It Happened Here Review

“The German invasion of England took place in July 1940, after the British retreat from Dunkirk. Strongly resisted at first, the German Army took many months to restore order, but the resistance movement, lacking outside support, was finally crushed. For three years, it lay dormant. Collaboration increased as the population adjusted to the tedium of occupation. Then, in 1944, the resistance movement reappeared, strongly reinforced and rearmed by America. America, now in the war, had stationed its Seventh Fleet off Ireland to harass the south-west coast of England with carrier-based aircraft and to supply men and equipment to the partisans. On the Eastern Front, a breakthrough by the Red Army in the Urals meant the withdrawal of every available soldier from the forces of occupation throughout Europe. England was therefore garrisoned only by British volunteer SS legions and a small number of German troops.”

This opening narration, voiced by longtime newsreader and sports commentator John Snagge, over a map of the British Isles before the main title comes up, sets the scene. Pauline (Pauline Murray) is a district nurse. An upsurge in partisan activity in the area results in an attack on German forces during which many are killed. Pauline is evacuated to London and gains work in the medical wing of Immediate Action, a paramilitary group. Apolitical up to this point, Pauline finds her perspective begin to change.

Alternate history has a long heritage in written science fiction, with examples going back to the nineteenth century. Classics of the form include Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (the South wins the American Civil War). A particularly popular subset of the subgenre depict a different outcome to World War II, among them Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, the basis of Amazon's television series. Cinematic alternate history is much less often found, but one example is It Happened Here.

While the film is definitely of considerable merit, the story behind the film is as well known as the film itself. It began as an amateur production, made by two teenagers mostly at weekends, and ended as a professional production with a major-studio release in London's West End. At eight years from start to finish, it was for a long time listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest production schedule of any feature film, though that's since been surpassed – by the twelve years of Boyhood, for example. For sheer ambition, and persistence in the face of adversity, the film would be admirable in any case, but it remains a film of considerable merit in its own right.

The title is a possible nod to Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel It Couldn't Happen Here, about the rise of fascism in the United States. Even before its release, It Happened Here attracted controversy, being called fascist propaganda and anti-Semitic, when Brownlow and Mollo's intentions were the exact opposite. A particularly problematic element was a six-minute sequence of a debate where Pauline and others speak to IA officers played by genuine neo-Nazis, some of them former members of the British Union of Fascists, who expound their beliefs direct to camera.

Although It Happened Here was passed uncut by the British Board of Film Censors (as was) in October 1964, the UK distributor insisted on cutting this sequence and it remained unseen for twenty-eight years. The clear intention by the filmmakers was that these men – they are all men – would condemn themselves out of their own mouths. They do, but you can appreciate the distributors' unease at having unmediated far-right propaganda on cinema screens across the land. In other ways, the film relies on a critical distance between the viewer and the events onscreen. If it could happen here, it would be the case that many people would not resist, and would carry on living their lives as best they could under the new regime.

Pauline is one such person, and there would be many others. Part of her change of mind comes about by meeting Dr Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw, one of the few professional actors in the film) who talks about how the rise of fascism needs fascist methods to combat it. It Happened Here also shows that history is written by the victors, and we see this in a newsreel shown around the halfway point, extolling the virtues of German/British brotherhood, going back to the famous occasion (with “the only existing footage”) of World War I soldiers calling a truce on Christmas Day 1914 and playing each other at football.

Kevin Brownlow, born 1938, became interested in film, particularly silent film, from a young age. Given a cine camera as a present, he began making films in his teens, beginning with The Capture, based on a Guy de Maupassant story. He had made that film without a script and began It Happened Here with a one-page outline. By then, he was eighteen and working as a trainee editor at World Wide Pictures, a London-based documentary house. Seeking appropriate uniforms for his soldier characters, Brownlow met Andrew Mollo, then aged sixteen, and an expert in militaria, with a large collection of his own. Mollo dismissed the footage that Brownlow had shot and came on board as co-writer, co-producer and co-director as well as being art director and military advisor.

Such episodes as filming soldiers marching past London landmarks such as Big Ben and Parliament Square did give the production some publicity, but to say the film was a struggle would be putting it mildly. It had to be shot mainly at weekends as that was when the actors and crew were usually available, and the 16mm camera was loaned. The cast were all amateurs, with the lead role going to Pauline Murray (also her character's name). Irish-born, and genuinely a trained nurse, she was the wife of a doctor known to Derek Hill, a film critic and friend of Brownlow's, and he recommended her to the production. It was thought that this was Murray's only film work, but she also acted in the 1948 Danish film The Viking Watch of the Danish Seaman and a 1956 short called Driftwood and Seashell. Her performance, though clearly the work of a non-professional, holds the film together: her character has integrity and we believe it. Working on the film – though not credited – was another assistant at World Wide, and also an amateur filmmaker who would later become professional: Peter Watkins.

By the early Sixties, Mollo had taken a job as a runner on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and through that he had met the film's producer, Tony Richardson. Richardson saw what Brownlow and Mollo had made to date and offered to put up £3000 so that the film could be finished. In the event, the final budget was £7000. The rest of the film was shot in 35mm and It Happened Here became the first credit as cinematographer for Peter Suschitzky. He, the son of Austrian-born cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, had been working as an assistant and documentary cameraman up to that point. He would later be the DP on such films as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Empire Strikes Back, Valentino and, from Dead Ringers, every feature directed by David Cronenberg. A meeting with Stanley Kubrick – he and Brownlow had gone to see the same Erich von Stroheim film at the National Film Theatre – resulted in It Happened Here being given the short ends from the Doctor Strangelove shoot.

Inevitably, given the circumstances, It Happened Here is rough and ready in places, with some noticeably subpar sound in the early stages. However, much of this adds to the film's semi-documentary feel. Remarkably, the sections intended to look like newsreel do indeed look that way, even though not a frame of stock footage was used. Brownlow's editing, clearly influenced by his cinematic hero Abel Gance (whose Napoleon Brownlow has spent many years restoring), is another plus.

The film was finished, and premiered at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival in Critic's Fortnight. It showed later at the London Film Festival. United Artists bought the rights to the film, which enabled Brownlow to interview one of the company's founders, Mary Pickford, for his book on silent film stars, published in 1968 as The Parade's Gone By. However, as mentioned above, United Artists cut the debate sequence, and provoked a letter to The Times, published on 25 February 1966, and signed by eleven film critics of the day (including Alexander Walker, Richard Roud, Kenneth Tynan, Dilys Powell and The Times' own John Russell Taylor, though then the paper's reviews were published anonymously).

The letter received a reply from United Artists's managing director David M. Bickler (published on 1 March) that the “slight deletion” had been made in agreement with Brownlow and Mollo, though Brownlow certainly took the editing of the film quite hard. He believes, though isn't certain, that he managed to have the sequence retained in non-theatrical 16mm prints. On 3 March, Stanley Reed, the director of the British Film Institute, pointed out that he was aware of the controversy – including attendance of the London Film Festival showing by a number of British fascists – but came down on the side of allowing the film to be shown as its makers intended. United Artists did not budge and It Happened Here had a belated release on 12 May 1966, just short of a year after its Cannes showing, at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus.

By this time, new black and white films were becoming a rarity and less and less commercially viable, though by coincidence two others were released on the same day: the Hollywood production A Patch of Blue (which went on to win Shelley Winters a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the Czechoslovak A Blonde in Love. Advertisements, photographs and some of Brownlow's own footage show crowds around the block at the cinema, so it did better than suspected, with its original two-week booking extended to six.

After leaving the Pavilion, suggestions were made to double-bill the film with Peter Watkins's The War Game or with the Hammer production The Camp on Blood Island, but these ideas came to nothing. It Happened Here was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Screenplay (which it lost to David Mercer's Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). The controversy over the film didn't help Brownlow and Mollo's chances of further work in the British film industry, and all they were offered was directing second unit on the 1967 Hammer production The Viking Queen, which they declined.

Brownlow continued as a documentary filmmaker, historian and writer specialising in silent cinema: his first documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, about Abel Gance, made for television in 1968, can be found as an extra on the BFI's release of Napoleon. Mollo continued to work in the film industry as a military advisor and production designer. They made a second feature in 1975, Winstanley, but none since.

It Happened Here had a television showing on BBC2 on 27 April 1973, the first of a short season showcasing the work of younger British filmmakers (the other two films shown being Barney Platts-Mills's Private Road and Anthony Simmons's Four in the Morning). Since then, the film became difficult to see but in 1993, Brownlow was able to buy back the rights from United Artists and the film was restored with the debate sequence reinstated. This full version had its first showing on 18 June 1994 at the National Film Theatre, with Brownlow in attendance, the first time I saw it. Soon after it was released on VHS and later DVD. This Blu-ray release comes out shortly after Brownlow's 80th birthday.


It Happened Here is a dual-format release from the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray was supplied for review.

This is the full-length version of the film, running 100:31. Many reference sources (including the June 1966 Monthly Film Bulletin and Brownlow's book How It Happened Here) give the full running time of of It Happened Here as 99 minutes, but the BBFC's listing of its cinema classification bears out the longer time. The film was passed uncut with an A certificate for cinema in 1964 and PG for video release in 1994, and as it has not been resubmitted that is the certificate it retains. However, parents should be advised that it sits at the top end of the category, with a well-known shock cut to the bloody face of a shot German soldier (more jolting on a big screen) pushing at the limits. I suspect that, if this film were resubmitted now, the debate scene might push it to a 12.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. That's very unusual for a British film from the mid 1960s, but for once it would seem to be correct. The NFT showing where I first saw the film showed it in that ratio, and Brownlow, who introduced the film and did a Q&A afterwards, would no doubt have objected if that were wrong. The 16mm footage – the first half-hour or so, plus the newsreel (which is windowboxed) and debate sequences – is undoubtedly framed for 4:3. As this was at the time an amateur production, there would have been no reason for it to be otherwise. The 35mm footage looks to be framed wider, given that this was now a professional shoot made with a view to a commercial cinema release, at a time when cinemas other than arthouses and repertory screens couldn't show Academy Ratio. I've no doubt that the London Pavilion and other cinemas would have shown the film in widescreen, most likely in 1.75:1, but that would mean that the 16mm-originated scenes would have been noticeably cropped. Winstanley (made for the BFI Production Board and shot in 35mm with a 16mm opening sequence) is also in black and white 1.37:1, making Brownlow and Mollo living film directors whose entire dramatic-feature output is in black and white Academy Ratio. There can't be many others.

The transfer was done from the original camera negative, with the debate scene reinstated from a 16mm dupe negative and Brownlow's personal 35mm print. As we're not three generations away from the negative, as would have been the case with a cinema print, the distinction between the 16mm and 35mm footage is more apparent than I remember being so in 1994, with the former being noticeably softer and grainer, the latter sharper and crisper.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. Some of the dialogue is noticeably muffled in the first half hour or so, but the rest of the film, by then professionally recorded and mixed, is better balanced and it's mostly clear. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available on the feature, but not the extras.

The extras begin with Mirror on the Word (10:11), the full version of the (fake) German newsreel we see lengthy extracts from around the halfway mark. This is followed by behind-the-scenes footage (22:27), silent with a commentary by Brownlow. Shot on 16mm, this includes unused material and scenes of the cast and crew at work, plus scenes of the large advertising hoarding at the London Pavilion with the crowd lining up round the block. Next up are the very different UK and US trailers (5:19).

This is followed by an extract from It Happened Here Again (7:13), in which Brownlow and Mollo talk about their experiences of making the film. This documentary was made during the making of Winstanley and the full version can be found on the BFI's release of that film. Also from that disc is an extract from a 2009 interview (2:26) with Brownlow and Mollo by former BFI Production Board head Mamoun Hassan, the part which describes their long efforts to make their first film.

Next up is The Conquest of London (4:22), part of a documentary from Italian TV which amazingly confuses the fake propaganda film from It Happened Here for a real one. The booklet goes into some detail as to how this might have happened.

Two new interviews are next. The first features the production assistant Johanna Roeber (11:37). In her case, “assistant” meant doing anything that was needed on the day, including continuity. However, she has happy memories of the film, helped along by the fact that everyone was very fond of Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow himself is the other interviewee. This is a long item – 64:59 – with some extracts from the film but mostly Brownlow talking to camera. Given the absence of a commentary, this is a more than adequate substitute, as Brownlow is thorough about the experience of making the film and his memories are clearly intact.

The final item on the disc is an image gallery. It's not self-navigating, so you will have to go forward and back using the remote. As well as stills and posters, it also includes the letter of acceptance from the London Film Festival. On the DVD in PDF form is David Robinson's introduction to How It Happened Here.

The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-six pages. It begins with an introduction by Brownlow, with the main essay being “It's Happening Here” by Dr Josephine Botting. This is a comprehensive overview of the film from inception to production and its reception and release afterwards, its cutting by United Artists and the rerelease of the full-length version in 1994. Some of the controversy is addressed by Brownlow in the next item, “The Unkindest Cut”, which is an abridged extract from How It Happened Here. Next up are two pages from Peter Suschitzky, in which he talks about how he was invited to become the cinematographer. Both film fans, he and Brownlow kept in touch after the film was made, and Brownlow would show him scenes from Napoleon, which had started to restore at the end of the 1960s.

Military historian E.W.W. Fowler commends the film's historical accuracy. Although the film was begun in 1956 and was set in an alternate mid 1940s, many of the backgrounds are certainly authentic, uncleared bomb sites among them, and much of the cast look as they might have done a decade earlier, when rationing was in force and would not end until 1954. The booklet also contains the June 1966 review (by “B.D.”) from the Monthly Film Bulletin, full film credits, biographies of Brownlow and Mollo, notes and credits for the extras and on the transfer, and stills.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
6 out of 10
6 out of 10

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's remarkable film of Britain after a German invasion took eight years from an amateur production started by teenagers to a professional production shown in London's West End.


out of 10

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