The Way to the Stars

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The Way to the Stars
The Way to the Stars VideoCover.jpeg
British DVD cover
Directed by
Written by Terence Rattigan
Anatole de Grunwald
Richard Sherman
John Pudney (poems)
Produced byAnatole de Grunwald
Starring Michael Redgrave
John Mills
Rosamund John
Stanley Holloway
CinematographyDerrick Williams
Edited by Fergus McDonell
Music by Nicholas Brodszky
Charles Williams
Distributed by Rank Organisation (UK)
United Artists (U.S.)
Release dates
8 June 1945 (Premiere, London)
16 June 1945 (UK)
15 November 1945 (U.S.)
Running time
109 minutes (UK)
87 minutes (U.S.)
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$63,434 (U.S. rentals) [1]

The Way to the Stars is a 1945 Anglo-American black-and-white second world war drama film made by Two Cities Films. The film was produced by Anatole de Grunwald, directed by Anthony Asquith, and stars Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Rosamund John, and Stanley Holloway. In the United States it was shortened by 22 minutes, [2] and the shortened version was distributed by United Artists under the title Johnny in the Clouds.


The screenplay for The Way to the Stars was written by noted dramatist Terence Rattigan, based on a scenario co-written by Rattigan with USAAF Captain Richard Sherman. [3] The film is a significant reworking of Rattigan's 1942 play Flare Path . Rattigan, then a Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant, was posted in 1943 to the RAF Film Production Unit to work on The Way to the Stars and Journey Together . [4]

The title The Way to the Stars is often assumed to have been taken from the Latin motto of the RAF, Per ardua ad astra . However, the literal translation of the RAF motto is "Through adversity to the stars". The title of the shortened American version, Johnny in the Clouds, is derived from the poem recited in the film as a tribute to a dead aviator.


The film opens on an abandoned airfield, the fictional RAF Station Halfpenny Field, and the opening scenes reference people and objects that will be shown later in the film. This approach is similar to the opening and closing scenes of an abandoned airfield in the later 1949 film Twelve O'Clock High , [5] which is set on the fictional RAF Archbury.

The Way to the Stars then flashbacks to Pilot Officer Peter Penrose (John Mills) being posted in the summer of 1940 as a pilot to the fictional No. 720 Squadron [N 1] , RAF. The Squadron is an operational bomber squadron flying Bristol Blenheims at a fictional new airfield, RAF Halfpenny Field. Penrose is a very new and inexperienced pilot who has only flown Blenheims for 15 hours, and he is assigned to B Flight, under Flight Lieutenant David Archdale (Michael Redgrave).

When No. 720 Squadron's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carter (Trevor Howard, in his second but first credited film role), is shot down, Archdale takes over. While Penrose develops into a first-class pilot, he meets Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson), a young woman living with her domineering aunt at the Golden Lion Hotel in the nearby town. Archdale marries Miss Todd (Rosamund John), the popular manager of the hotel, who is known to everyone as Toddy. The Archdales later have a son, Peter.

By May 1942, the squadron is now flying Douglas Boston bombers. When Penrose shows signs of strain from extensive combat, Archdale has him posted to controller school but is himself shot down and killed over France while Penrose is on his last mission. Penrose had been courting Iris, despite her aunt's disapproval, but Archdale's fate weighs heavily on his mind. Not wanting Iris to suffer if the same thing happened to him, he stops seeing her.

No. 720 Squadron is sent to the Middle East, but Penrose remains behind as a ground controller for a United States Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortress bombardment group, which takes over the airfield. He befriends USAAF Captain Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) and Lieutenant Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano). On 17 August 1942 the American airmen participate in the first attack by the USAAF on Occupied France, later ruefully acknowledging that they underestimated the difficulties involved. Afterwards, Penrose is posted to flying duties with an RAF Avro Lancaster bomber squadron.

In 1944, now a Squadron Leader and Pathfinder pilot, Penrose makes an emergency landing at Halfpenny Field, where he once again meets Iris. Iris had decided to leave her aunt for good and join up. Toddy persuades a still-reluctant Penrose to propose to Iris, saying that she did not regret her own marriage in spite of her husband's death. Hollis, who has formed a platonic relationship with Toddy, is killed while trying to land his battle-damaged B-17 with a hung up bomb aboard, rather than safely bail out and risk crashing into the local village or another town.

The film ends with American and British airman leaving the Golden Lion Hotel, watched by Toddy who recites the poem "For Johnny".


Two poems supposedly written by David Archdale were used in the film. They were written by John Pudney earlier in 1941 or 1942. [7] The first poem is Missing. Archdale is portrayed as reciting it to Toddy shortly before their marriage, after his close friend Squadron Leader Carter is killed in action. Archdale tells Toddy that "I try and say things I feel that way sometimes. Sort of hobby" and tells her that she is the only person who knows he writes poetry.


Less said the better.
The bill unpaid, the dead letter,
No roses at the end,
Of Smith, my friend.

Last words don't matter,
And there are none to flatter
Words will not fill the post
Of Smith, the ghost.

For Smith, our brother,
Only son of loving mother,
The ocean lifted, stirred
Leaving no word.

The second and better-known of the two poems in the film is "For Johnny", depicted as having been found by Peter Penrose on a piece of paper after David Archdale's death. Penrose gives it to Toddy Archdale, who later in the film gives it to Johnny Hollis' friend Joe Friselli to read after Hollis is killed.

"For Johnny"

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head
And see his children fed.



During the war, Rattigan served in the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner and used his wartime experiences to help inspire his earlier stage play, Flare Path. In 1945 he was released from the service to help rewrite it with Anatole De Grunwald as The Way to the Stars screenplay. Although Michael Redgrave and John Mills were the leads, the film offers very early performances of two actors, who would become international film stars in later years: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard. [8]

Filming was mainly in North Yorkshire, and some of the locations remain little changed. [9] RAF Catterick was used to film the RAF Halfpenny Field scenes, [10] Bedale was used for street scenes outside the pub in the local small town, the Golden Lion Hotel in Northallerton was used as the pub and Constable Burton Hall was used as the USAAF headquarters. [11]

Footage of B-17 Flying Fortresses landing and taking off was filmed at RAF Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire. [12] One of the USAAF aircrew involved recorded in his diary seeing B-17s of the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and ground scenes including the crash of Captain Holliss' B-17 being filmed at Grafton Underwood. [13]

As well as B-17s, the other aircraft used during filming were Avro Ansons, Bristol Blenheims, Hawker Hurricanes, and Douglas Bostons. They came from a variety of training and operational USAAF, RAF and Free French units, the Bostons being from 342 Squadron, RAF / Groupe de bombardement Lorraine. [14]

There was a real airfield with a name resembling the fictional RAF Halfpenny Field, RAF Halfpenny Green in Staffordshire. However, it was not used in any way for this film. [15] Unlike RAF Halfpenny Field, RAF Halfpenny Green was used for training pilots and not as a bomber airfield. It is now home to Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green Airport.


On its initial British release, the film was popular, with one reviewer in June 1945 stating that "it must rank as one of the outstanding British films of the war years". [16] However, it performed poorly in the US, where it was released post-war under the title Johnny in the Clouds, with a prologue added. [17]

According to Kinematograph Weekly , the film performed well at the British box office in 1945. [18] [19] The 'biggest winners' at the box office in 1945 Britain were The Seventh Veil, with "runners up" being (in release order), Madonna of the Seven Moons, Old Acquaintance, Frenchman's Creek, Mrs Parkington, Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet Me in St Louis, A Song to Remember, Since You Went Away, Here Come the Waves, Tonight and Every Night, Hollywood Canteen, They Were Sisters, The Princess and the Pirate, The Adventures of Susan, National Velvet, Mrs Skefflington, I Live in Grosvenor Square, Nob Hill, Perfect Strangers, Valley of Decision, Conflict and Duffy's Tavern. British "runners up" were They Were Sisters, I Live in Grosvenor Square, Perfect Strangers, Madonna of the Seven Moons, Waterloo Road, Blithe Spirit, The Way to the Stars, I'll Be Your Sweetheart, Dead of Night, Waltz Time and Henry V. [20]

Later reviews considered the film "... one of the more thoughtful of British war movies ..." [21] and an "excellent drama about a British airfield and the men stationed there, focusing mainly on personal relationships in wartime.". [22] The British Film Institute describes the film as "one of the most effective and understated films about the conflict made during the Second World War, though it features no combat scenes and only three (brief) shots from inside a cockpit". The BFI Screenonline reviewer stated that the film "effectively comments on the traditional emotional reticence of the British by weaving a critique of it into the fabric of the story, turning it into a theme of the film. The introduction in the film's second half of the American flyers (as exemplified by the wise-cracking Bonar Colleano, making his film debut) further emphasises this. It also puts into relief the film's main focus: Penrose's development from callow youth into a burned-out, emotionally detached pilot and his eventual return to life and love". [23]

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  1. There were two units by that name during the Second World War: No. 720 Squadron RAF was a non-flying, airfield defence unit of the RAF Regiment. The only British flying unit known as 720 Squadron was a Fleet Air Arm squadron; during the war it was a flying boat unit attached to the Royal New Zealand Navy. [6]


  1. Macnab 1993, p. 164.
  2. Variety film review; 20 June 1945, p. 11.
  3. "Richard Sherman". IMDb. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  4. "Looking for Flying Officer Rattigan, Group Captain Clive Montellier RAF, 2013" (PDF). The Terence Rattigan Society. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  5. "Way to the Stars, The (1945)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  6. "RNZN and the Fleet Air Arm". The National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  7. "John Pudney 'For Johnny' and other 'Songs'". WorldWar2poetry. Retrieved 3 July 2020.
  8. Shiach 2006, p, 34.
  9. "Way to the Stars, The". Reelstreets. Retrieved 3 July 2020.
  10. "RAF Catterick airfield - The Way to the Stars". Control Retrieved 3 July 2020.
  11. "The Way to the Stars (1945)". British Film Locations. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  12. "The Way to the Stars (US "Johnny in The Clouds")". Military Aviation Movie List. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  13. "Personal Diary, S/Sgt. Robert "Hoggy" Alderman, 12/15/1944 though 9/8/1945". 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy). Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  14. "LE CHEMIN DES ETOILES Vo. The way to the stars". AeroMovies Le site des Films d'Aviation. Archived from the original on 22 December 2018. Retrieved 2 July 2020.
  15. "Halfpenny Green (Bobbington)". Control Retrieved 16 July 2021.
  16. "WAY TO THE STARS, THE (1945), Monthly Film Bulletin, Volume 12, No. 138, June 1945, page 7". THE MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN Published by THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE. Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  17. Harrison's Reports film review; 24 November 1945, p. 186.
  18. Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48 2003 p 208
  19. Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32, no. 3. p. 258.
  20. Lant, Antonia (1991). Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton University Press. p. 232.
  21. Shiach 2006, p, 31.
  22. Maltin, Leonard. "Leonard Maltin Movie Review." Turner Classic Movies.
  23. "WAY TO THE STARS, THE (1945)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 19 October 2020.


  • Macnab, Geoffrey. J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. London: Routledge, 1994, First edition 1993. ISBN   978-0-41511-711-1.
  • Shiach, Don. Great British Movies. Harpenden, Herts, UK: Pocket Essentials, 2006. ISBN   978-1-904048-59-6.