The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready Review
I’ve noted in previous reviews of the BFI’s documentary releases as to how the various sets have a tendency to interact. Some of course, such as the British Transport Films and GPO Film Unit compilations, came in a series of volumes and so the interconnections were already blatantly apparent. Yet the range of discs available thus far has allowed for some of the bigger pictures to emerge. We can trace the careers of certain filmmakers and practitioners across a number of years, for example, noting how a figure such as Wolfgang Suschitzky came into contact with Paul Rotha, Kay Mander, the National Coal Board Film Unit, Geoffrey Jones, the Central Office of Information and the ‘Free Cinema’ movement prior to work in feature film production. No longer is his presence as director of photography on Theatre of Blood or Get Carter likely to be amongst his sole known credits; now we can witness entries into the larger, arguably more important, part of his lengthy filmography. Similarly, a lesser heralded filmmaker such as Mary Field, a key member of the team behind the Secrets of Nature series of documentaries (also released onto DVD this week by the BFI), can crop up in some unexpected places. In this case on the two-disc The Joy of Sex Education set courtesy of her 1932 short The Mystery of Marriage as well as The Road of Health, a 1938 documentary on which she served as adviser, thereby allowing a peak into her subsequent endeavours. And of course, the various accompanying booklets (in some cases we should perhaps say books given their length and depth) allow us to further place such names - and film units - within the wider context.
With these various interactions going on, it is tempting to see They Stand Ready as not simply the third instalment in the BFI’s series of Central Office of Information volumes, but also part of a much bigger narrative. Indeed, it could also serve as a sequel to another volume three, namely If War Should Come, the final compilation in the BFI’s set of GPO Film Unit dedicated releases. That volume focussed on the early years of the Second World War from a ‘home front’ perspective; here we follow that collective story from the immediate post-war years through to the mid-eighties, though of course the main focus is a different one. The role of these documentaries is no longer propaganda per se so much as it is public relations. Most dominant amongst this collection of 23 shorts is the recruitment film, setting its sights on the nation’s youths across the decades with the aim of getting them to enlist, whether it be the army, navy or air force, whether they be male or female.
The fact that so many of these films serve as advertisements for the armed forces has an interesting cumulative effect. Notably it demonstrates just how much of the COI’s military-related output was focussed in this direction; with the overall remit being to present the Army, Navy and RAF in a positive light, there is little, if any chance of addressing the varying issues that arise from warfare in a complex manner. This is not meant to criticise, merely to acknowledge. Indeed, whilst mention is made in various shorts (depending on their time of production) to Korea, Malaya, Tripoli, Gibraltar, the Far East and South Yemen, it is primarily from an almost touristic viewpoint. Aerial shots of these ‘exotic’ locales are commonplace, with added emphasis on the off-duty leisure activities they provide. Only Suez gets some perspective (appropriately enough in a documentary entitled Suez in Perspective), although here the PR element is just as visible. Made as an exercise in damage limitation following criticism of British involvement, it is also the most propagandist of the shorts assembled on this volume. No doubt as a means of acknowledging such a tone, the BFI have also programmed a companion non-COI film, Egypt Today: The Anglo-French Aggression Against Egypt, which does much the same from the opposite side and thus provides a corrective balance (though the truth, of course, lies somewhere in-between).
Those touristic aerial shots, meanwhile, are just one of a number of stylistic tics that become apparent as progress is made through They Stand Ready’s shorts. Whilst the various recruitment films may differ marginally in approach and technique - Eagles of the Fleet from 1950 has Sir Ralph Richardson providing the commentary, whereas 1971’s Best of Both Worlds goes for a more informal, banter-ish voice-over - the overall delivery is surprisingly constant. The common method is to emphasise the qualities a life in the military will provide (as Men of the World puts it: “Discipline, measure, self-control.”), to iterate reassurances that this life is for you (most notable in the short from which this volume gains its title and its references to the attitudes many have, or rather had, towards National Service), to demonstrate the fun side of things (the female-focussed docs have a tendency towards living quarters and comfort, the male-orientated ones on the other hand lean towards outdoor activities, although both feature a surprising amount of dancing), and, of course, to demonstrate the actual military activity, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the job.
It is this latter element, more often than not delivered as a set piece, that proves the most interesting. It is here where the attitudes of the time, and indeed the changing attitudes, become most pronounced. Winged Horizons, a promo piece for WRAF, centres its attentions on jobs “women do better”; this kind of off-hand, casual misogyny being a common aspect in the female-orientated pieces and, of course, a reflection of the times. The male-aimed documentaries similarly serve as time capsules, demonstrating, for example, a gradual move towards techno-fetishism and away from more innocent values. 1964’s Ten Foot Tall places its emphasis on becoming an adult and taking responsibility; 1985’s Tornado Trailer is effectively a two-minute cut-price Top Gun, ogling its various aircraft to a synthesiser score. Another early short, 1959’s Military Policeman attempts to attract its youthful audience with promises of photography and detective work - all rather quaint compared to the more testosterone fuelled efforts of twenty years later.
More importantly, these set pieces go some way in masking the genuine risk and danger of a life in the military. Just like the British Transport Films, in which the trains always ran on time and jobs were completed with minimal fuss and delay, so too these COI films present a world that is almost too perfect. It is only by reading between the lines or looking at the wider context that such elements can slip through. The presence of HMS Sheffield, a promo piece from 1975, is a case in point. Seven years later the missile destroyer was hit in an Argentine attack during the Falklands conflict resulting in twenty deaths. The result, in terms of this documentary, was a withdrawal from the COI’s film library as it would have been inappropriate to screen it at schools and the like under such circumstances. Of course, given the COI’s remit they could never engage with the Falklands in any kind of complex fashion, and so HMS Sheffield becomes this volume’s acknowledgement of the conflict, albeit in the necessary back-handed fashion.
What such examples will hopefully demonstrate is that They Stand Ready is, as with the previous COI compilations, far greater than the sum of it parts. Whilst on paper a two-disc, four-hour-plus collection of, primarily, recruitment films may sound rather limited, especially in contrast to those earlier sets and their more wide-ranging approaches to crime and punishment (Volume One: Police and Thieves) and architecture, design and fashion (Volume Two: Design for Today) respectively, this collection nonetheless manages to fascinate on a number of levels. Whether you take these films as capsule reflections of the times and attitudes, as examples of government-endorsed filmmaking, simply as documentaries, or as pieces of military history, there once again is much to enjoy and engage with. Just as the numerous British Transport Films discs broke out of the ‘trainspotter’ ghetto and proved a surprise success for the BFI, so too They Stand Ready deserves a wider audience than the military enthusiasts, or rather, as the booklet puts it, the “guns ’n’ ammo” enthusiasts.
Maintaining the standards of the previous COI volumes, and indeed the BFI’s British documentary releases as a whole, They Stand Ready presents its collection of 23 shorts in as good a fashion as could be expected. Both discs (each with a running time of just over two hours) are dual-layered whilst the films come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios and mono soundtracks. Moderate damage is apparent on certain titles from time to time, and of course we must bear in mind the various film stocks and filming conditions over the years, but on the whole these films really do look good. Ten Foot Tall, shot in colour, for example, positively glows on the screen - spotless, excellent detail, crisp colours, impressive in every way. It should also be noted that optional subtitling, for the hard of hearing, is available on each of the shorts. As for extras, the only on-disc addition is the already noted Egypt Today short. However, as has now become common practice for the BFI, we also find a lengthy booklet (in this case, 36 pages worth) full of information. As well as the expected full credits and various stills, we also get in-depth discussion of each title providing the requisite history and context, both in military and cinematic terms.
Victory Parade (1946)
Men of the World (1950, d. Ronald Clark)
Eagles of the Fleet (1950, d. Cyril Frankel)
Out of the Groove (1950)
They Stand Ready (1955, d. A. Frank Bundy)
Suez in Perspective (1957)
Musicians in the Making (1958)
Military Policeman (1961)
Ten Foot Tall (1964, d. Joe Mendoza)
Winged Horizons (1965, d. Michael Gordon)
Voyage North (1965, d. Anthony Pélissier)
Routine Adventure (1965, d. Peter Broderick)
Army Summer of 1968 (1968)
Exercise Enterprise (1968)
Best of Both Worlds (1971, d. Robert Kitts)
Community Relations Officer (1974)
When You Wake Up (1974, d. James Allen)
Ark Royal (c1970)
HMS Sheffield (1975, d. Clive Mitchell)
Tornado Trailer (1985)
Royal Navy Amazon (c1980)
Tornado (1985, d. Claude Whatham)