“These civilians are good soldiers.”
This week Reel Ale Film Club revels in a second dose of wartime filmmaking. From the star-wattage and melodrama of Waterloo Bridge, they turn to something a little more factual but no less heartfelt – the documentary filmmaking of Humphrey Jennings.
Jennings worked for the GPO Film Unit, which later became the Crown Film Unit, the filmmaking arm of the Ministry of Information. Thus, his wartime films were essentially propaganda. Indeed, the voiceover for London Can Take It! (1940) is provided by American journalist Quentin Reynolds in an explicit appeal to increase support for the war across the pond. But as Film4 affirms, Jennings’ work was “far from the exercise in breast-beating patriotism that suggests.” It is evident that Jennings’ brand of patriotism was not a passion for Monarchy and tradition but for the wartime spirit of British people. In London Can Take It! the voiceover narration asserts that “there is no panic, no fear, no despair in London Town. There is nothing but determination, confidence and high courage…”
Jennings’ imagination was evidently captivated by the bravery and stoicism of ordinary Londoners, particularly men and women who work ordinary jobs by day and serve the war effort by night. Such Londoners are the topic of Jennings’ only feature-length film – Fires Were Started (1940)– which depicts the nightly duties of an Auxiliary Fire Service Brigade in the East End. The AFS was made up of unpaid volunteers, ordinary men and women of a variety of class backgrounds, who stepped in to help fight the fires caused by nightly bombings of the Blitz.
The film pays tribute to these Londoners in a very distinctive way: casting real volunteers of the Auxiliary Fire Service as its characters.
The film is described by BFI Screenonline as a “dramatised documentary”; in contrast to Jennings’ earlier works, Fires features a fictional narrative, but one performed by men who lived this story every night. Fireman-turned-actor William Sansom recalls that there was no script – “dialogue was always made up on the spot-and was of course the more genuine for that.” Indeed, the plot of the film is made up of re-enactments of real events, sometimes so raw that the men could not bear to act them. Sansom tells us that the men usually did whatever was asked of them for the film, except when it came to the funeral scene: “Some of the men had already attended the real funerals of burned up friends. They refused to carry this false coffin.” Indeed, the film is powerful because of these ‘real’ performances.
This blurring of the line between reality and fiction results in a distinctly unpatronising and uniquely realistic portrait of London, and of Londoners. As Sansom puts it:
Romanticism, tricks for tricks’ sake, false patriotism, militant smartness, intrusive humor, and many another nugget of Director’s Delight could have crept in. But this director kept it clean, and infused the meat of realism with his own passion and intellect to make of it all a poetic work of art.
Reel Ale Film Club will be screening London Can Take It! and Fires Were Started on Wednesday 9th May at 8pm in the Railway Tavern Ale House. For more details and full programme see previous article.
Jennings’ works have recently re-released by the BFI. London Can Take It! features on The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume One: The First Days and Fires Were Started can be found on The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume Two: Fires Were Started
London on Film – 25th April – 19th September:
25/4 - Silent London - Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929)
2/5 - Wartime London: Part 1 - Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)
9/5 - Wartime London: Part 2 - I Was a Fireman (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) + London Can Take It (Humphrey Jennings, 1940)
16/5 - Larceny in London: Part 1 - The Ladykillers (Alexander McKendrick, 1955)
23/5 - British New Wave - We Are The Lambeth Boys (Karel Reisz, 1959) + Momma Don’t Allow (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1956)
30/5 – ‘Its’s Wonderful to be Young’ - The Young Ones (Sidney J. Furie, 1961)
6/6 - Queer London: Part 1 - Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
13/6 - British Bands: Part 1 - A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1965)
20/6 - Art House - Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
27/6 - Terror on the Tube - Quartermass and The Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
4/7 - Hitchcock’s London - Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)
11/7 - DINOSAURS in London - One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (Robert Stevenson, 1975)
18/7 - Gangster’s Paradise: Part 1 - The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
25/7 - Horror - An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
1/8 - Queer London: Part 2 - Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
8/8 - Larceny in London: Part 2 - A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton & John Cleese, 1988)
15/8 - Romantic Comedy - The Tall Guy (Mel Smith & Richard Curtis, 1989)
22/8 - Gangster’s Paradise: Part 2 - The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990)
29/8 - London Soul - Young Soul Rebels (Issac Julien, 1991)
5/9 - British Bands: Part 2 - SpiceWorld (Bob Spiers, 1997)
12/9 - Big Guns in the Big Smoke - Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
19/9- Docu-dreams - Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2012)