Britain At War: Under Fire Review

Panamint’s second volume of propaganda shorts by the GPO/Crown Film Unit, subtitled Under Fire, operates along similar lines to the first. That disc, The First Days, offered up three examples from 1939 and 1940, here we get five titles 1940 and 1941. Yet whilst this collection’s pieces are equally no-nonsense in their overall approach, we’re also witness to a much greater range. Participants include such key figures as Cavalcanti and Humphrey Jennings as well as lesser known directors such as David MacDonald (who would later to go to work with the likes of Tommy Trinder and Charlie Drake). Moreover, the execution of these shorts is similarly diverse: on the one we have your basic morale boosters (propaganda in its most simple form), on the other we find unusually complex dramatic recreations.

As before this isn’t a disc to turn to for the unit’s bona fide classics; there’s no Target for Tonight, say, or Listen to Britain. Yet this doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. Taken as simple documentaries, these pieces work as fine examples of the direct, effective approach. The most famous of them, Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt’s Britain Can Take It! (perhaps better known by its alternate title, London Can Take It!), and its ostensible follow-up, Christmas Under Fire, offer a typical demonstration. Both are essentially there to provide visual accompaniment to American journalist Quentin Reynolds’ reports on the London of 1940. Yet despite being directed by two of the unit’s most distinctive creative forces (Jennings would of course go on to the superb “Fires Were Started”, whilst Watt had been partly responsible for Night Mail and would later make the equally impressive The Overlanders for Ealing) any kind of artistic licence is purposefully kept to a minimum. Rather the pair – though it was Watt alone who directed Christmas Under Fire - listen to Reynolds’ calm, measured tones and respond accordingly. The results are a pair of documentaries which opt for stark, but almost common-place footage; they highlight the “ordinary” aspects of London at the time (if you can describe Blitz-hit London as such) and in this respect stand out as remarkably pure representations.

Britain at Bay works along similar lines albeit with a slightly different remit. Its intent would appear to be primarily that of a recruitment drive what with its call for more nurses, ambulance drivers, volunteer firemen and the like. Moreover, it offers a more sentimental approach courtesy of its references to Napoleon and to a country that wishes “to be left alone”. Yet once again it takes its lead from its narration, in this case by novelist J.B. Priestley, and serves it as well it accordingly. Indeed, Britain at Bay taken as a whole is easily the equal of its source.

However, it also happens to be true that the disc’s two standouts are those which take the dramatic licence. The Story of an Air Communiqué takes us inside the process with which destroyed enemy aircraft were recorded, whilst Men of the Lightship recreates the events of January the 29th, 1940, whereby the whole crew of an East Dudgeon lightship were killed as a result of a Nazi bombing raid. In both cases the approach is similar to that used for the unit’s later feature length efforts, “Fires Were Started” and Western Approaches. In other words, they rely solely upon non-professional actors in order to tell their tales, blending the drama and the documentary so that they become almost imperceptible.

Being an educational piece about a fairly niche subject it’s fair to say that Air Communiqué is the more innocent of the two. Sprightly and often exceedingly quaint (though that’s not intended as a criticism), its acting is of course variable, but then this only adds to the charm. What could have been a dull, uninspiring lecture is instead transformed into a thoroughly entertaining six minutes; its almost excessively chipper nature only serves to make it a more direct experience.

Men of the Lightship, in contrast, is far darker and comes with the more dramatic material. As the longest film at the disc (though at 24 minutes it’s still disarmingly brisk) this piece is able to take its time and build its atmosphere. Strangely enough it recalls In Fading Light, the Amber Collective’s 1989 feature: it’s a men-at-sea drama manned by non-professional actors yet in this case ones who performed their onscreen roles in real life. The result is a more pronounced emotional content, one which can’t help but heighten the effect of its downbeat ending. Indeed, this is propaganda after all and it certainly succeeds in gaining a reaction.

Also of note is the manner in which director David MacDonald handles the material. In marked contrast to what are perhaps his two most widely seen efforts, the Dennis Price starring Bad Lord Byron and the Charlie Drake vehicle Petticoat Pirates, he’s able to imprint something of his own personality onto the picture. Whilst he undoubtedly succeeds in fulfilling the main aim of the piece, he also introduces a pleasingly experimental dimension. The most remarkable moment to be found on this entire disc comes when a blast of gunfire is interrupted by images of a sailor’s wife and budgerigar as those these are the final thoughts to enter his mind. It’s strange to see such an avant-garde impulse suddenly introduce itself, yet the effect is superb: all of a sudden we’re able to make a genuine connection with these characters and as such the reality of the situation comes flooding in. In fact, it could be said to sum up these films as a whole – neither doom mongering nor unfeasibly optimistic, they instead occupy a more palatable middle ground. They’re tough when they need to be and in doing so refreshingly honest.

The Disc

As with the previous compilation, The First Days, the presentation quality of these assembled shorts isn’t always perfect, though it may very well be the case that this is a good as we are going to get them until someone funds a full-blown restoration job. Importantly each short remains watchable throughout, though some of the darker scenes from Britain at Bay do struggle to make themselves known. Indeed, the only genuine problem is that fact that the soundtracks on Christmas Under Fire and Men of the Lightship aren’t in the best condition. Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that these audibility problems could very well be inherent in the original productions (especially in the case of Men of the Lightship), but nonetheless given these circumstances optional subtitles would have been welcomed. That said, we’re still faced with a fine collection; it’s contents may be comparatively minor, but for those with an interesting in British documentary filmmaking or indeed British cinema as whole would do well to sample them.

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