This is a quiet film, which portrays the work of the RAF pilots with sympathy and dignity. It opens after the war has ended. The barracks are deserted; there is a sadness and desolation in the abandoned airbase. Did we not know better, we might assume that the war was lost (you can view the opening in the clip below). This scene reminded us of the moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when Fred Derry finds the airfield of derelict planes. There is the same sense of a lost past.
We then fade back to 1940, and the arrival of our protagonist, Peter. At this juncture in the film, there is some joy. These men are committed to what they need to do, and look at it as the great adventure of their lives. It's not long before Mr. Mills is showing us, primarily through his reactions, that there is no adventure in their duties - just pain and loss. Sure, this is an English film, and there is a bit of "stiff upper lip" but it is clear that this stoicism is required to do the job, not because Mr. Mills or Mr. Redgrave are unaware and unafraid.
The film uses the arrival of Americans as a contrast to the English soldiers. Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano) begins as the original ugly American. He is the epitome of phrase "over-paid, over-sexed, over-fed, and over here." His friend, Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) is more sedate, and is embarrassed by his friend's bravado. But like their British counterparts, the American soon discover that their boasts of taking the German's down quickly are just that - idle talk. They begin to take on the sobriety of their UK colleagues, and even apologize for their vainglory.
We've seen Douglass Montgomery before; we was using the name Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge (the studio didn't want him confused with Robert Montgomery), but when he left America to live in the UK, he went back to his own name. We were not impressed with him in his earlier film, but he is quite good here. Johnny has a dignity and ease that Mr. Montgomery makes apparent. He loves his wife and son, he also cares about the people he meets in England. He becomes the symbol of the caring American that Joe Friselli will need to emulate.
The credits make it clear that the film is written with some experience behind it. Terrence Rattigan, the screenwriter, was himself an RAF tail gunner. Scenario writer Richard Sherman was a Captain in the military (assumedly, the US as he was American). But all the participants had experienced the war firsthand. This TCM article describes an incident in which Mr. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith experienced a bombing raid.
The Way to the Stars introduced two future stars: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard both have small roles in the film. Also new to film was Bonar Colleano; he too was introduced in the film, but his career ended prematurely with his early death in 1958 in an auto accident. The film also features appearances by many notable English actors, including Stanley Holloway (Mr. Palmer) (who would become best known to American audiences as Mr. Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964)), Felix Aylmer (Reverend Charles Moss), Basil Radford (Tiny Williams) (probably remembered as the cricket aficionado Charters in The Lady Vanishes (1938)), Joyce Carey (Miss Winterton) and Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton).
The film is also exceptional in that it is a war film that never shows you the war. We see the aftermath of the battles, not the battles themselves. And the only scene that really shows the machinery of war at all is one of Johnny in his airplane. Even the romances of the piece focus on them within the context of the war. The Way to the Stars is careful to not lose the focus. This is about men at war - it is not about the war, nor is it about their love-lives. It is a story of survival, pure and simple.
Though the film was not successful in the U.S. (and is mostly forgotten here today), it is well regarded in the U.K. (See his BFI Screenonline discussion for the British view of the film today) and did well there on its release.
We really recommend that you give this The Way to the Stars a viewing. As promised, here is the opening of the film, with the abandoned barracks of 1946 and the arrival of the troops in 1940: