Films about Popski's Private Army

The Popski Story in Film

This section title is a bit misleading, as no films of Popski or PPA have ever been made. Despite many attempts over the last sixty years that we know of, starting with Powell and Pressburger, no-one has yet managed to bring the long overdue Popski Story to television or the cinema.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's letter to Popski in 1950 A Pinewood Studios film script about the Popski Story from 1967
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's letter to Popski in 1950 A Pinewood Studios film script about the Popski Story from 1967

In the late 1950's years after Popski's death his widow Pamela formed a company to turn Private Army into a film. Alva Film Productions Ltd was set up by Mickey Delamar, and the board of directors also included Patricia, Countess Jellicoe. We don't know if Pamela and "Patsy" already knew each other through their Irish backgrounds, but readers will recall that Popski and George, Lord Jellicoe, briefly ("chastely") shared a room outside Alger in May/June 1943. At that time Major George Jellicoe was O/C the Special Boat Squadron - the nautical equivalent of PPA.

Alva Film Productions Ltd
Alva Film Productions Ltd

Although there was considerable correspondence about a Popski film (in the foPPA Archives), and extensive preparatory work in background research and scripting various treatments over many years, including the involvement of Rank Films at Pinewood Studios, it's not clear why it all came to nought in the end. Alva Films did however, make Serious Charge in 1959, with Anthony Quayle (ex-SOE in Albania, and starred in Ice Cold in Alex - see below) and Cliff Richard.

The most recent serious attempt was in the late 1970's when film directors/producers Mike Sarne and Ron Terrill put an advert in a national newspaper requesting information about PPA and its veterans. They were flooded with many responses, including one from Corporal Ben Owen of Captain Bob Yunnie's 'B' Patrol. This resulted in the major reunion in Birmingham in 1979 pictured in Ben's book.

Mike and Ron have long been great Popski fans and put a considerable amount of time, money and effort into developing a "Band of Brothers" style television series, but were never able to raise the funding for it. Curiously they told us, at one time they were summoned to a meeting in a pub in Knightsbridge, near Harrods. Two large "SAS type" characters then asked them a lot of questions about their Popski research, but then concluded by "suggesting" that they should stop poking around.

Nevertheless, over the years they accumulated a considerable amount of PPA memorabilia - letters, documents, photos - and interviewed to videotape many veterans and others connected with the Popski Story. We are very lucky that the entire Mike Sarne/Ron Terrill Popski Collection has now come to the foPPA Archives, including the only known surviving PPA Unit Symbol Jeep Plate. Their Popski film script is one of several that we have acquired over the years. Some might remember that Mike Sarne was originally a pop star in the 60's, but then became a film director, most notably perhaps with Myra Breckenridge in 1970, starring Mae West, John Huston and Raquel Welch.

A few years ago foPPA Treasurer Guy Harris also had a film option on Popski's book for a while, and in due course we'll bring you more information about all these attempts.

Having said all this, the earliest cinematic reference to Popski's Private Army came in the closing sequences of Roberto Rossellini's 1946 film "Paisan". This was the second of his acclaimed "neorealism" trilogy - Rome, Open City; Paisan (also titled "Piasa'"), and Germany, Year Zero.

Roberto Rossellini
Roberto Rossellini's "Paisan" (1946)

Paisan is divided into six short Episodes, following the Allies' progress from Sicily to the Northern plains. Episode Six, written by Vasco Pratolini, is set in the marshes of the Po delta in late 1944, or early 1945 as the war draws to a close. Italian Partisans are assisting an OSS Operational Group, using their traditional, low-profile marsh boats to get around. Also present are a couple of San Marco troopers, and two comments are made about Popski's Private Army operating nearby. It's not clear if the American is supposed to be Lieutenant Richard Kelly or Lieutenant George Hearn, but this episode has a bleak ending when they are all captured after their ammunition runs out because a supply drop failed to appear in time.

Apparently it was the success of Rossellini's first film, Rome, Open City, that persuaded various international investors and MGM Studios to back him for the other two films. We can only wonder to what extent Rossellini was influenced by certain American backers to include this rather obscure part of the Italian Campaign, given the major battles that the regular forces were engaged in and the considerable number of Partisan actions in the North.

Meanwhile, we'd like to put in a plug for our favourite films about the War in the Desert...

Films about the War in the Desert

There are four films that we consider represent a reasonably accurate picture of what it was actually like to be operating in the Western Desert in the first half of World War Two. Sea of Sand (later renamed Desert Patrol) and Ice Cold in Alex were both made in 1958, and then Tobruk in 1967 and Play Dirty in 1969. More about these can be found on the excellent IMDb (Internet Movie Database) website.

Sea of Sand (1958) Ice Cold in Alex (1958) Tobruk (1967) Play Dirty (1969)
Sea of Sand (1958) Ice Cold in Alex (1958) Tobruk (1967) Play Dirty (1969)

The producers of Sea of Sand were helped by working closely with veterans from the Long Range Desert Group, who consider this film to be the best representation of how they operated. However, in the film the LRDG trucks do look a bit lightly loaded, when compared to photos we have in the Popski Collection.

Ice Cold in Alex is a particular favourite of foPPA's Secretary, as the star of the show, a sturdy ambulance, closely resembles the 1942 fire engine that he used for personal transport for much of the 1970's.

The Ambulance from Ice Cold in Alex foPPA Secretary's Fire Engine<br />at the War & Peace Show in 2005
The Ambulance from Ice Cold in Alex foPPA Secretary's 1942 Fire Engine, restored,
at the War & Peace Show in 2005

Tobruk is also a favourite, not least because foPPA's Secretary lived there in the mid-1960's, learning to swim in Tobruk harbour and collecting live bullets on the way to the beach. It's a pity though that the introduction of an American lead was commercially necessary, but not historically accurate.

Sergeant's Mess Beach, near the Submarine Pens, in Tobruk Harbour in 1965
Sergeant's Mess Beach, near the Submarine Pens, in Tobruk Harbour in 1965

Play Dirty has a brilliant opening sequence, with a dusty Jeep rattling over the desert scrub to the soundtrack of Lili Marlene. FoPPA Treasurer Guy asked scriptwriter Melvyn (now Lord) Bragg in 2007 if he had drawn on the Popski Story for any part of this film, as some have alleged. Not true, he said in his email reply: "From my memory the Popski story played no part whatsoever in the screen play 'Play Dirty'"

More research has turned up other desert films, such as by Billy Wilder in 1943: Five Graves to Cairo. Another is Bitter Victory, directed by Nicolas Ray and released in 1957. It's notable for starring Richard Burton and Curt Jurgens, and including foPPA Patron Christopher Lee. Location shooting was in Libya, under the British Administration, where Lt Steve Wallbridge, skipper of PPA's 'R' Patrol, was setting up schools and hospitals for Libyan children. Many thanks to David Brown, a member of the LRDG Preservation Society's Facebook Group, for telling us about it.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) Bitter Victory (1957)
Five Graves to Cairo (1943) Bitter Victory (1957)

Wikipedia lists 35 North African Campaign films, including all above, and we'll bring you their dvd covers or film posters, with links, in due course. "The Black Tent" was filmed around the Roman ruins of Sabratha in Libya, near the Tunisian border. Although the action is supposed to be set much further west, in Cyrenaica(ish), and deep in the desert, in the film you can actually hear the surf on the beach just behind the ruins, as well as see the sea breeze on everyone. A particularly powerful film, and bleakly realistic too (like "The Bofors Gun"), is Sean Connery's "The Hill", set in a Libyan military detention camp.

Amazon, meanwhile, lists 36 "World War 2 Movies that take place in North Africa" (amazing what you find when you start poking about), that mostly but not entirely overlaps the Wikipedia list. Many thanks to Mr P. A. Panozzo for his "Listmania" efforts on this.

Copyright © 2015 foPPA
10 Feb 2015