Some years ago I studied film at university. On the first day our lecturer told us that for the duration of the course we would not watch any film post the early 1970’s. One of the pieces we were shown early on was a snippet from a film by the legendary English director and auteur Humphrey Jennings, whose propaganda shorts produced for the Crown Film Unit were regarded as playing a large part part in boosting the morale of the British people during the second world war.
This month sees the release by the BFI of the second volume in their series of Jennings’ complete works, containing five of his most moving, beautiful and rhapsodic pieces, including The Heart of Britain (1941), Words of Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1941), Fires Were Started (1943) and The Silent Village (1943).
These films, some of which like Words for Battle last no more than eight minutes, were designed to be shown in cinemas throughout Britain to remind ordinary people exactly what their husbands and sons had gone into battle to fight for. They also encouraged the women working in factories, and the real-life firemen and firewomen who starred in Fires Were Started (the longest of the films included in the collection), that the work done by those left behind was equally important in the fight against Hitler and his regime of terror.
On the whole these films are beautiful snapshots of an era in British history long gone but never forgotten. From remote farmlands to the mill towns of northern England and bustle of central London (shots of tanks rolling past big Ben during Words for Battle, majestically narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier still have a shock value, being something contemporary audiences will never have seen), Britain is shown in all its contrasting glory with atmospheric black and white footage backed by a soundtrack of stirring classical anthems. Watching the films it is Jennings knack of capturing a moment in time – whether that be a group of factory girls playing musical chairs whilst sheltering during an air-raid, or a swift glimpse of Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) seen during Listen to Britain enjoying the popular lunchtime piano recitals held at The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where she sat shoulder to shoulder with service men and ordinary people in the audience – which is most magical, still managing to move you to tears over sixty years later.
Viewed now the films – includingThe Silent Village, the only one with an imaginary theme depicting what happens when a mining town in South Wales is taken over by an occupying German force and how the people attempt to fight back (a story inspired by real-life events in the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice) – may appear incongruous in a world where many people would rather forget the wars of the past. However, though perhaps politically incorrect to modern audiences, statements like “And the Nazis will learn once and for all that no-one with impunity troubles the heart of England” uttered by Edward G Murrow over the closing frames of This is England (an alternative ten minute cut of The Heart of Britain, which makes up part of the DVD’s ‘Special Feature’ extras) if taken within the context of the period and circumstances during which these films were made, their strength and power is still undeniable, though perhaps not palatable.
Watching Jennings’ films it is little wonder that they raised such patriotism and fervour amongst the people of Britain during the bleak years of World War II, and that they are still considered amongst film academics as the epitome of the serious filmic medium.