Fishermen at War: Atlantic Trawler & Other Rarities Review

During the war years it is estimated that the Ministry of Information commissioned over 1400 short films for propaganda purposes. The high figure is explained in part owing to the fact that many of these titles were extremely short in length (under five minutes). Nonetheless the range was extremely wide, encompassing everything from newsreels and training films to demonstrations of the various services at work and recommendations for housewives with regards to healthy eating and the like. Similarly the range of filmmakers involved was equally broad thanks to the involvement of not simply various independent production units, but also the bigger studios (Ealing for one) and, of course, the GPO (subsequently Crown) Film Unit. Thus key documentary players such as Humphrey Jennings were heavily involved, but so too were directors and producers better known for their features: the Boulting brothers, Carol Reed, Thorold Dickinson, etc. Furthermore various popular stars were brought in, meaning you could find the likes of Tommy Trinder extolling the virtues of community restaurants or Will Hay comically demonstrating how not to deal with fire bombs.

The release of World War II propaganda films onto DVD has tended towards themed collections and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a predominant focus on the better-known works or those with possible crossover appeal thanks to their ‘name’ connections. As such Eating Out with Tommy Trinder is easily available and so too is the Will Hay short, Go to Blazes. Likewise the/ Crown Film Unit’s features and featurettes are mostly present on disc, as are the award-winning documentaries (Desert Victory and The True Glory, for example, both of which picked up Oscars), the vast majority of Jennings’ wartime propaganda pieces and so forth. Indeed, the perfect demonstration of this availability comes in the amount of crossover between the three key British distributors of these films: the British Film Institute, DD Video (through their ‘Imperial War Museum: The Official Collection’ strand) and Panamint Cinema. You’ll find, for example, 1941’s Steel Goes to Sea on both DD’s Shipyards and Docklands at War compilation and the BFI’s Tales from the Shipyard set. Or there’s Jennings’ much anthologised “Fires Were Started” on various discs including the BFI’s forthcoming definitive collection dedicated to the director. Panamint Cinema’s various GPO collections - for some time the only way to see these films on VHS or DVD - have similarly been surpassed by more lavish and comprehensive BFI boxed-sets. It ultimately doesn’t really matter which of these various releases you go for in the majority of cases - the presentation quality is generally identical between the sets - as the most important factor remains that they’re readily available in the first place.

When placed alongside that approximate figure of 1400 films, however, you realise that the key titles represent only the tiniest of percentages. Few would question the quality of Jennings’ Listen to Britain, say, or Harry Watt’s The Front Line and therefore their presence on a number of discs and compilations. But it does leave a massive portion of propaganda shorts ripe for rediscovery - and it is here where discs such as Panamint Cinema’s Fishermen at War, which is gaining a re-release next week, come in. As the title makes clear it’s another themed collection, albeit one that focuses on the lesser-known and the lesser-seen. Here we find four shorts, made between 1940 and 1944, which manage to cover a range of the different non-fiction techniques employed during the war years, and contain one particular short which really does deserve to rank alongside the very best of this period’s documentary output.

The four films in question are Sailors without Uniform from 1940, a newsreel entitled Fishermen in Exile that was sponsored by the Netherland Government Bureau, and two dramatised documentaries, Atlantic Trawler and Merchant Seamen. The first is a paean to “the strength of British fishermen”, very much a straightforward documentary that makes do with library music and a commentary that rattles through the salient points at a rapid fire speed. It was produced and directed by Ivan Scott, whose few film credits operated along similar lines: brisk newsreel-alike docs, brief in running time and to the point. The most interesting element is the manner in which it barely acknowledges the war until the very final stages of its scant nine-minute duration. For the most part it is simply about demonstrating the work these men do, how tough that work is and the importance of passing down their skills and traditions from generation to generation. They are presented as men’s men which only serves to up the patriotic element, emphasised by their manning of lifeboats during downtime or serving as Navy reservists. Indeed, as portrayed here they are doing their utmost to serve the country, both by feeding the nation with their catch and by pledging their boats and more able men to the services, whilst even those who don’t enlist are risking their lives daily as they fish in waters riddled with mines and other dangers.

Fishermen in Exile works alongside similar lines, albeit from a Dutch perspective. Here we learn how those who escaped German occupation, or were even out fishing when that occupation took place, fled to British shores and became part of the war effort. As with the men in Sailors without Uniform the emphasis is once more on the hard work and its perilous nature. Meanwhile the film itself again makes a gradual shift of focus from the general labour of the fishermen to more overt mention of the war. Yet any sense of repetition is swiftly curtailed owing to the Dutch element, a rare topic amongst propaganda shorts whether they relate to the fishing communities or not. And this rarity is shared by the film itself; I could find no entry for it in various reference books or online databases making its inclusion here all the more intriguing.

In contrast to the newsreel approach adopted by Sailors without Uniform and Fishermen in Exile, the latter two shorts favour a drama-documentary telling as per the Crown Film Unit’s features Western Approaches, “Fires Were Started” and Close Quarters. (Hardly surprising in Merchant Seamen’s case given it was a Crown production itself.) In other words the various onscreen characters are played by their real life equivalents, namely genuine fishermen and servicemen. With it comes a certain amount of grit and it’s true that many propaganda films made during WWII seemed to get away with a lot more than their commercial counterparts. (Two examples: the fierce anger and passion that drives Dylan Thomas’ These Are the Men, quite unlike anything else in British cinema at the time; the tough edges and tougher dialogue that occupy John Eldridge’s dramatised Tank Patrol, more akin to war film from the 1960s than those of the early 1940s.) In Atlantic Trawler this comes through in the earthy, honest language all rendered in accents that provide stark contrast to the narrator’s ‘proper’ tones. A particular highlight is “Good God it’s payday - the only day of the week women remember”, though such sentiments extend to the trawler herself. The acknowledgement that the titular ship is in poor condition and would be scrapped if the war wasn’t on (the better vessels having been pledged to the Navy) is a little surprising to hear, but then it’s this kind of honest representation which allows Atlantic Trawler to really come alive. The starkest moment comes courtesy of the closing which informs us that the trawler and all of its men (a different crew to those who appeared in the film) were lost during its next outing. This constant threat of potentially lethal attack is acknowledged in each of Fishermen at War’s inclusions, though is arguably at its strongest here given the company we’ve spent on the ship; that final title is more direct, and therefore more affecting, as a result.

Part of the quality behind Atlantic Trawler was no doubt down to those working behind the camera. The film was produced by Realist, one of the unsung production companies that operated from the 1930s to the 1970s and was responsible for a number of excellent documentaries, both during the war years and afterwards. (Their work has been much anthologised over various BFI, IWM and Panamint Cinema releases.) Frank Sainsbury directed, another prolific maker of non-fiction, and John Taylor was the producer. Taylor is another who deserves to be better known amongst British filmmakers, his career encompassing so many touchstones of British documentary: his sister married John Grierson; he started out at the GPO Film Unit; he photographed Housing Problems for Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton; he collaborated with Leon Clore, most notably on The Conquest of Everest; he director or produced many of British Transport Films’ best loved works, including the Oscar-winning Wild Wings; and he was involved in another Oscar-winner, Terry Bishop’s Daybreak in Udi from 1949. The qualities inherent in many of these films are present in Atlantic Trawler too, confirming that Taylor’s name really should be synonymous with first class documentary filmmaking. Special mention should also be made of William Alwyn’s score, one that really heightens the drama much as he would do in many a non-fiction work (“Fires Were Started”, The True Glory) and feature (Mandy, The Crimson Pirate). In fact his subsequent work in narrative cinema has somewhat overshadowed his earlier contributions although, once again, plenty of examples are out there on disc - simply check through various BFI, IWM and Panamint Cinema back catalogues to discover Land of Promise, The Crown of the Year, The Pattern of Britain, Steel Goes to Sea and so on.

Merchant Seamen’s approach, though ostensibly similar to that Atlantic Trawler, is far more geared towards the crowd-pleaser and perhaps even the ‘boys’ own’ adventure. The basic story is that of a group of fishermen who come under attack and lose their ship. The youngest, appropriately named Nipper, promises to “give Gerry hell” when he gets out of hospital and so enlists on a gunnery course. The aim of Merchant Seaman is clearly to promote such courses - the dialogue is such that it includes various educational titbits relating to who can partake and how long it will take - though this doesn’t prevent the film from delivering a happy ending: Nipper gets his revenge and blows up a U-boat. We also get that same slightly gritty edge coming through thanks to the rough performances from the non-professionals (we’re informed that even the narrator is a serviceman) and their semi-improvised dialogue full of banter and asides.

As with Atlantic Trawler there’s also a lot of quality behind the camera. The production unit in this instance was Crown, the cinematographer was Ralph Elton (who’d previously director the highly regarded The City for the GPO Film Unit) and in the director’s chair we find J.B. Holmes. Holmes is another of those figures, much like John Taylor, who seemingly came into contact with most areas of British documentary filmmaking. He worked for Realist, British Transport Films, the Children’s Film Foundation and on numerous sponsored industrial docs, interacting with various other key players throughout his career. In 1949 he made The People at No. 19, another educational piece in the guise of drama, here highlighting the dangers of VD. If you’ve had chance to see it - the film can be found on the BFI’s The Birds and the Bees compilation as well as appearing as an extra on their That Kind of Girl Blu/DVD - then you’ll recognise Holmes’ ability to produce a tight narrative without losing sight of the ‘message’. And this is exactly what comes through in Merchant Seamen: it’s unfussy, to the point and doesn’t neglect to be entertaining.

In sum Fishermen at War’s inclusions make up for a worthy quartet, four films that demonstrate various differing aspects and qualities of war-era British documentary despite their shared theme. We have the newsreel and the dramatised documentary; we have independent productions and one from the Crown Film Unit, the key producer of wartime propaganda; we have simple paeans to work and tough acknowledgements of the dangers these men faced. There are also some major talents involved - Alwyn, Taylor, Holmes - and, at the same time, some genuine rarities. The same is true of many of these non-fiction compilations, whether it be those from Panamint Cinema’s ‘40s Britain’ range, as is the case here, or those produced by the Imperial War Museum or the BFI. The latter are arguably the better known and more commonly celebrated releases, yet the sheer amount of British documentaries produced during the war years and beyond is such that, for those interested in this area of filmmaking, any new collection should be considered, at best, essential and at the very least undoubtedly worth a look. Indeed, if you’ve sampled and enjoyed, for example, the BFI’s GPO volumes or their Land of Promise boxed-set, then rest assured that there are plenty more discoveries to be made.


Fishermen at War is gaining a re-release on April 25th having first been issued in 2006. The disc itself remains identical, in other words the four films occupying a single DVD encoded for Region 0 PAL. As is common with the wartime shorts of this vintage, the quality isn’t exceptional nor will it ever likely be. Dirt and damage are visible in places and the soundtracks suffer from background hiss and slight distortion on sibilance. Nevertheless original aspect ratios and soundtrack formats are maintained (Academy and mono in each case) and you would certainly avoid describing any of the shorts as unwatchable. Atlantic Trawler comes off the best - a happy coincidence considering it is the finest of the films on offer - whilst Merchant Seamen unfortunately fares the worse. In this instance the image is soft and the soundtrack is hampered by a number of problems, most notably an intermittent clicking noise. The film was also featured on DD Video’s Protect the Convey collection, as part of their IWM range, and was taken from a superior print, although one you still wouldn’t describe as perfect. With that said the other three titles are currently unavailable anywhere else and, in all honesty, Atlantic Trawler justifies a purchase on its own. Note, however, that optional subtitles (for the hard of hearing or otherwise) are not available, and the same is also true of any special features.

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