In Which We Serve received the full backing of the Ministry of Information which offered advice on what would make good propaganda and facilitated the release of military personnel. The film remains a classic example of wartime British cinema through its patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of the war.
The film opens with the narration: "This is the story of a ship" and the images of shipbuilding in a British dockyard. The action then moves forward in time showing the ship, HMS Torrin, engaging German transports in a night-time engagement during the Battle of Crete in 1941. However when dawn breaks, the destroyer comes under aerial attack from German bombers.
Eventually the little ship receives a critical hit following a low-level pass. The crew's company abandon ship as it rapidly capsizes. Some of the officers and ratings manage to find a Carley float as the survivors are intermittently strafed by passing German planes. From here, the story is told in flashback using the memories of the men on the float. The first person to reveal his thoughts is Captain Kinross (Coward), who thinks back to the summer of 1939 when the Royal NavaldestroyerHMSTorrin is being rushed into commission as the possibility of war becomes a near certainty.
The ship's company spends a relatively quiet Christmas in the north of Scotland during the Phoney War. But by 1940, the Torrin is taking part in a naval battle off the coast of Norway. However during the action, a young terrified sailor (Attenborough) leaves his station, while another rating (Mills) returns to work his gun after its crew is knocked unconscious by a torpedo strike on the ship. With the Torrin damaged it is towed back to port, all the time being harried by dive-bombers.
Safely back in harbour, Captain Kinross tells the assembled ship's company that during the battle nearly all the crew performed as he would expect; however one man didn't. But he tells everyone present they may be surprised to know that he let him off with a caution as he feels as Captain he failed to make the young man understand his duty.
The film then returns to the present as the survivors watch the capsized Torrin slowly take on water. It becomes clear that the badly damaged ship will sink. Once again, the raft is strafed by German planes. Some men are killed, and "Shorty" Blake (Mills) is wounded. This leads to a flashback in which Mills remembers how he met his wife-to-be, Freda, on a train while on leave. It is also revealed, she is related to the Torrin's affable Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Miles). When the men return to sea, Freda moves in with CPO Hardy's wife and mother-in-law.
The Torrin participates in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, (portrayed in the film by the 5th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards). Meanwhile the nightly Blitz is taking its toll on British towns. Blake gets a letter from home to say that Freda has given birth to his son during a raid. However the letter goes on to tell him that Hardy's wife and mother-in-law were killed in the same attack. Stoically he goes up to the Petty Officers' Mess and tells Hardy the bad news.
The flashback ends as the survivors on the life raft watch the capsized Torrin finally sink. Captain Kinross leads a final "three cheers" for the Torrin when suddenly another passing German plane rakes the raft with machine gun fire, killing and wounding more men. Soon after, a British destroyer appears and begins to rescue the men. On board, Captain Kinross talks to the survivors and collects addresses from the dying. He tells the young man who once left his post that he will write and tell the boy's parents that they can be proud that he did his duty; the critically injured young man smiles and dies peacefully.
From here, the stories run concurrently until the end of the film. Telegrams are sent to relatives informing them about the fate of their husbands, sons and fathers.
Captain Kinross and the ninety surviving members of the crew are taken to Alexandria in Egypt. Wearing a mixture of odd clothing and standing in a military depot, Captain Kinross tells them that although they lost their ship and many friends, who now "lie together in fifteen-hundred fathoms", he notes that these losses should inspire them to fight even harder in the battles to come. The ship's company is then told they are to be broken up and sent as replacements to other ships that have lost men. Captain Kinross then shakes hands with all the ratings as they leave the depot. When the last man goes, the emotionally tired captain turns to his remaining officers, silently acknowledges them and walks away.
An epilogue then concludes: bigger and stronger ships are being launched to avenge the Torrin; Britain is an island nation with a proud, indefatigable people; Captain Kinross is now in command of a battleship. It fires its massive main guns against the enemy.
Coward agreed to work on the project as long as the subject was the Royal Navy and he was given complete control.
As the sinking of HMS Kelly on 23 May 1941 was still on Coward's mind, he decided to use the ship's demise as the basis for his script. Mountbatten, aware that there was some public antipathy to his political ambitions, agreed to support the project as long as it was not a conspicuous biography of his own experiences. In order to do research, Coward visited the naval base in Plymouth, where Michael Redgrave, with whom he was involved in a relationship at the time, was stationed. He also visited Portsmouth and the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, where he sailed on HMS Nigeria.
Coward spent the final months of 1941 drafting a screenplay. However when he submitted it to Havelock-Allan, the producer told him the film would run between eight and nine hours if it was made as written because it included lengthy scenes in Paris, China and the West Indies. Havelock-Allan told Coward he needed to trim the plot down to the basics by eliminating everything that was not related to the Torrin or its crew. Heeding the advice, Coward started his story with the laying of the ship's keel in 1939 and concluded it soon after it sinks off the coast of Crete. For the speech at the end of the film, when Capt. Kinross addresses the survivors from the Torrin in Alexandria, Coward used the real speech that Mountbatten gave to the surviving crew of HMS Kelly after they were rescued and taken to Egypt.
Coward was determined to portray Captain Kinross in the film, despite the studio's concern that his public "dressing gown and cigarette-holder" persona might make it difficult for audiences to accept him in the role of a tough navy man. Havelock-Allan supported him, although he later called his performance "always interesting, if not quite convincing." Coward also needed to convince the censors that the sinking of the ship was a crucial scene and not the threat to public morale they perceived it to be.
Coward had experience directing plays, but he was a novice when it came to films, and he knew he needed to surround himself with professionals if the project was to succeed. He had seen and admired Ronald Neame's work, and he hired him as cinematographer and chief lighting technician. Knowing he could handle the direction of the actors but would be at a loss with the action scenes, he asked David Lean to supervise the filming of those. In Which We Serve proved to be the first of several films on which the two would collaborate.
Work began on 5 February 1942. From the start Coward was happy to let production crew members take charge in their individual areas of expertise, while he concentrated on directing the actors and creating his own portrayal of Kinross. But he soon became bored with the mechanics of filmmaking and after six weeks he came to the studio only when scenes in which he appeared were being filmed. At one point he invited the royal family to the set and newsreel footage of their visit proved to be good publicity for the film.
During the filming, the character of Albert Fosdike, "Shorty" Blake's brother-in-law, was recast after actor William Hartnell turned up late for his first day of shooting. Coward berated Hartnell in front of cast and crew for his unprofessionalism. He then made him personally apologise to everyone before firing him. Michael Anderson, the film's first-assistant directortook over the part (credited as "Mickey Anderson").
Coward was anxious that it succeed, not only because it was his first film project, but because he felt it was his contribution to the war effort and he wanted it to be perceived as such by the public. The première was a gala event held as a benefit for several naval charities and Coward was pleased to see a large presence of military personnel.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times observed, "There have been other pictures which have vividly and movingly conveyed in terms of human emotion the cruel realities of this present war. None has yet done it so sharply and so truly as In Which We Serve... For the great thing which Mr. Coward has accomplished in this film is a full and complete expression of national fortitude ... Yes, this is truly a picture in which the British may take a wholesome pride and we may regard as an excellent expression of British strength."
Variety called the film "a grim tale sincerely picturized and splendidly acted throughout" and added, "Only one important factor calls for criticism. It is that all the details are too prolonged. The author-producer-scriptwriter-composer and co-director gives a fine performance as the captain of the vessel, but acting honors also go to the entire company. Stark realism is the keynote of the writing and depiction, with no glossing of the sacrifices constantly being made by the sailors."
A Region 2 DVD with a running time of 96 minutes was released by Carlton on 11 October 1999. A Region 1 DVD was released as part of the David Lean Collection by MGM on 7 September 2004. It features subtitles in English, Spanish and French and an English audio track in Dolby Digital 1.0. In March 2012, The Criterion Collection released "In Which We Serve" on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the "David Lean Directs Noel Coward" Box Set, which includes a short documentary on the making of In Which We Serve.