Land of Promise: The Documentary Film Movement 1930-1950 Review

Four discs, 40 films, one 96-page booklet and an hour’s worth of extras, all combined into a handsome package, Land of Promise is surely one of 2008’s most covetable DVD releases. Filling the gab between their silent Mitchell & Kenyon actuality discs and 2006’s equally impressive Free Cinema compilation, the BFI set out with this collection to represent, as the subtitle puts it, “the British documentary movement 1930-1950”. It’s an era which has been slowly building its own DVD library over the past few years courtesy of such labels as Panamint and DD Video (specifically their fine Imperial War Museum collections), plus one-offs such the BFI’s own recent, definitive handling of Night Mail and other titles dotted around as “special features”. But this boxed set represents the first attempt at a major retrospective, and indeed it’s one that will prove difficult to top. Certainly, you could argue that some key omissions have been made (and let us get the criticisms out of the way early) – there’s no Len Lye, no Spare Time, Granton Trawler or Waters of Time, no World of Plenty or The Silent Village – yet what is present more than justifies such exclusions. Fittingly bookended by an early collaboration between a post-Nanook of the North Robert Flaherty and a post-Drifters John Grierson, 1931’s Industrial Britain, and the last film completed by Humphrey Jennings on his own terms, 1950’s Family Portrait, this collection represents a true treasure trove of cinema – British, documentary or otherwise.

The four discs are spread out thematically. Land of Promise takes a loosely chronological approach, thus allowing disc one to focus on the pre-war years, the second exclusively on the war itself (albeit with a strictly UK-based remit; documentaries on specific campaigns akin to the Boulting brothers’ Desert Victory, for example, are avoided in favour of homeland themes and subjects), and discs three and four to cover the immediate post-war period. From this we can also detect the political climates of the time: pre-war we see social and economical issues come to the fore, oftentimes in impassioned mode; the war years lose the politics in favour of propaganda and a sense of resilience and unity; and afterwards we find a combination of the two – the pre-war issues raise their heads once more, yet the tone is lighter and more optimistic as the post-war austerity is acknowledged and ways of breaking it put forward.

Within this overriding format, however, it is also possible to detect smaller, recurrent themes cropping up time and again. As well as the war itself, we also see work, welfare, women and children as the major issues of the day – and find them transcending these particular periods. To take the latter as an example, children as a subject matter are able to encompass the polemic of Children at School (in which the imbalances in educational standards circa 1937 are conveyed and argued against), the demonstration of unity found in Tomorrow is Theirs (as the people pull together and ensure the best educations possible for their young, whether evacuated to the countryside or not) and Children’s Charter, which explains and extols the 1944 Education Act.

From a cinematic perspective this sense of change and adaptation is discernible too. It has been much remarked that Humphrey Jennings needed the war in order to fully bring out the filmmaking genius within him – and Land of Promise goes some way in backing this argument up. From the jaunty, almost inconsequential Farewell Topsails of 1937 (nevertheless a welcome inclusion given its lesser known and lesser seen status within Jennings’ oeuvre) we move onto the superb wartime trio of Words for Battle, Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy, cine-poems of tremendous heart each, the latter two of which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere on this site. Comparatively we have a filmmaker such as Ruby Grierson (sister of John) who could switch from the pre-war to wartime modes of expression and political approach whilst remaining stylistically true to herself. To-Day We Live, in which Grierson’s spirit matches that of the Welsh community she is documenting, and They Also Serve, a “thank you” to wartime housewives, both see the same realist edge conveyed through amateur casting and docudrama approach. You could argue that such decisions also produce creaking results, their stodgy handling in front of the camera showing up the narrative simplicities, but that would be to forget the passion and energies put into these pieces.

Furthermore, the range of narrative and stylistic techniques, their sheer diversity and occasionally groundbreaking nature, is one of Land of Promise’s major pleasures. Whilst the proliferation of boards, ministries, offices and industries serving as backers and sponsors to many of these works may suggest otherwise, here we find filmmakers making films on their own terms and free to experiment if so inclined. There’s the echoes of Vertov and Eisenstein found in Paul Rotha’s Shipyard, the “Voice of God” or the voice of people (as favoured in such rural excursions as Fenlands and Summer on the Farm), pioneering work in synch sound and the talking head format, rampant intertitling and quieter, more observational stylings. Plus there’s the contrasting results from the Realist Film Unit, the larger budgeted Crown Film Unit products (based at Pinewood and born out the GPO Film Unit) or Paul Rotha’s Facts of Film productions. Plus we find one of the earliest examples of the British Transport Film Unit’s work and a surprising smattering of female directors. And so the list goes on. Indeed, it is tempting to programme your own individual double-bills from what’s on offer here and note just how varied this period could be. Contrast, say, Words for Battle with Ordinary People. In one we have Jennings in full imaginary flight combining evocative imagery with even more evocative poetry from Milton, Kipling and Blake as spoken by Laurence Olivier. In the other, likewise a morale-boosting flag-waver, we have easy-going observation and gentle humour: the people of Britain are simply getting on with it, and so do the filmmakers. Both are equally epic on their own terms (though Jennings needs only seven minutes for his), but note just how very different those terms are.

(Incidentally, I should note before getting too caught up in cinematic concerns that many of these works delight on purely documentary terms. Eastern Valley’s tale of self-sufficiency in a Welsh town seemingly crippled by unemployment is as good an example as any of the fact that these films do fascinate on their most essential terms: ie, documenting fact.)

Yet whilst the overriding sensation when making your way through Land of Promise is to compare and contrast, thus building up the bigger picture, distinctive one-offs do remain. Farewell Topsails, already mentioned, offers an early experiment in colour photography. Chasing the Blues combines jazz, dance, animation and optical effects to advertise the improvements undergone within the UK’s cotton mills – unsurprisingly co-director Jack Ellitt had served under Len Lye a decade previous. And then there’s People of Britain, a pithy three-minute piece crisply edited and staunchly anti-war. The impact from a present day perspective comes from the fact that we’re watching an anti-war made in 1936. We may be well versed in those promptly by conflicts in Vietnam or Iran, but this one comes across as a genuine rarity. Indeed, many of the titles in the collection are just that.

Of course, an overview such as this one can only sketch in some of the pleasures, which this set so amply provides. Associations and connections readily and continually bounce off each other whilst watching Land of Promise – and so it is that you must really check it out for yourselves. Likewise, the collection itself can provide only an overview. The two decades did, of course, produce many more documentaries than the 40 contained within, which is why this should be viewed as a starting point rather than the definitive article. Hopefully, its true success will lie in leading others to seek out those minor labels who are toiling away on their own similar, albeit smaller-scale, projects and also to prompt further releases of this nature: compilations dedicated to specific themes, filmmakers and film units, thereby allowing these neglected names and titles the recognition they’ve always deserved.

The Discs

As the booklet notes on its final pages, all of the films present have been treated to new digital transfers. Of course, age and rarity play a major factor in their presentation, but on the whole the results are very pleasing indeed. Look behind the intermittent damage and occasional soundtrack hiss and you’ll be surprised at just how well many of these titles come across. Importantly, it isn’t simply the better known titles which get the grand treatment. Five and Under, for example, looks and sounds really quite terrific for a film made in 1941, especially one effectively unknown until this release. As with the vast majority, there’s a genuine crispness to both soundtrack and image – so much so that any flaws inherent in their production (and these are most apparent on the former) really do stand out. As you’d expect original aspect ratios are adhered to as are the mono recordings. All told, these really are as good as you’d expect.

Land of Promise also finds the room for two very welcome extras. The first is John Grierson, a British Film Institute production from 1959 which records an NFT talk he gave the same year to coincide with their ’30 Years of British Documentary’ retrospective. 13-minutes in length, it’s a straightforward piece capturing Grierson on-stage and nothing else. He offers up his own history and context of the documentary movement at the time, making special note of Housing Problems, the influence of dadaism and James Joyce, and splitting his fellow filmmakers up into four categories: the poetic, the journalistic, the editorial and the dramatic. Needless to say, Land of Promise offers up succinct demonstration of this split.

The second piece has been made especially for the collection, the 46-minute Close-Up: Recollections of British Documentary. Interviewing Pat Jackson, Paul Dickson, Peters Bradford and Pickering, Wolfgang Suschitzky and Sylvia Bradford, it allows each to recall how they become involved in filmmaking, their thoughts on documentary and its purpose, and their own personal reminiscences on the clashes in personalities and specific productions. This latter element is particularly welcome given that its the minor titles which get the focus: Builders, Transport, the Mining Review newsreels.

Rounding off the package we also have an 96-page booklet, though book would perhaps serve as a better description. Combining contextualising articles, discussions of every title, and potted biographies of the key figures, it’s a wonderful addition and provides an excellent all-round view of the movement and its achievements. From production histories and political leanings to audience reactions and factual tidbits, this really is a goldmine of information.

It should also be noted that hard of hearing English subtitles are available on all of the discs' contents, extras included.


Disc One
Industrial Britain (Robert Flaherty, 1931)
Shipyard (Paul Rotha, 1935)
Workers and Jobs (Arthur Elton, 1935)
Housing Problems (Arthur Elton & Edgar Anstey, 1935)
Children at School (Basil Wright, 1937)
Farewell Topsails (Humphrey Jennings, 1937)
To-Day We Live (Ruby Grierson & Ralph Bond, 1937)
Eastern Valley (Donald Alexander, 1937)
People of Britain (Paul Rotha, 1936)
If War Should Come (GPO Film Unit, 1939)

Disc Two
Britain At Bay (Harry Watt, 1940)
Transfer of Skill (Geoffrey Bell, 1940)
They Also Serve (Ruby Grierson, 1940)
Tomorrow is Theirs (James Carr, 1940)
Words for Battle (Humphrey Jennings, 1941)
Ordinary People (Jack Lee & JB Holmes, 1941)
Five and Under (Donald Alexander, 1941)
Night Shift (JD Chambers, 1942)
The Countrywomen (John Page, 1942)
Summer on the Farm (Ralph Keene, 1943)
Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister, 1942)
Builders (Pat Jackson, 1942)
Words and Actions (Maxwell Anderson, 1943)
A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1946)

Disc Three
Land of Promise (Paul Rotha, 1946)
The Balance (Paul Rotha, 1947)
What a Life (Michael Law, 1948)
The Dim Little Island (Humphrey Jennings, 1948)
Britain Can Make It (No 1) (Francis Gysin, 1946)
Fenlands (Ken Annakin, 1945)
Children’s Charter (Gerard Bryant, 1945)
Chasing the Blues (JD Chambers & Jack Ellitt, 1947)
Cotton Come Back (Donald Alexander, 1946)
Five Towns (Terry Bishop, 1947)

Disc Four
A Plan to Work On (Kay Mander, 1948)
Mining Review 2nd Year No 11 (Peter Pickering, 1949)
From the Ground Up (Crown Film Unit, 1950)
Transport (Peter Bradford, 1950)
The Undefeated (Paul Dickson, 1950)
Family Portrait (Humphrey Jennings, 1950)

10 out of 10
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