The Four Just Men (a.k.a. The Secret Four), 1939.
Directed by Walter Forde.
Starring Hugh Sinclair, Griffith Jones, Frank Lawton, Francis L.Sullivan, Anna Lee and Alan Napier.
The Four Just Men are a secret group of British operatives dedicated to keeping the country’s overseas interests secure. When he is rescued from a cell, James Terry is able to reveal to his fellow members what he has learnt about a plot to sabotage the Suez Canal and, ultimately, destroy the British Empire.
Patriotism and propaganda; not usually the best elements for creating original and effective cinema and so it proves here.
A slightly confused – though certainly energetic – remake of a 1921 silent film (which was in turn based on writer Edgar Wallace’s 1905 novel and subsequent follow ups), much of the enjoyment found in The Four Just Men comes from the details. The buildings, costumes and indeed the accents will all be of interest to history buffs.
The same cannot be said of the story, which is poorly constructed, essentially archaic and difficult for modern audiences to relate to. Released just a few months before the Allies declared war on Germany in 1939, some of the political tension manages to get through the shabby scenes and woeful editing.
The story itself concentrates on James Terry’s (Frank Lawton) rescue from a prison cell (not specifically named as Nazi German, but we assume it is) and his learning of a plot to blow up the Suez Canal. After that, Terry and the other three just men investigate in London and Rome, trying to discover who is behind the dastardly plans.
Along the way they make a connection with a plucky young journalist (Anna Lee), who they reveal some of their work too. An ambitious reporter in a man’s world, her character and nervous and intermittently amusing performance only really serves to remind one of how great Rosalind Russell was a year later in Hollywood’s newspaper room classic His Girl Friday.
The men show themselves to be pretty familiar with hamming it up too, and at times the production almost has a pantomime feel to it. This does not sit particularly comfortably with notions of imperialism and empire.
Essentially, this is extremely unlikely to make any kind of connection with anyone who is not reasonably well versed in British history. And even they will be confused by what amounts to be a half-baked jingoistic film produced in order to ‘fly the flag’. The ‘British pride’ coda added during the war in 1944 which contrasts Hitler marching and Churchill looking serious, followed by the cast standing tall by the wireless is of interest, of course. However, it doesn’t exactly do much for the film (or the world of cinema) itself. All in all, a bit of a low point for the world famous Ealing Studios.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.