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April 07, 2008

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

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