German and wearing a uniform, an indignant woman behind him was un-intimidated enough to say, “Shh!”
Eventually Sepp got into the film. It was just so exquisitely made, with sumptuous sets and crackling performances.
“I tell you one thing,” he whispered to Heinrich. “They overdid the Jewish looks. Richard,” (he went with the German pronunciation of ‘Reekh-yerd’), “hardly looks like his brother, or the two little princes, or any of his other relatives.”
Heinrich nodded. Olivier’s ridiculous wig aside, the filmmakers had done an admirable job of ensuring that most of the cast had light-reddish hair – the two princes, George Duke of Clarence, pretty much all of the sympathetic characters whom Richard III murdered or otherwise abused to become Richard III.
Freddy cleared his throat. He wanted to say something without saying it. “The, uh, good guys all have red hair,” he said, as they watched two assassins with false papers head up to the Tower of London to kill Clarence.
“Yep, I noticed that too.” Alf said. They snickered like schoolboys who had just gotten away with looking up a governess’s dress.
Every nation had its own set of references, including bigoted ones. Among the English of previous generations, but still persisting even in their own time, there was a cliché that Jews had red hair. Alf remembered, as a schoolboy just before the war, how his class was taken to an amateur production of – of all things! – The Merchant of Venice; the actor playing Shylock had worn a red wig.
The dark curls worn by Laurence Olivier were closer to the stock ‘type’ that the English carried in their heads of an Italian, Spanish, or Greek gentile.
By granting red hair to those murdered by Richard and those who sought to overthrow him, (the “good guys,” as Freddy had called them) the filmmakers had winked at their own countrymen. A thrill of power went through both men; to know they could hear and see things that jerries sitting in this very theatre could not was inspirational. Good on this David Lean fellow, and all of his co-conspirators!
(“Could this be the sign?” Freddy whispered. “Maybe this is supposed to incite an uprising?”)
(“Huh! I, I dunno.”)
One of the assassins leaning over the sleeping Clarence hesitated, knife in hand: “Faith! Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.”
His companion urged him on: “Remember our reward when the deed’s done.”
“Zounds! He dies. I had forgot the reward!”
Heinrich was impressed by the quality of the acting. The British reputation for breeding stage performers was deserved. Michael Redgrave, as Richard’s sycophantic lapdog Buckingham, was a tall, nervous, sickening scarecrow.
Vivian Leigh (Olivier’s real-life wife – and the star of Gone with the Wind!) as the vulnerable, manipulated Lady Anne Neville, was heartbreaking. Seduced in front of her husband’s funeral bier by the man she knew had killed him – how could that be believed? Yet she made you believe it.
The only disappointment among the cast was this David Niven fellow in the crucial role of Richmond.
The Earl of Richmond had come back from exile on the continent with an army to wrest the nation away from Richard, both in the play and in real history. Surely, they could have found someone better than this bland, honey-voiced, sleepy-eyed fellow; he looked like the playboy in some light comedy, not the vanquisher of the greatest villain ever to rule England.
To top it all off, his accent was strange. Heinrich seemed to recall Niven had done films in America before the war; perhaps he had forgotten how to talk proper English amid the vulgar Americans!
“Pathetic!” he muttered. Sepp raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Give it to ‘em, Richmond!” Freddy urged. Alf was in the same mood.
David Niven was just wonderful as Richmond. Casting him had been a masterstroke. Most folks knew of his real-life heroism, and were rooting for him.
Niven, like Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, had been living safely in fabled Hollywood, headlining movies. When war broke out, all three of them had left this incredibly comfortable spot and come back home; Niven had immediately enlisted in the Army. It had all been mentioned back when there was a free press. He might have seen some combat against the jerries before he was demobbed.
Any Brit familiar with his story tipped his cap to Mr. David Niven.
And who couldn’t be excited by the prospect of a rescuer bringing back an army from overseas to liberate the home isles from a tyrant? Whatever the story had meant to the Elizabethans who watched this play being performed live, it meant something far more personal to the current crop of English.
Freddy and Alf whooped and cheered as Niven/Richmond led his army off the beach. Everyone in the audience did, informers be buggered. The occupation’s censors were crazy not to realise what this meant to them all. But then, Freddy reflected, the Germans were a literal-minded bunch; as long as Larry Olivier wore a hooked putty nose, the jerry censors ticked off a box on some form that said “gives the Jews a good thrashing” and figured all was well.
Best of all was the subtle flattening of Niven’s accent. A German wouldn’t know what to make of it, perhaps wouldn’t even hear it. But he flattened his A’s and hit his R’s to suggest an American or Canadian accent. As he addressed his troops, rubbishing King Richard:
“A base, foul stone made precious by the foil / of England’s chair where he is falsely set! / One that has ever been God’s enemy!”
. . . ‘Been’ was closer to ‘bin.’ ‘Chair’ was ‘chehr.’ Niven was in on it with Olivier, David Lean, and the rest!
(“Ain’t this the first day for the film? The premiere?” Freddy, in his excitement, had to remember to whisper. “This is the signal!”
(“Yeah, maybe,” Alf said. “But I thought it was supposed to be a real explosion, not explosive laughter, mate.” He frowned.)
The battle went against Richard, and the audience cheered. Sepp frowned and looked around, but Heinrich patted him on the arm. “Give them their silver screen victory, mein kamrad.” Because, of course, this part was too obvious to ignore. Perhaps if the censors had not watched the film alone, they would not have approved it. “After the lights go up, we will still control the streets outside.”
Olivier’s face contorted so much that Heinrich feared his putty nose would fall off. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for-”
The film went off. The exit lights failed.
The two older German men and the two younger Brits, along with everyone else in the cinema, groaned, booed, and generally demonstrated their displeasure. No doubt, the populi at the Roman Coliseum had behaved thus when some sated lion passed on that last standing Christian.
Then, everyone realised that the ground had actually shaken, just a bit. There had not been an air raid in five years, and few had reflexes trained for it anymore, but some bomb had gone off somewhere, and had jolted off the juice in the process.
Heinrich and Sepp stood up tall. They edged out of their seats as frightened people scrambled to get out of their way.
“Hurry, hurry!” Alf said. Freddy didn’t need the encouragement.
Everyone pushed out the door at about the same time. And there, above the skyline of London, was a sight no one had ever beheld before.
To the north, in the direction of the Luftwaffe’s Ostanglia airbase, a giant purple cloud was blooming upward, growing with the debris within itself.
Air raid sirens, unused for years, went off on every street, but who could notice them with this strange new edifice of smoke, so far away, yet so large it could be seen with the naked eye.
It resembled a giant mushroom.
A single airplane was silhouetted in the sky, a bomber with unfamiliar lines. It banked away toward the sea.
“By God, the yanks have got some kind of new explosive!” Alf rasped. He couldn’t fathom what kind of chemical could produce a blast that large, but it worked! From a single bomber that had taken off from an aircraft carrier! Ostanglia airbase was clearly gone.
“That’s the bloody signal!” Freddy said.
“Of course it is!”
The Germans trotted down a side street, which might have provided a shorter route back to their barracks. It also led through some of the most wonderfully isolated alleys Alf knew of; the jerries had been dulled by their apparent safety in recent years.
The Germans were still in sight. But they weren’t around other people now; the two Englishmen couldn’t follow them any further without being detected.
The Alfreds had to act soon.
“Guess we’d better just shoot ‘em in the back,” Alf said. He managed an uneasy chuckle. “Unless, eh, forsooth, you have some dregs of conscience.”
“Ha. No mate, remember the reward, for our country, when the deed is done!”
“Zounds, they bloody well die.” He quickened his pace. They both reached into their jackets for their pistols. “I remember the reward. They die. They die.”
Eric “Cruel” Cline lives in Maryland, U.S.A. with his wife and three dogs. His stories have been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Stupefying Stories, NewMyths.com, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and other places. www.cruelcline.blogspot.com.