All entries for April 2008

April 08, 2008

Screenwriters of European Cinema

Screenwriters of European Cinema


I have posted this page spontaneously as on a search for Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalgia I came across a page on Tonino Guerra who I hadn't previously heard of. I was astonished to see which films he had been involved with which made me recognise that  screenwriters are often ignored especially as their scripts are often changed in the filming and editing process with elements being cut out which they might have considered important to the creation of meaning within the film. Yet pausing to think some of the greatest of European auteurs have been strongly associated with particular scriptwriters: Suso Cecchi d'Amico & Visconti; Zavattini with de Sica; Laverty with Loach. as auteurist studies are less than popular within film studies at present with writers on a particular director often making an apology and claiming new auteurism as a defence which recognises the importance of the whole production team and a creative process of whom the director becomes a sort of 'primus inter pares' as they used to say about British cabinet government and the role of the Prime Mnister. 

I'm not intending to make a very active exploration of this at the moment but some visitors may wish to. If as in the case of Tonino Guerra I turn up interesting links I shall include them here which may help others in their thoughts and explorations. Here are some links to start off with -  happy hunting.  


Homage to Tonino Guerra  

Suso Cecchi d'Amico: Interview with Suso Cecchi d'Amico By Mikael Colville-Andersen

Zavattini: A film documentary. Bottom of the page is in English

Paul Laverty:  Sweet Sixteen Films 

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty: Guardian interview @ Southbank BFI

Writers Guild: Tom Green interviews Paul Laverty  

April 07, 2008

Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings

Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings

Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954


It is difficult to write anything but personally about the films of Humphrey Jennings. This is not of course to say that a full and documented account of his work in the cinema would not be of the greatest interest: anyone who undertook such a study would certainly merit our gratitude. But the sources are diffuse. Friends and colleagues would have to be sought out and questioned; poems and paintings tracked down; and, above all, the close texture of the films themselves would have to be exhaustively examined. My aim must be more modest, merely hoping to stimulate by offering some quite personal reaction, and by trying to explain why I think these pictures are so good.

Jennings’ films are all documentaries, all made firmly within the framework of the British documentary movement. This fact ought not to strike a chill, for surely "the creative interpretation of actuality" should suggest an exciting, endlessly intriguing use of the cinema; and yet it must be admitted that the overtones of the term are not immediately attractive. Indeed it comes as something of a surprise to learn that this unique and fascinating artist was from the beginning of his career in films an inside member of Grierson's GPO Unit (with which he first worked in 1934), and made all his best films as official, sponsored propaganda during the second world war. His subjects were thus, at least on the surface, the common ones; yet his manner of expression was always individual, and became more and more so. It was a style that bore the closest possible relationship to his theme – to that aspect of his subjects which his particular vision caused him consistently to stress. It was, that is to say, a poetic style. In fact it might reasonably be contended that Humphrey Jennings is the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.


He started directing films in 1939 (we may leave out of account an insignificant experiment in 1935, in collaboration with Len Lye); and the date is significant, for it was the war that fertilised his talent and created conditions in which his best work was produced. Watching one of Jennings’ early pictures, Speaking from America, which was made to explain the workings of the transatlantic radio-telephone system, one would hardly suspect the personal qualities that characterise the pictures he was making only a short while later. There seems to have been more evidence of these in Spare Time, a film on the use of leisure among industrial workers: a mordant sequence of a carnival procession, drab and shoddy, in a northern city aroused the wrath of more orthodox documentarians, and Basil Wright has mentioned other scenes, more sympathetically shot – “the pigeon fancier, the ‘lurcher-loving collier’ and the choir rehearsal are all important clues to Humphrey's development”. Certainly such an affectionate response to simple pleasures is more characteristic of Jennings’ later work than any emphasis of satire.

If there had been no war, though, could that development ever have taken place? Humphrey Jennings was never happy with narrowly propagandist subjects, any more than he was with the technical exposition of Speaking from America. But in wartime people become important, and observation of them is regarded in itself as a justifiable subject for filming, without any more specific "selling angle" than their sturdiness of spirit. Happily, this was the right subject for Jennings. With Cavalcanti, Harry Watt and Pat Jackson he made The First Days, a picture of life on the home front in the early months of the war. On his own, he then directed Spring Offensive, about farming and the new development of agricultural land in the Eastern counties; in 1940 he worked again with Harry Watt on London Can Take It, another picture of the home front; and in 1941, with Heart of Britain, he showed something of the way in which the people of Northern industrial Britain were meeting the challenge of war.

These films did their jobs well, and social historians of the future will find in them much that makes vivid the atmosphere and manners of the period. Ordinary people are sharply glimpsed in them, and the ordinary sounds that were part of the fabric of their lives reinforce the glimpses and sometimes comment on them: a lorry-load of youthful conscripts speeds down the road in blessed ignorance of the future, as a jaunty singer gives out ‘We're going to hang out our washing on the Siegfried line’. In the films which Jennings made in collaboration, it is risky, of course, to draw attention too certainly to any particular feature as being his: yet here and there are images and effects which unmistakably betray his sensibility. Immense women knitting furiously for the troops; a couple of cockney mothers commenting to each other on the quietness of the streets now that the children have gone; the King and Queen unostentatiously shown inspecting the air raid damage in their own back garden. Spring Offensive is less sure in its touch, rather awkward in its staged conversations and rather over-elaborate in its images; Heart of Britain plainly offered a subject that Jennings found more congenial. Again the sense of human contact is direct: a steel-worker discussing his A.R.P. duty with his mate, a sturdy matron of the W.V.S. looking straight at us through the camera as she touchingly describes her pride at being able to help the rescue workers, if only by serving cups of tea. And along with these plain, spontaneous encounters come telling shots of landscape and background, amplifying and reinforcing. A style, in fact, is being hammered out in these films; a style based on a peculiar intimacy of observation, a fascination with the commonplace thing or person that is significant precisely because it is commonplace, and with the whole pattern that can emerge when such commonplace, significant things and people are fitted together in theright order.

Although it is evident that the imagination at work in all these early pictures is instinctively a cinematic one, in none of them does one feel that the imagination is working with absolute freedom. All the films are accompanied by commentaries, in some cases crudely propagandist, in others serviceable and decent enough; but almost consistently these off-screen words clog and impede the progress of the picture. The images are so justly chosen, and so explicitly assembled, that there is nothing for the commentator to say. The effect – particularly if we have Jennings’ later achievements in mind – is cramped. The material is there, the elements are assembled; but the fusion does not take place that alone can create the poetic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And then comes the last sequence of Heart of Britain. The Huddersfield Choral Society rises before Malcolm Sargent, and the homely, buxom housewives, the black-coated workers, and the men from the mills burst into the Hallelujah Chorus. The sound of their singing continues, and we see landscapes and noble buildings, and then a factory where bombers are being built. Back and forth go these contrasting, conjunctive images, until the music broadens out to its conclusion, the roar of the engines joins in, and the bombers take off. The sequence is not a long one, and there are unfortunate intrusions from commentator, but the effect is extraordinary, and the implications obvious. Jennings has found his style.


Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, A Diary for Timothy. To the enthusiast for Jennings these titles have a ring which makes it a pleasure simply to speak them, or to set them down in writing; for these are the films in which, between 1941 and 1945, we can see that completely individual style developing from tentative discovery and experiment to mature certainty. They are all films of Britain at war, and yet their feeling is never, or almost never, warlike. They are committed to the war – for all his sensibility there does not seem to have been anything of the pacifist about Jennings – but their real inspiration is pride, an unaggressive pride in the courage and doggedness of the ordinary British people. Kathleen Raine, a friend of Jennings and his contemporary at Cambridge, has written: “What counted for Humphrey was the expression, by certain people, of the ever-growing spirit of man; and, in particular, of the spirit of England.” It is easy to see how the atmosphere of the country at war could stimulate and inspire an artist so bent. For it is at such a time that the spirit of a country becomes manifest, the sense of tradition and community sharpened as (alas) it rarely is in time of peace. “He sought therefore for a public imagery, a public poetry.” In a country at war we are all members of one another, in a sense that is obvious to the least spiritually-minded.

“Only connect.” It is surely no coincidence that Jennings chose for his writer on A Diary for Timothy the wise and kindly humanist who had placed that epigraph on the title page of his best novel. The phrase at any rate is apt to describe not merely the film on which Jennings worked with EM Forster, but this whole series of pictures which he made during the war. He had a mind that delighted in simile and the unexpected relationship. (“It was he” wrote Grierson, “who discovered the Louis Quinze properties of a Lyons’ swiss roll.”) On a deeper level, he loved to link one event with another, the past with the present, person to person. Thus the theme of Words for Battle is the interpretation of great poems of the past through events of the present – a somewhat artificial idea, though brilliantly executed. It is perhaps significant, though, that the film springs to a new kind of life altogether in its last sequence, as the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg are followed by the clatter of tanks driving into Parliament Square past the Lincoln statue: the sound of the tanks merges in turn into the grand music of Handel, and suddenly the camera is following a succession of men and women in uniform, striding along the pavement cheery and casual, endowed by the music, by the urgent rhythm of the cutting, and by the solemnity of what has gone before (to which we feel they are heirs) with an astonishing and breathtaking dignity, a mortal splendour.

As if taking its cue from the success of this wonderful passage, Listen to Britain dispenses with commentary altogether. Here the subject is simply the sights and sounds of wartime Britain over a period of some twenty-four hours. To people who have not seen the film it is difficult to describe its fascination – something quite apart from its purely nostalgic appeal to anyone who lived through those years in this country. The picture is a stylistic triumph (Jennings shared the credit with his editor, Stewart McAllister), a succession of marvellously evocative images freely linked by contrasting and complementary sounds; and yet it is not for its quality of form that one remembers it most warmly, but for the continuous sensitivity of its human regard. It is a fresh and loving eye that Jennings turns on to those Canadian soldiers, singing to an accordion to while away a long train journey; or on to that jolly factory girl singing “Yes, my Darling Daughter” at her machine; or on to the crowded floor of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom; or the beautiful, sad-faced woman who is singing “The Ash Grove” at an ambulance station piano. Emotion in fact (it is something one often forgets) can be conveyed as unmistakably through the working of a film camera as by the manipulation of pen or paintbrush. To Jennings this was a transfigured landscape, and he recorded its transfiguration on film.

The latter two of these four films, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy, are more ambitious in conception: the second runs for about forty minutes, and the first is a full-length “feature documentary”. One’s opinion as to which of them is Jennings’ masterpiece is likely to vary according to which of them one has most recently seen. Fires Were Started (made in 1943) is a story of one particular unit of the National Fire Service during one particular day and night in the middle of the London blitz: in the morning the men leave their homes and civil occupations, their taxi-cabs, newspaper shops, advertising agencies, to start their tour of duty; a new recruit arrives and is shown the ropes; warning comes in that a heavy attack is expected; night falls and the alarms begin to wail; the unit is called out to action at a riverside warehouse, where fire threatens an ammunition ship drawn up at the wharf; the fire is mastered; a man is lost; the ship sails with the morning tide. In outline it is the simplest of pictures; in treatment it is of the greatest subtlety, richly poetic in feeling, intense with tenderness and admiration for the unassuming heroes whom it honours. Yet it is not merely the members of the unit who are given this depth and dignity of treatment. Somehow every character we see, however briefly, is made to stand out sharply and memorably in his or her own right: the brisk and cheery girl who arrives with the dawn on the site of the fire to serve tea to the men from her mobile canteen; a girl in the control room forced under her desk by a near-miss, and apologising down the telephone which she still holds in her hand as she picks herself up; two isolated aircraft-spotters watching the flames of London miles away through the darkness. No other British film made during the war, documentary or feature, achieved such a continuous and poignant truthfulness, or treated the subject of men at war with such a sense of its incidental glories and its essential tragedy.

The idea of connection, by contrast and juxtaposition, is always present in Fires Were Started - never more powerfully than in the beautiful closing sequence, where the fireman's sad little funeral is intercut against the ammunition ship moving off down the river – but its general movement necessarily conforms to the basis of narrative. A Diary for Timothy, on the other hand, is constructed entirely to a pattern of relationships and contrasts, endlessly varying, yet each one contributing to the rounded poetic statement of the whole. It is a picture of the last year of the war, as it was lived through by people in Britain; at the start a baby, Timothy, is born, and it is to him that the film is addressed. Four representative characters are picked out (if we except Tim himself and his mother, to both of whom we periodically return): an engine driver, a farmer, a Welsh miner and a wounded fighter pilot. But the story is by no means restricted to scenes involving these; with dazzling virtuosity, linking detail to detail by continuously striking associations of image, sound, music and comment, the film ranges freely over the life of the nation, connecting and connecting. National tragedies and personal tragedies, individual happiness and particular beauties are woven together in a design of the utmost complexity: the miner is injured in a fall at the coal face, the fighter pilot gets better and goes back to his unit, the Arnhem strike fails, Myra Hess plays Beethoven at the National Gallery, bombs fall over Germany, and Tim yawns in his cot. Such an apparently haphazard selection of details could mean nothing or everything. The difficulty of writing about such a film, of disengaging in the memory the particular images and sounds (sounds moreover which are constantly overlapping and mixing with each other), from the overall design has been remarked on by Dilys Powell: “It is the general impression which remains; only with an effort do you separate the part from the whole ... the communication is always through a multitude of tiny impressions, none is isolation particularly memorable.” Only with the last point would one disagree. A Diary for Timothy is so tensely constructed, its progression is so swift and compulsive, its associations and implications so multifarious, that it is almost impossible, at least for the first few viewings, to catch and hold on to particular impressions. Yet the impressions themselves are so rarely unmemorable, not merely for their splendid pictorial quality, but for the intimate and loving observation of people, the devoted concentration on the gestures and expressions, the details of dress or behaviour that distinguish each unique human being from another. Not least among the virtues that distinguish Jennings from almost all British filmmakers is his respect for personality, his freedom from the inhibitions of class-consciousness, his inability to patronise or merely to use the people in his films. Jennings’ people are ends in themselves.


Other films were made by Jennings during the war, and more after it, up to his tragic death in 1950; but I have chosen to concentrate on what I feel to be his best work, most valuable to us. He had his theme, which was Britain; and nothing else could stir him to quite the same response. With more conventional subjects – The Story of Lilli Marlene, A Defeated People, The Cumberland Story – he was obviously unhappy, and, despite his brilliance at capturing the drama of real life, the staged sequences in these films do not suggest that he would have been at ease in the direction of features. The Silent Village – his reconstruction of the story of Lidice in a Welsh mining village – bears this out; for all the fond simplicity with which he sets his scene, the necessary sense of conflict and suffering is missed in his over-refined, under-dramatised treatment of the essential situation. It may be maintained that Jennings’ peacetime return to the theme of Britain (The Dim Little Island in 1949, and Family Portrait in 1950) produced work that can stand beside his wartime achievement, and certainly neither of these two beautifully finished films is to be dismissed. But they lack passion.

By temperament Jennings was an intellectual artist, perhaps too intellectual for cinema. (It is interesting to find Miss Raine reporting that, “Julian Trevelyan used to say that Humphrey's intellect was too brilliant for a painter”.) It needed the hot blast of war to warm him to passion, to quicken his symbols to emotional as well as intellectual significance. His symbols in Family Portrait – the Long Man of Wilmington, Beachy Head, the mythical horse of Newmarket – what do they really mean to us? Exquisitely presented though it is, the England of those films is nearer the “This England” of the pre-war beer advertisements and Mr Castleton Knight’s coronation film than to the murky and undecided realities of today. For reality, his wartime films stand alone; and they are sufficient achievement. They will last because they are true to their time, and because the depth of feeling in them can never fail to communicate itself. They will speak for us to posterity, saying: “This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us.”


Humphrey Jennings

Lindsay Anderson

Free Cinema Movement

The History of British Cinema: 1939

The History of British Cinema: 1939

For 'British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films' please follow link


A core part of this blog is the project of having a continually developing dynamic space primarily concerned with developments in the 5 leading industrial countries of Europe with the key dates being from 1918 to the present (whenever that is). The site already has several historically based reviews of particular periods however the advantage of working on the web is that it is a dynamic publishing space and almost infinitely extensible, particularly as there are literally hundreds of other online contributions.  This situation is only likely to extend in quantity and improve in quality over the next few years. This isn't an attempt to suggest that print publishing will become outmoded, the web simply offers things in different ways. One important thing is that it is a part of a culture that is increasingly an 'on demand' one - what you want , where you want it, when you want it. Certainly a huge amount of resources can be delivered via the web and ideas too can be actvely promoted via the web in discussion fora, Wikis etc. Hopefully these entries will contribute to the spirit of new learning without foregoing the pleasures of the old.

This entry is the first specific year entry and it is significantly placed at the start of the Second World War or the opening of hostilities of the 30 years war of the 20th century which is perhaps a more fruitful way to look at it. The foundations are in place for the rest of the war years however it is likely that the next section is likely to jump to British cinema from 1990 to the present as that is currently a teaching focus. There is no need to proceed in a directly linear fashion however it is important to have a chronological basis to history despite the doubts raised by postmodernists. Chronology does not in itself imply that history proceeds in any kind of rational progression but chronology is one benchmark by which it is possible to relate cinema to events in wider society in both a national and an international context. 


Lion Has Wings 1

From The Lion Has Wings (1939) Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, Adrian Brunel [Alexander Korda producer] : The first of the wartime films

Here it is important to make clear to readers just how perilous the situation of Britain was in the opening period of the war. It is generally considered that British cinema in the Second World War between 1939-1945 had something of a 'golden period' with some of Britain's best ever film makers coming to the fore such as Powell and Pressburger and Humphrey Jennings. Cinema-going during the war period was both an important means of gaining information about the progress of the war as well as being an escape from the rigour and dangers of the war. The latter part of the war saw some of the highest ever cinema attendance figures at the box office. 

The Position of Britain up until the US entered the war in December 1941

On the third of September 1939 two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland Britain and France formally declared war upon Nazi Germany. In Britain the war rapidly turned into a 'People's War' in which the British nation came together in a unified manner in order to defeat what by then was considered to be a common enemy. That enemy was an enemy seen as a threat to all classes of society. This consensus was by no means present at the outset of the war. Within the ranks of the Chamberlain Conservative government there were people such as Lord Halifax the then Foreign Minister and Lord Londonderry who were at best appeasers of Hitler if not something of admirers. It is no exaggeration to say that the memories of this war are still at the time of writing deeply embedded in the British national psyche. This extraordinary recent on-line historical project by the BBC rather proves the point. Indeed the War was the basis of the consensus politics that was to develop in Britain and remain inplace until the middle of the 1970s when it started to unravel with a deepening economic crisis to be replaced by the neo-liberal Conservative regime of Mrs Thatcher. 

For the rest of 1939 as far as Britain and France were concerned the months from September until the Blitzkrieg attacks of Spring 1940 were nicknamed the'Phoney War'. On land a few skirmishes happened near the Maginot line. for Britain the first day of the war saw the start of an ominous threat as the British liner Athenia was torpedoed by a U-boat. This marked the beginning of the Second Battle of the Atlantic and posed perhaps the greatest danger to British survival of all. For countries in Eastern Europe the war was rather less 'Phoney'. The Baltic States had been swallowed up by the Nazi-Soviet non-agression pact and the Soviet Union used the opportunity to invade Finland. Ultimately this folly was to give the Nazis an ally in Scandinavia. Countries such as Romania were also strongly affected. Hungary formally joined the Axis powers in November 1940 and Bulgaria had little option but to follow suit when the Nazis prepared to invade Greece using Romania as a launching pad in april 1941. All three of these countries had extremely right-ring Nationalistic governments and were people hitler could do business with. 

On April 9th 1940 Hitler invaded Norway and the British expeditionary force had to retreat from Narvik at the end of May.  In May 1940 the Nazis launched their key offensive on Western Europe. As the Nazi blitzkrieg rapidly overwhelmed Holland and Belgium Churchill took over as Prime Minister in May 1940. Even Churchill's influence could not stop the fall of France which surrendered on June 22nd. Until the USA formally entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1941 the fate of Britain was in the balance. One would need to return to the days of the Spanish Armada to compare the threat to the country its way of life and the people as a whole. Even the term Allies was more of a fantasy than a reality for by mid 1941 Britain was the only non-neutral country in Europe not occupied by the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Italy. Neutral coutries at the time were The Soviet Union in a non-agression pact with Nazi Germany, Spain under the Fascist Franco regime, Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden. Greece had been invaded in April 1941 by the Nazis after an Italian invasion had been repulsed in the winter of 1940 and by the middle of May it was all over. 

British Cinema in 1939 

Even before the outbreak of war in September some films released earlier in the year were reflecting some of the tensions rapidly building up across Europe especially in the wake of the Munich crisis which handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis on a plate. The Spy in Black (Powell & Pressburger) and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda) produced Alexander Korda were not unaware of the wider political problems so it can be seen as responses to this crisis. In the Four Feathers for example the issue of cowardice could well have been an allegory of Appeasement policy. With the Spy in Black featuring a U-Boat captain albeit more gentlemanly then the one in 49th Parallel made later in the war this chimed with The 39 Steps (1937) by Hitchcock from the work of John Buchan always aware of the Central European political scenario. 

The Ministry of Information (MOI) 

The initial reaction to the outbreak of war in September 1939 was the instant closure of cinemas and other places of mass entertainment such as sports grounds for fear of carnage if the Nazis launched bombing raids.  In terms of mass communications radio was the most important tool for information, nevertheless cinema was hugely important as it was a way of visually communicating ideas and ideology about the war and it also provided an important focus of communal identity as well as creating an affordable means of escaping the rigours of war even if only for a couple of hours. Interestingly, as Sargeant (2005 p 146) points out, radio as a method of mass communication is frequently represented in films of the period. The role of the Ministry of Information (MOI) was going to be crucial throughout the war as more than at any previous time in history the era of 'total war' needed a powerfully organised communications system of propaganda to keep their citizens in support of the hostilities:

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The very next day, in line with longstanding plans drawn up by the Committee for Imperial Defence, the government re-established its Ministry of Information, which had previously been wound up, at the tail-end of World War I in 1918. The MoI had two primary aims: the censorship of news media, and the creation of pro-Allied propaganda for both home and overseas audiences. ( Screenonline Propaganda Article)

The outbreak of war saw a Conservative Government stained with the ignominy of Appeasement trying to engage its citizens in what was to prove the most perilous of wars. The first Minister of Information was Lord Macmillan however he was quickly replaced by John Reith in January of 1940. Reith himself was replaced by Duff Cooper in May 1940. He remained in post until July 1941  as part of the Churchillian reshuffle, however it wasn't until Brendan Bracken took over from him that the MOI reamined stable for Bracken remained in post until May 1945.  

Despite the enthusiasm of largely left of centre film makers of the  British documentary tradition the MOI was very reluctant to move in the direction of the people. Noticeably the first film of the War The Lion Has Wings received mixed reactions from its audience. Whilst responses from more Conservative quarters were effusive Aldgate & Richards comment that:

...considerable reservations were expressed about both its style and co0ntent, and its resort to blatant jingoism. Mass Observation reported that cinemagoers compalined about there being 'too much propaganda' and Tom Harrison came to the conclusion that 'it was a powerful contribution towards Chamberlainish complacency'. (Aldgate & Richards, 2007 p 23) 

Ian Dalrymple

After helping Korda with The Lion Has Wings  Ian Dalrymple was seconded to work under Jack Beddington in the Films Division at the MoI.  He was responsible for overseeing the documentarists of the Crown Film Unit

It seems as though the film's producer Alexander Korda had already pre-empted events for the film was already under production a few days before hostilities broke out. Ian Dalrymple is cited by Aldgate and Richards providing evidence of this:

A few days before September 3rd, some of us...were summoned to Alex's office. He told us that we were to make a film to reassure the public of the power of the Royal Air Force, and that a liaison officer from the Air Ministry was on his way to assist us. (Dalrymple cited Aldgate & Richards 2007, p 21)

The presence of an airforce liaison officer clearly indicates there had been prior discussion with the government about the need for a propaganda film as people were becoming increasingly aware that the issue wasn't so much as to whether there would be a war but when it would start. The film was put on general release on the 3rd November literally 2 months after war had been declared. Unusually 200 prints were made instead of the usual 70. All the main cinema chains with the exception of the ABC showed the film.

Britain at War The First Days

Three of Harry Watt's early wartime films are currently available. The DVD contains the films below:  

The First Days (1939) directed by Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings and Pat Jackson - Preparation for war on the home front.
The Front Line (1939) directed by Harry Watt. Dover becomes a target for the Germans.
Squadron 992 (1940) directed by Harry Watt. A barrage balloon squadron is trained and deployed to South Queensferry to defend Rosyth Naval Base and the Forth Bridge. Includes a reconstruction of the Luftwaffe raid of October 16 1939. DVD only. 55 mins b/w.

The First Days (1939 Watt / Jennings / Jackson) was a documentary bought from the GPO Film Unit and distributed by Pathé. Harry Watt has commented on how Cavalcanti at that time the head of production for the GPO Film Unit recognised how history was being made all around them and without official sanction "took the law into his own hands and sent us all into the streets to film anything we saw that was new and different":

...six small units went out with all our stock and filmed the extraordinary scenes of a nation amateurishly preparing its capital  for a new kind of war. We filmed the frantic sandbag filling, new balloons rising up in the oddest places, endless drilling in parks , new auxilliary policemen... (Watt cited in Sargeant, 2005 p 147)

For a fuller history of the public sector and corporate film units which helped Britain's strong documentary tradition to develop  please see Screenonline on Film Units of the GPO Film Unit it comments:

the Empire Marketing Board's film activities from 1929, which effectively became the justly famous GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit in 1933. This in turn mutated into the Crown Film Unit during World War II, working for the Ministry of Information and then for the Central Office of Information which superseded it.

Interestingly The Stars Look Down (1939 but released in January 1940) Carol Reed was a box office hit. It was based upon miners and a mining disaster however it had an anti-union line which must have helped it get past the censors at the same time a pulling together around a disaster clearly had wider meaning in the context of the war.  

Aldgate and Richards point out that the MOI were quick to respond to the negative responses made to The Lion Has Wings. Macmillan had himself written a Policy Committee Paper which outlined the three core elements of a propaganda strategy. This went down to the Films division of the Ministry which circulated a fuller plan stressing the three core issues:

  • What Britain is fighting for
  • How Britain fights
  • The need for sacrifices if the fight was to be won

This meant that all three areas of film production Features / Documentaries / Newsreels could be used however the feature film was 'singled out' (Algate and Richards) in order to represent British life and character. Ideals of democracy and proper institutions could be contrasted with recent German history: "A film which induces boredom antagonises the audience to the cause which it advocates" and film propaganda will be most effective when it is least recognsable as such". (Cited Aldgate & Richards 2007 p 28).

Thus the scene was set for the take over of the Films Division of the MOI by Sir Kenneth Clark in January 1940, from Sir Joseph Ball. Ball's politics as Conservative Central Office Director of Publicity from 1927-1929, then being Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1929-1939 as well as being Deputy Director for Conservative Party Publicity 1934-1939 was hardly likely to endear him to the more centre and left thinking documentarists which were tensions the country could do without. 


For bibliographical references please follow the link to the British Cinema Bibliography page

April 06, 2008

Jill Craigie (1911–1999)

Jill Craigie (1911-1999)

Return to British Women Directors page


Jill Craigie seems to have been Britain's second woman film maker after Kay Mander and has a cinema named after her at Plymouth University. This is the city where she made her post-war planning film The Way We live (1946). As well as being a film maker and screenwriter she was also a researcher into the Suffragettes and wrote an introduction to Emeline Pankhurst's autobiography My Own Story published by Virago in  1979. Jill Craigie was also an alumni at Indiana University although they forgot to put in the fact that she was a documentary filmmaker(!): "Alumni of the Institute of Advanced Study (Academic Fellows, Distinguished Citizen Fellows and Visiting Scholars) - 1982-2007":

Jill Craigie, Historian of women's movement, journalist, screenwriter. (Distinguished Citizen Fellow in September of 1991)

The Way We Live was backed by Fillipo del Guidice of Two Cities films which was a brave decision backing a young woman with little experience as a filmmaker. Craigie made another film concerned with planning and post-war redevelopment in Middlesborough called Picture Paper. The only evidence I can find about this is present on the website below:  

Over 10,000 people saw the exhibition in one week. The Picture Post articles stimulated a documentary film made by Jill Craigie - Picture Paper - a story of the photographer / reporter who come to Middlesbrough to see and interview the Group at work and was shown in cinemas all over the country. (History of Max Lock Group)

A biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst an uncompleted film project 

Carl Rollyson author of the 2005 biography of Craigie To Be A Woman has commented upon this in the Virginia Quarterly Review of Spring 2003 which I have cited at length as it is a good example of what a film maker must overcome when trying to make documentaries about controversial figures:

So influential has Sylvia's narrative become that when former Labor Party cabinet minister Barbara Castle published a short study of the Pankhursts she blithely relied on Sylvia's The Suffragette Movement without noting any of its numerous inconsistencies and biases, flaws that June Purvis identifies. Jill Craigie (1911—1999), a lifelong student of the suffragettes, and wife of former Labor Party leader Michael Foot, was so outraged at Castle's ignorance that she called her up and threatened to "flatten her." Craigie, a staunch Socialist and Labor Party loyalist, nevertheless knew from firsthand experience how brutal Sylvia had been in her quest to superimpose her narrative of Votes for Women on the memory of her mother. In 1940, Craigie had read Sylvia's The Suffragette Movement and had been captivated by its "rich" writing. Sylvia saw history, Craigie commented, with the "eyes of an artist." But in 1943, when Craigie decided to write and direct a documentary on the suffragettes, she found herself pitted against Sylvia and other suffragettes who fought over who would act as advisor to the film and thus control the master narrative of their story. The film never got made because of this internecine warfare, and Craigie spent the next several decades of her life assembling a massive collection of material and writing a book (left incomplete at her death) that exposes how Sylvia distorted her mother's legacy. As I will show in a forthcoming biography of Craigie, she is the missing link between West and Purvis. Craigie is partly responsible for the rediscovery and reprinting of West's work in the 1970's and is the key transitional figure who leads to Purvis' brilliant demonstration that during and after the war Emmeline Pankhurst not only did not abandon her principles, but saw the war and its aftermath as a way to implement them. Although there are many reasons why Craigie did not complete her epic work (a substantial manuscript of over 200,000 well-polished words), one consideration surely is the massive criticism she would have endured in her own party for putting one of Britain's Socialist icons on the rack.

Sadly this kind of wrangling led to the film about Emmeline Pankhurst never being made.  Below are a list of relevant links following a Google search down to page 20. I have now ordered the biography of her by Rollyson which should enable a deeper introduction to her role in the film world to be written. In the meantime there are a range of useful links provided below. 


A full list of credits for Jill Craigie is available at the Screenonline database. (It does miss out Paper Picture)

Two Hours from London (1995) [Self funded Documentary screened on BBC2]

To Be a Woman (1951) Jill Craigie

Blue Scar (1949)  Jill Craigie [Blue Scar, a film exploring the implications of coal industry nationalisation in 1947, is a considerable achievement.]

Children of the Ruins (1948) Jill Craigie [Documentary]

The Way We Live (1946) Jill Craigie [Postwar Planning] YouTube extract can be viewed here sorry not embeddable):

Picture Paper (1946) Jill Craigie [The evidence for the existence of this film is History of Max Lock Group]

Out of Chaos (1944) Jill Craigie

As Screenwriter 

Windom's Way (1957), screenwriter

Trouble in Store (1953), uncredited screenwriter

The Million Pound Note (1953), screenwriter

The Flemish Farm (1943), screenwriter (credited as "Jill Dell")


Screenonline Biography of Jill Craigie

Blair joins tributes to Jill Craigie BBC 1999

UK Women force removal of Koestler bust. BBC story on Koestler'ws sexual violence

Camden New Journal (March 2003) report on biography of Jill Craigie

The British Documentary Website Jill Craigie  

Wikipedia Entry on Jill Craigie

Synopsis of To Be a Woman @ Politicos Bookshop

The tracking down of Craigie's Middlesborough documentary

There is an interview of Jill Craigie avaible from the UEA BECTU website but you will need to have formal access 


  • Macnab, Geoffrey (1993). J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07272-7.
  • Rollyson, Carl (2005). To Be A Woman: The Life Of Jill Craigie. Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-935-9.
  • Dr Gwenno Ffrancon published ‘The same old firm dressed up in a new suit’: Blue Scar (Craigie, 1949) and the portrayal of the nationalisation of the coal industry in Media History. This article examines how a film, Blue Scar, made in 1949 by Jill Craigie, the filmmaker, feminist and wife of Michael Foot, portrays the changes brought about by nationalisation in the South Wales coalfield in the late 1940s.
  • Entiknap, Leo. 2001. Postwar Urban Redevelopment, the British Film industry and The Way We Live. In Shiel, Mark and Fitzmaurice Tony eds. Cinema and The City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Leo Entiknap's PhD thesis is available including work on Cragie's film The Way We Live can be downloaded here.
  • Two articles may be downloaded without cost from Women's History Review, Volume 9 Issue 1 2000 on Jill Craigie. One by June Purvis and the other by Ursual Owen.

April 05, 2008

British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films

British Cinema of the Second World War: Key Films

Return to British Cinema Hub Page

British Cinema and Society: Chronology 1939-1951

Go to Key British Films of 1946-1959

Under construction


This page is effectively an introductory one to providing a chronological approach to British national cinema. As you will see above there is a link into Key Films Between 1946-1959. The approach is being redesigned I have chosen to start from the outset of World War Two because as the culmination of the European 30 Years War of the 20th Century it proved to be a turning point in global history and of course Britain was a key player and was to be significantly changed as a result. This will continue up until the end of the Labour government in 1951. The next section will then be created to incorporate the 13 years of Conservative rule. Rather than organising by decade often changes in governments marks turning points in moods so this model will be the new one. 

Without an effective chronology it is impossible to create effective histories. As histories are of course interpretations of the past the term history is placed in the plural. There is a worrying tendency to de-historicise despite the efforts of critics such as Frederic Jameson to insist upon the need for historicisation. One need look no further than the Tate Modern gallery to see how contemporary curation is thematic and non chronological. It needs to be emphasised that chronology isn't in itself telelogical - where causal effects are implied - it does allow people to start to develop historical ideas and to see how different tendencies develop at different speeds and how at times historical progress can be reversed. The rise of Nazism needs to be seen as a reversal of longer term tendencies to improved citizenship in terms of political and social rights and expectations for example. Over long periods of time it may well be possible to identify patterns. The fact is that many contemporary British films  as well as German ones are still representing the Second World War. Indeed some people think that history only starts when the process of remembrance starts to be eclipsed as older generations who have experienced the events die out.

Many critics are querying whether it is even fruitful to study 'national' cinemas. The reality is that cinema is an industrial process and system of representation and it has been continuously subject to state regulation. This is not to deny the interprenetration of cultural form other countries whther artists working within different countires or in the case of cinema what is often considered as 'cultural imperialism' committed by the USA upon pretty much everybody else. This argument is dented to some extent when we consider how much US money poured into European film-making in the 1960s creating a period when some of the best European 'Art' films were created. Things are always complex and untidy, nevertheless there is certainly a point in studying national developments within areas of culture, however, they do need to be considered in a comparative way, and this blog has many entries on non British European cinema for this comparison is a continuous and long-term project.

National cinemas don't simply "reflect" society back at itself they are cultural interventions in ongoing processes of social change. It is the purpose of providing a developing vista of looking historically at social change that is a core objective of this blog. The approach at all times is to be taking a SPECT mixed methodology in which Social, Political, Economic, Cultural and Textual understandings are considered. The study of Film and Media in general is interdisciplinary and all approaches from the international political economy through national cultural and film policy to the reception of films by audiences needs to be taken into account. There are also social, political and cultural upheavals which need to be taken into account.  

The years covered below will hyperlink to specific years as these are developed where a more detailed historical context for each year will be provided as well as some initial analysis of the relevant films. These themselves will be hyperlinked to more in depth analyses of individual films or directors for example. As this process is pretty much infinitely expandable hopefully those interested will revisit the site periodically for it is designed as a dynamic space and is committed to continuous improvement and development and will try as far as it possible to respond to both the availability of films as they become available on DVD as well as responding to new modes of thought about British cinema. Hopefully these explorations will prove enjoyable, challenging and encourage you to think more about cinema and society and of course introduce you to films that you might not otherwise have come across.

Further General Reading

Further reading and viewing. I have found Andrew Marr's 2007 book A History of Modern Britain a useful guide. As a long time analytical journalist and news presenter Marr is able to communicate in a highly accessible but well informed manner giving a useful overview of the whole period. Yes it is a 'popular history' rather than an academic history. It isn't the onl;y history book that should be read but it is a great place to start. There was also a TV series which is propbably available on DVD.  As background reading I thoroughly recommend it because it will prove a good read for those who have been put off history. It is not embedded with dates and thankfully gets away from the text book approach to history so prevalent in education at the moment which I find the kiss of death. It is also available as an Audio Book for iPod fans.

Robert Hewison's  - Culture and Consensus as well as other work of his on the relationship between culture and policy in post-war Britain will also prove very fruitful for a more specialised approach.


The purpose of this page is to provide a series of links to articles about the key British films of the Second World War. An overview of the role of British cinema and some of the interesting social and cultural aspects within the representations of British society will beexplored in a separate article. Unfortunately  a hard drive crash lost some valuable material and the article  which had been prepared will need to be rewritten.  In the meantime the links will hopefully be valuable for visitors.

Of course wars don't happen overnight, there is usually a build up as tensions arise so I have included in this list some films prior to 1939 which were already seeking to criticise Nazi Germany despite the strict censorship laws in the UK at the timewhich forbade the representation of other countries in ways which might be found offensive.  As Algate and Jeffries point out the historical film became a useful vehicle for getting around the censorship laws:

In 1934 when proposed films denouncing anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany were regularly vetoed by the censors as "likely to cause offense to a foreign country", Gaumont British were able to release Jew Süss, a costume film attacking anti-Semitisim in 18th century Württemberg. (Aldgate and Richards (2007, p 138)

In a similar way the outcomes of wars start to become clearer and some films are mentioned which were being thought about at the end of the War even though they were released when at least the War in Europe was over. The important thing is they already reflect sentiments, hopes aspirations of a post-war period of reconstruction.  

Some of Britain's best ever film directors such as Humphrey Jennings and, Powell and Pressburger make this a particularly fruitful period for exploration.  

Key British Films of the Second World War 1939-1945

Prior to the formal outbreak of Worlrd War II: Films with themes reflecting international tensions as Britian and France start to rearm as a response to the shift to a war economy in Germany which became particularly apparent once the 1936 Olympics were out of the way.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) Alfred Hitchcock

Fire Over England (1937) William K Howard  [Alexander Korda Executive Producer]

Sixty Glorious Years (1938) Herbert Wilcox

The Four Feathers (1939 May) Zoltan Korda

Spy in Black (1939 August) Powell and Pressburger

Films made once hostilities were made formal 


According to Murphy 1992 the outbreak of war severely reduced the production of films. This was because the government was in a state of uncertainty. cinemas had been closed to re-open in about 3 weeks time. Furthermore there was debate about whther the UK should rely upon US films and focus energies on wartime production. The Treasury was against as it would mean far more expensive imports. six films that were in an advanced stsage of production were completed and only another 11 were made this year. Murphy is here only talking about feature films. 

The Lion Has Wings (1939) Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, Adrian Brunel [Alexander Korda producer]

The First Days (1939) Watt / Jennings / Jackson  [Documentary]


According to Murphy there were 51 feature films released in 1940. 24 were comedies / comedy-thrillers. Of these 17 dealt with the war directly or indirectly. There were 6 serious war feature films. Four of these dealt with the war at sea and two dealt with the opression of central European countries by the Nazis. Documentary work is also being considred even thought these were usually shorts. They would accompany feature films and also be exhibited in non-theatrical venues.

The Stars Look Down (1939 Released January 1940) Carol Reed

Britain at Bay: (1940) Harry Watt (Often attrubuted to J. B. Priestley) [Documentary]

Night Train to Munich (1940) Carol Reed [Nazi Opression in Central Europe]

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) Ludwig Berger /Michael Powell /Tim Whelan [Alexander Korda producer]

The Proud Valley (1940) Penrose Tennyson [Ealing]

Pastor Hall (1940) Boulting Bros [Nazi oppression in Central Europe]

Freedom Radio (1940) Anthony Asquith [Two Cities]

Let George Do It (1940) Marcel Varnel

Pimpernel Smith (1940) Leslie Howard

Britain at Bay (1940) Harry Watt [GPO Film Unit / sponsor MOI documentary]

Tomorrow is Theirs (1940) James Carr [Ministry of Information documentary]

They Also Serve (1940) Ruby Grierson [Gender & Work documentary]

Westward Ho! (1940) Thorold Dickinson [Documentary]


Target for Tonight (1941) Harry Watt. [documentary]

The 49th Parallel (1941) Powell & Pressburger

Words For Battle (1941) Humphrey Jennings

That Hamilton Woman (1941) Alexander Korda 

The Young Mr. Pitt (1941)  Carol Reed

Ferry Pilot (1941) Pat Jackson [Documentary]

Cottage to Let (1941) Anthony Asquith 

Ships With Wings (1941) Segei Nolbandov [Ealing]

Love on the Dole (1941) John Baxter

Eating Out With Tommy Trinder (1941) Desmond Dickinson

Jane Brown Changes her Job (1941) Harold Cooper  [Gender & Work]

Ordinary People (1941) Jack Lee & J.B. Holmes


Went the Day Well (1942) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing]

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings [Documentary]

One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) Powell and Pressburger 

In Which We Serve (1942) David Lean / Noël Coward [Two Cities]

The Foreman Went to France (1942) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Goose Steps Out (1942) Will Hay, Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Thunder Rock (1942) Boulting Bros

The Next of Kin (1942) Thorold Dickinson [Ealing]

Night Shift (1942) Paul Rotha [Gender & Work, Documentary]

The Countrywomen (1942) John Page [Gender & the War Effort]

Men of Tomorrow (1942)  Alfred Travers


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Powell and Pressburger

The Silver Fleet (1943) Gordon Wellesley and Vernon Sewell [Produced by the Archers - Powell and Pressburger]

Fires Were Started (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Silent Village (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Bells Go Down (1943) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

The Demi-Paradise (1943) Anthony Asquith [Two Cities]

Millions Like Us (1943) Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat [Gender & Work]

We Dive at Dawn (1943) Anthony Asquith 

Nine Men (1943) Harry Watt [Ealing]

San Demetrio London (1943) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Man in Grey (1943) Leslie Arliss [The first "official" Gainsborough costume melodrama]

Journey Together  (1943) John Boulting [ RAF Film Unit in 1943 as a public information film]


A Canterbury Tale (1944) Powell and Pressburger

This Happy Breed (1944) David Lean [Two Cities]

Fanny by Gaslight (1944) Anthony Asquith [Gainsborough melodrama was made to cash in on the success of The  Man in Grey]

Love Story (1944) Leslie Arliss 

Henry V (1944) Laurence Olivier  [Two Cities]

Western Approaches (1944) Pat Jackson [Documentary Feature]

The Way Ahead (1944) Carol Reed [Two Cities]

The Eighty Days (1944) Humphrey Jennings 

Waterloo Road (1944) Sidney Gilliat

Two Thousand Women (1944) Frank Launder

The Halfway House (1944) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Champagne Charlie (1944) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing / Musical]

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) Arthur Crabtree 


The Way to the Stars (1945) Anthony Asquith [Last Wartime Feature Film: Two Cities]

Immediate Post-War films 

I Know where I'm Going (1945 December) Powell and Pressburger

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean  

The Wicked Lady (1945) Leslie Arliss [The most commercially successful of the Gainsborough  melodramas.]

They Were Sisters (1945) Arthur Crabtree [Gainsborough melodrama] 

The Seventh Veil  (1945) Compton Bennett

Homes for the People (1945) Kay Mander [Documentary]

Rationing in Britain (1945) Graham Cutts

Dead of Night (1945) Alberto Cavalcanti / Robert Hamer / Charles Crighton / Basil Dearden [Ealing] 'Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing's.'


Scope review of Robert Murphy British Cinema and the Second World War

'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Reconsidered': James Chapman   

British Television Timeline (Screenonline)

British Television Timeline


This is merely a relay entry to a recent and very useful part of Screenonline which is now providing a British TV timeline. This will be especially useful to students wishing to gain a brief overall idea of developments within British TV history which will be helpful in dealing with the current debates of Public Service Broadcasting, the relevevance of the liceence fee, whether the licence fee should be topsliced and of course the fundamental changes now being wrought by the digitisation of the British mediascape due to be completed by 2012.  

Screenonline Timeline of British TV  

April 2008

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