It was based on a script, music, and production by Coward, who also plays the starring role of Captain Kinross. It is the tale of the HMS Torrin, a Royal Navy destroyer. The Torrin goes into action off of Crete in 1941, only to be sunk by the Luftwaffe. As Captain Kinross and his crew scramble for life rafts, their stories and the history of the ship are told in a series of flashbacks. Through these flashbacks we get a portrait of the early years of the war and how all of Britain is fighting.
The film was made during World War II to boost up the morale of the British military and the people at home. The story is based on the 1941 sinking of the British destroyer HMS Kelly and Lord Mountbatten's recollections of this event. It's widely seen as one of the classics of British cinema, especially regarding war time films.
The film won an Honorary Academy Award for the production and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. In Which We Serve credits Noël Coward as Star, Producer, Writer, Composer and Director, the last credit being shared with David Lean. However, the 'director' part is debatable, the original intention was for Coward to direct the actors and Lean to direct the action sequences, but as the film went on Coward became bored with the film-making and left most of the work to Lean.
In Which We Serve provides examples of:
- And the Adventure Continues: The movie ends with Kinross commanding another destroyer, out at sea.
- Badass Crew: The British military suffer, but are still admirable in their courage and dedication.
- Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Shorty's wife Freda is living with Walter's wife Kath. A bomb falls on the house. Kath is killed. A heavily pregnant Freda, saved because she was under the stairs, delivers a healthy boy shortly thereafter.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Torrin was sunk. Less than half of its crew escaped alive, and at least one crew member lost his wife in the Blitz. But the British will keep calm, and carry on.
- Deadpan Snarker: Well, it's a British war movie, what do you expect?
- Deliberately Monochrome: The movie is in black-and-white, which helps to intercut with Stock Footage of battle scenes. In any case, shooting in Technicolor would have been far more expensive and technically challenging.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Richard Attenborough's sailor, who feels guilty for having left his post in fear during battle, tries to get drunk afterwards in a bar.
- Everybody Smokes: Men and women join in to smoke cigarettes at various moments during this film.
- A Father to His Men: Captain Kinross cares about the well being of his sailors. He is seen visiting the wounded and gives several inspirational speeches. When one of the more inexperienced sailors leaves his post in fear during battle, Kinross doesn't punish him, instead blaming himself for not getting through to the man.
- Flashback: While awaiting rescue in the sea, the captain and his shipmates think back about how their mission started.
- Hard-Work Montage: The film opens with a montage showing the construction of a battleship, before the story proper starts.
- How We Got Here: After the opening of the sequence which shows the destroyer being sunk off the coast of Crete, the camera follows Captain Kinross into the water. Then the film jumps back to 1939 and the commissioning of the destroyer just before the war.
- I Am Very British: This entire film is as British as you can get. "Keep calm and carry on" could very well be its tagline.
- In Medias Res: There's no characterization to start, as the film begins with the ship in combat against the Germans in the waters off of Crete, May 1941.
- Interservice Rivalry: One scene has a sailor and a Marine argue about which is better. A later scene has the captain instruct his sailors not to engage in "leg-pulling" with the soldiers they are about to rescue off the Dunkirk beaches.
- It Has Been an Honor: "I should like to add that there isn't one of you that I wouldn't be proud and honored to serve with again."
- My Beloved Smother: Walter's wife Kath has a mother that is constantly sniping at her.
- No Name Given: The young stoker played by Richard Attenborough is never named, not even when he has his own scene drinking in a bar.
- Patriotic Fervor: The British love their island and will defend it at all cost.
- Propaganda Machine: This movie was made during World War II when the United Kingdom was in battle with Nazi Germany. It was backed financially by the British Ministry of Information.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The script was inspired by the loss of the destroyer HMS Kelly during the Battle of Crete in 1941, sunk during the frantic effort to evacuate British soldiers from the island. It was commanded by Lord Mountbatten (grandson of Queen Victoria, cousin of King George VI).
- Spot of Tea: At the start of the film the captain and his mate are given some tea to drink.
- Stiff Upper Lip: All the characters keep calm, stoic and don't let their emotions get in the way whatever tragedy happens. Not just the soldiers and sailors, whose job it is, but their womenfolk too. One bridge officer actually tells another one to "keep a stiff upper lip, old boy."
- Stock Footage: Some action scenes are stock footage of actual battle scenes. At a certain point actual footage of Adolf Hitler visiting Paris is seen by characters in a theater. The scene where the crew listens to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's September 3, 1939 radio speech announcing the start of the war is also actual audio footage.
- Tempting Fate: The ship's surgeon grouses about how he doesn't have anything to do. Shortly thereafter we see him grumpily playing solitaire in sickbay. Then the ship goes into combat for the first time, and sickbay winds up filled to the rafters with the wounded.
- Title Drop: It's part of the Book of Common Prayer for prayers to be used at sea, referencing "the fleet in which we serve."
- Wartime Wedding: Enlisted sailor Shorty Blake gets married to Flora while home on leave.