shrbw

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Reviews

The Last Machine
(1995)

Classic Essays on Early Cinema
This television series deserves to be more widely known. Apart from the first episode, which deals with the antecedents of cinema and the early inventors and their surviving films, the majority deal with specific themes. Each was fronted by Terry Gilliam, assisted by a number of actors portraying a variety of scenes and events, in addition to the films themselves (which are all titled with date of production and director).

The whole series is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it adopts a truly international approach to the subject, instead of the usual focus upon American developments. Secondly, it places the development of cinema within a social and cultural context, with comments from thinkers as diverse as Freud and H.G. Wells. Thirdly, the sheer range of types of cinema is amazing....the first filmed surgical operation, early erotic/pornographic films, and issues of authenticity in reportage (the Boxer Rebellion filmed in Hove!)

If not already available, the series ought to be issued in DVD for both students and the interested general public.

Manhunt
(1969)

Resistance and Reality
Prior to 'Manhunt', the majority of films about the French Resistance, certainly in Britain and America, were very simplistic boy's own adventure stuff about plucky men (and sometimes women), with little exploration of the issues relating to collaboration and resistance. 'Manhunt' changed all that.

Of course, it helped that it had literate scripts, fascinating characters, and superb performances. It was an instant T.V. 'hit'. But it was a superb history lesson. It showed the resistance movement as a collection of individuals with a variety of motives - Communists, Gaullists, evaders from labour service, and people with personal motives. They distrusted each other sometimes, and saw other groups as rivals. Similarly, the Germans were not monolithic. The S.S. and Gestapo hated the Abwere, and vice versa.

The most interesting character was Graz, the Abwhere intelligence officer, for he was on the fringe of the anti-Nazi resistance movement.

Consequently, you never really knew what happened from one episode to the next. That was what made it so exciting and watchable.

The series proved so popular that it was extended beyond the anticipated number of episodes.

In many ways 'Manhunt' prefigures themes in 'Army of Shadows' and 'Soldier of Orange'.

No Bananas
(1996)

"Much in Little"
It was a T.V. series, not a big budget film, but you wouldn't think that once you have started to watch it. The episodes manage to cram in so much, and range so far and wide, that you really get the impression of a country at war at a variety of levels.

A literate script deals with the different aspects of the story lines with economy and fluency. Care is taken to create a period atmosphere that looks authentic, there is good characterisation (even the fascist sympathiser is seen as a well rounded person with his own motives), and excellent acting......but it doesn't stop there.

The Dunkirk episode manages to create an evocation of a mighty event so successfully, and on such a limited budget, that it bears comparison with the sequence in Atonement.

One of the best things that British television has produced in recent years.

The Wicker Man
(2006)

Gutted Fish
So what did I make of the latest effort? It reminded me of a fish.....a fish out of water. To extend the comparison, it was like a gutted fish, though one that was trying to give the odd twitch of life now and again.

So what was missing? Context for the most part. Who were these people? What made them tick? We don't really know. If it is a fertility cult, there is (unlike the original), little exploration of this issue. That film was not sexually explicit, but it was shot through with innuendo and reference. This one isn't. So we have a fertility cult that is seemingly lobotomised. Was this a studio requirement?

Another odd thing. There's no music. The other film used music to set the scene. Here we have a pagan Celtic community in which music plays little or no part in their lives or rituals..

What else? Interesting characters, for a start. The protagonist was so flat that one didn't really care much about him. In fact, all the characters seemed to have but one dimension. It reminded me very much of one of those American 'made for TV' supernatural thrillers of the 1960s, with little exploration of anything beyond the plot line.

Ah....the plot. The following may include spoilers, if you care about such things. There is a mysterious car crash that may or may not have been engineered as part of a plot to lure the victim to the island. Fine. But the writers don't know how to capitalise upon it, so we get irritating flashbacks from time to time that add little or nothing to plot development or the build up of tension. Tension? Well, not as far as I was concerned, because there wasn't really any.

The only real question that anyone might ask is 'does he burn too'? Yes he does......but like an old curmudgeon, by this time I found myself saying 'thank god for that'!

The only twist to the plot is the revelation that the sacrificial victim has been long in the planning stage. It seems that his original girlfriend seduced him for the purpose of having his child before decamping to her island home. He later discovers (while on the island) that the missing child is his......not that it makes much difference to the acting.

And after a few months have passed since the burning, another emissary of the island cult is picking up another police cadet in a bar on the mainland......

I left the cinema pondering these questions. These people need a sacrificial victim as a sacrifice necessitated by crop failure. Fine. But he has been earmarked nearly a decade in advance. Do they have a long range forecasting facility? And then they are at it again.... Wait a minute! They obviously have a string of potential sacrificial victims that they keep in reserve against natural disasters. But if that is so, why do they all seem to be policemen? I mean, you would think the local forces would have noticed...

La Marseillaise
(1938)

The Country is in Danger!
This film, despite being directed by Renoir, is largely forgotten today. This is a pity, as there are few films actually about the French Revolution (though it is used as a backdrop for a variety of plot lines), and none that really deal with the birth of the Republic.

It was made at the tail end of the 'Popular Front' government, a coalition of parties (including the communists) formed to protect the Third Republic from right-wing domestic subversion and the baleful influence of the Nazis.

It chose to use the early years of the revolution as a metaphor for this political situation - France was still a (constitutional) monarchy, and the King possessed the power of a constitutional veto. The Queen and her circle were said to be plotting a counter revolution.

Within this context, each city and region of France is requested to send a Battalion to Paris, to defend the government against its domestic enemies. We follow the adventures of some of the ordinary men in the battalion from Marseilles (who sing a new song called the "Marseilles" as they march. We see their experiences in Paris (including a love interest), and their simple and honest defence of what they believe in. Finally, they participate in the coup that leads to the establishment of the Republic and the arrest of the King.

The film is episodic, and some of the scenes are a little melodramatic. But the characterisation is excellent. The King and his court are not one-dimensional villains. The scene of his departure is quite moving.

In short, a film well worth rescuing from obscurity.

The Struggles for Poland
(1987)

A Definitive History of Modern Poland
This mini series appeared at the right time - on the eve of the events that led to the collapse of the 'iron curtain' and at a time when the eyes of the world were focussed upon Poland. However, it was not a 'run of the mill' journalistic exercise. Instead, it attempted to tell the story of Poland in modern times - from a political, economic, and cultural point of view.

The script did the subject full justice. Episodes dealt with the growth of nationalism prior to 1914; the impact of the Great War and the birth of Polish independence; political and cultural life in the interwar period (including the differing roles of Pilsudski and Dmowski); the conflicting currents in the Jewish Community; the Second World War from the international point of view (including the saga of the Anders army) and the resistance movement; the communist takeover and Stalinism; the events of 1956 and the Gomulka era; and the general unravelling of the communist regime.

All this was covered by a lucid commentary and illustrated by a variety of film, some of it rather rare (material shot by Swedish journalists of anti communist protests and riots, for example). All manner of witnesses to historical events were interviewed, ranging from someone who fought in the Silesian border war to ex communist apparatchicks.

Sometimes, points were made in an interesting way - the boredom and claustrophobia of the later Gomulka regime illustrated by excerpts of Cybulski in 'Salto', and the use of popular song, cinema, and avant-gard poetry the inter-war episode. Indeed, the entire series is littered with poetry extracts, music, and excerpts from Polish feature films.

Anyone who wants to understand modern Poland must surely see this!

Radisson
(1957)

A Documentary Style Western
As a child, this television series fascinated me. It was, in essence, a western, but it was unlike any other example of the genre on television at the time. It was not so much that it was set in Canada in the eighteenth century (when it was a French colony), though that was interesting. For it was the approach to the story lines that made it stand out - a drama documentary approach that employed, from time to time, a narrator. (Of course, the episodes were based on real events, and the principal characters were historical personages.)

The majority of episodes were about incidents in exploration, and relations with the indian tribes. Interestingly enough, the details of everyday life were sometimes dealt with at length, including the construction of a winter shelter, hunting beaver, and the navigation of the great rivers by canoe.

Indeed, the series had some superb outdoor photography. It all seemed to be more realistic than offerings like 'Gunsmoke', which seemed very much rooted in the studio. (Where the characters seemed to spend most of their time in the marshal's office or the town saloon.)

To Kill a King
(2003)

Puritan Turkey
Although it presents endless possibilities for costume, action, and worthy 'English' performances, the English Civil War is not a fertile inspiration for films. It has, of course, featured as wallpaper in the 'bodice ripping' genre -'The Scarlet Blade' and 'The Moonraker'come to mind. It also provided the context for the excellent 'Witchfinder General', and the little known and undervalued 'Winstanley'. But there is only one film that comes anywhere near depicting the great and complex panoramic sweep of this period - 'Cromwell'.

I have to tell you that there still is.....for 'To Kill a King' corresponds to that animal most associated with the Puritans across the Atlantic. In short, it's a turkey. Oh, it could have amounted to something, for the ingredients are there if you look hard enough. But it would have helped if the scriptwriters and the director took time out to...well...read a history book.

Now, at this very moment, no doubt, dozens of people will immediately jump out of the woodwork and say 'but it's meant to be entertainment, not a historical documentary!' True enough, and as the credits say at the end, certain events have been altered for dramatic effect. I've no argument with that. If it had kept some sense of proportion, as in 'Michael Collins' (or 'Cromwell' for that matter) I would rest easy. But this film throws out the baby with the bathwater.

The whole of the civil war is reduced to a backdrop for an angst-ridden relationship. There is absolutely no-one else (apart from a pantomine villain) on the whole parliamentarian side, save Cromwell and Fairfax. It's like a seventeenth century version of Cameron's 'Titanic' without the special effects. The mutinous army? The Leveller 'agitators'? The Independent leaders? Not a sign of them! No, Cromwell and Fairfax call all the shots, have the king arrrested etc. etc.

Ah, you say, but that clears the ground for some fine characterisation and acting. Well....not really. You see, the characters of Cromwell and Charles I are absolutely fascinating, and we know so much about them from contemporary sources. In fact, much more interesting than what we get on the screen. The man who desperately wanted a constitutional settlement with the king; who was tolerant of divergent views; and ended up using the army to curb the tyrannical tendencies of the Presbyterian faction of Parliament (an amazing irony, if ever there was one), is depicted as a kind of seventeenth century Trotskyite, the kind of person trying to sell you 'Socialist Worker', complete with the glazed eyes. The man who was devoted to his family, liked music, and loved practical jokes, is played as a humourlous monomaniac. In short, Tim Roth's Cromwell verges on charicature.(At one point, I thought that he had turned into Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name', but it could have been the hat.)

Dougray Scott, as Fairfax, is the best thing in it - at least he seems half way believable (though not as a Yorkshireman). Charles I is something else. The real one was refined, courteous, and chaste. Presumably, Rupert Everett must have realised this, as it is evident that he put some time in watching the superb performance by Alec Guiness. (You can almost hear him thinking...'oh..it's about time that I stuttered again!') However this Charles is without charm - slapping his guard, sneering, and flirting with Fairfax's wife.... And then there is Denzil Holles. James Bolan does not appear that enthusiatic - in fact, he almost telephones his lines in.

On a positive note, the film has some moments that are unintentially hilarious. Charles accompanies Mrs. Fairfax on the virginals(?) as she gives a rendering of 'It was a Lover and His Lass'. Cromwell bursts in and starts heaving the furniture around just as they get to the 'hey nonny noes'. We later cut to the Tower of London for some curiously linked vignettes. After a torture session, one of Cromwell's guards hacks off a head for his master's delectation. Charles's Death Warrant is being signed before the trial by this evil lot. All this is done to the accompaniment of a choir of black gowned puritans chanting....no, not a jingle for Quaker Oats, but some strange dirge that is meant to symbolise ascetic intolerance. Yes, folks, nearly all the parliamentarians are sponsored by the breakfast food. Not only is this costume inaccurate, but it's slipshod and boring. After a reconciliation invoving some male bonding, Cromwell suggests Fairfax join him in invading Scotland in the same tone that a mate might propose calling for a curry after the pub shuts.

What else? Did you know that Cromwell pistolled street vendors of Charles I memorabilia? That he wasn't really a General until the war was over?

I'm not really sure who, exactly,this film is aimed at. It won't have the resonance of hokum like 'Braveheart' or 'The Patriot', for the text exposition at the start curves across the screen like battlesmoke. It doesn't have much in the way of action or sex. There aren't any fine dramatic performances. So what on earth were they trying to do?

Churchill's People
(1974)

A Curious Historical Series that Flopped.
The concept of producing a series of short dramas linked to the framework of Winston Churchill's 'History of the Engish Speaking Peoples' probably seemed a good idea at the time. Each episode commenced with a short introduction to the historical topic, as if it was a reading from the book, fixing the context of the drama that was to follow. Unfortunately, each episode was scripted by a different author, and budget constraints meant that the production values usually left a great deal to be desired. The result was a very mixed bag - you never knew what you were getting.

Some episodes were unbelievably bad or unintentionally funny. Others did make an attempt, and a few stood out. A short play about the levellers in the English Civil War (the Burford mutiny)comes to mind, together with another taking an unusual look at the American revolution from the 'Tory' or loyalist side. Many of the prominent British TV actors of the time were cast in some odd historical roles - the sight of Arthur Lowe in a toga discussing the activities of the Picts can only be described as such.

The Captive Heart
(1946)

We all have to help each other....
The prison camp is, in many ways, a metaphor for wartime Britain and its postwar hopes and aspirations. 'All sorts and conditions of men' are herded together in the camp, and despite the underlying tension, the boredom, and the self doubts, they must try and get along with each other. Indeed, it goes far deeper than that - they must try and look out for each other and protect each other.

And so they encourage the blind lad in his efforts to learn brail and come to terms with his blindness. A young 'tearaway' (a pre-war thief)comes to realise that even he has something to contribute. As the others try and think up a way of protecting the identity of a Czech hiding amongst them, he confesses that he knows how to open a safe, and can break into the orderly office and destroy the incriminating evidence.

There are little touches of humanity in terrible situations. The order is issued to manacle the prisoners as a reprisal for some Allied slight (this actually happened), and the elderly German reservist guard tries to indicate to the blind prisoner that he is only 'obeying orders' and doesn't want to do it. The invalid wife of a prisoner is told, back in England, that it is too risky to have her husbands baby, but she sacrifices herself in the hope that he will have a child to come home too. The blind lad tries to put off his girlfriend because he doesn't want to be a burden to her.

Some people find the main plot line a little contrived, but it is fascinating to see two strangers fall in love through a pretence.

And so wartime Britain entered the postwar world with all its hopes and fears. Sadly, with no visible common enemy to unite them, many of these hopes of a common caring humanity were not to be realised.

The Adventures of Marco Polo
(1938)

Spaghetti was a Chinese invention!
This is one of the oddest films to be made in pre-war America. Gary Cooper plays the Venetian explorer, and the film opens in a Venice seemingly constructed of cardboard. Here he is pursued by his comic servant, a sort of cross between a midget and a hyperactive gondolier.

In no time at all, we are in the mysterious realm of Cathay, where the streets are exotic, but seemingly made of cardboard as well. Marco is attracted by a strange voice - these medieval Chinese (or Mongols?)speak with impeccable Oxbridge accents. And this one, oddly enough, is reading to his children on some sort of verandah facing the street. This public recitation is from the New Testament, and Marco immediately completes the phrase, as it were. The placid mandarin figure takes this in his stride, and happens to mention that he is treating his son to a crash course in both eastern and western wisdom - which is not bad for a place that has not yet been visited by a European.

Soon our Gary (er, Marco) is served a mysterious oriental dish called 'spaghet', which he thinks he will introduce to Venice when he returns.

At the royal palace (made of a superior form of cardboard), he is soon immersed in the intrigues of the court of Kublai Khan. After some swashbuckling and some overacting, he falls for a beautiful princess. Alas, she is pledged to another, but our hero is given the task of escorting her to her intended.

And so they sail away into the sunset on a large sea-going junk (!), and he states that he will at least have her to himself for the year long voyage. The film ends on this morally dubious note, and the implication is that he eventually returned with his spaghetti to Venice and opened a restaurant.

The Great War
(1964)

The definitive television series about the first worldwar.
In the early 1960's the BBC had a very talented production team that had come together to make a nightly 'magazine' feature called 'Tonight'. They somehow became part of a project to create a series about the First World War (then still known by some people as the 'Great War').

Something of this magnitude had never before been attempted in Britain. It required a great deal of painstaking research and assembling still photographs and archive film from all over the world. More to the point, at this period, a large number of the participants were still alive and could be interviewed - the series is a priceless exercise in 'oral history'.

The principal historical consultant and writer was John Terraine, the foremost military historian of the time, and Michael Redgrave was engaged to speak the narration.

The series appeared in 1964, when I saw it as a child. It was an outstanding success, and spawned a rather weaker sequel, 'The Lost Peace'.

Then, for reasons best known to themselves, the BBC sat on the tapes. Some isolated episodes were sometimes shown at the Imperial War Museum in London, but the series was largely forgotten.

However, it has recently been re-released in its entirety as five double video packs. It should not be confused with any other series of a similar title - this remains the original and the best!

The Lion Has Wings
(1939)

A period piece for aviation enthusiasts.
The Korda brothers,although expatriate Hungarians, made some of the finest British films in the thirties and forties. They managed to create films that reflected the contemporary cultural ethos (including the imperialist ethos) that the country's political establishment wanted, and it comes as no surprise that their first film after the outbreak of the Second World War should be a patriotic morale booster. Indeed, this was the first film made in Britain about the conflict that had just started.

This film was made in a great hurry, and it shows. A large part of it consists of re-used peacetime newsreel film with a special commentary. This sounds pretty dire, but some of the cutting is interesting - contrasting a Nuremburg Rally with a race meeting, and Nazi speakers with Prince Monolulu (a well known tipster)yelling "I've got a horse."

Other parts are sections from different films. Scenes from 'Fire Over England' (with Flora Robson) compares the Nazi threat with the Spanish Armada. Other footage is from a pre-war instructional film about air raid precautions, in which a mock air raid takes place.

The actors are almost superfluous, and you wonder what they are doing there. One assumes that they were thrown in as a way of appealing to the ordinary cinema audience, who might otherwise have stayed away from a totally non-fiction film.

However, it is the aviation scenes that are the main attraction. Some of them are bizarre. At this stage, there was no footage of German aircraft available, so dog fights were recreated using shots of British aircraft (including some obsolete types), and a repeated shot of a Focke Wolf airliner (!) taking off. (At least it had German markings and looked like a bomber!).

The best shots were taken at an airfield housing a Spitfire squadron. Whilst there, the film crew accidently recorded the return of a group of bombers from a raid on warships near the Kiel Canal (the first R.A.F. raid of the war, and a major headline event at the time).

Two points. Although radar had already come into use, this could not be shown. Thus, the Spitfires are scrambled on the basis of information from a spy, corroborated by sound detectors and the naked eye. And, at one point, the German bombing force are foiled by a balloon barrage!

Monique
(1970)

It's not what you think!
A new and more liberal censor was appointed in Britain in the 1960's, and one of the results was a rash of 'sexploitation' productions. (But only in the sense that they were able to show some nudity and suggest sexual activity - even by current 'soft core' standards, they were rather tame.) These films were cheap, tacky, and forgettable. But this one is different.

For a start, not only does it actually have a proper script, but the photoplay is literate and rather witty. The characters and the setting (suburbia in South East England) are believable. The acting, although not memorable, is good.

The approach is unique to the genre, in the sense that the sex is placed in some kind of context, whether it is the problematic marriage, the wife's hidden bisexuality, or the free spirited nature of the au pair. It includes a picture of ordinary family life,including the relationship between parent and child. And it appears to be the first British film to tackle the then hushed subject of 'troilism' (which was being featured in some of the tabloid papers at the time).

You will see very little sex in Monique. But you will see sexual tension that almost makes the screen crackle, genuine eroticism, and very witty observations. (All three of them are in bed, and drift into a conversation about the abstract painting on the wall. Perhaps it's hung at the wrong angle...so they all lean to one side.)

In panning the mud, a gold nugget has been found.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
(1993)

The colour matched the contents...
This show was briefly aired in parts of Britain in the 'housewives spot' (early afternoon). It seemed to have been written by a committee of 'politically correct' but talentless writers. Consequently, it was often very funny (though for all the wrong reasons).

I don't know whether it was a technical glitch, or the incompatability of two systems, but the broadcast resulted in a colour picture that was so vile that, after some time, you felt really queezy. An intentional reflection on the script, the acting, or both?

Espionage
(1963)

An underrated television series.
Quite an unusual television series for the time - a potpourri of individual dramas that were only linked by the fact that they were about spies and spying.

Some were fiction, but included interesting explorations of the theme. One, for example, was based on the British 'spies for peace' episode, in which anti-nuclear campaigners released details of government bunkers. The scripts were usually of a high quality.

Other programmes were about historical events. Although not strictly 'espionage', one dealt with the landing of Roger Casement in Ireland prior to the Easter Rising. Another was a recreation of the attempt of Dr. Johnson, no less, to thwart an American female spy in eighteenth century London!

It would be interesting to know if any of the episodes of this series survived.

The Silent Village
(1943)

A moving tribute from an amateur cast
Humphrey Jennings is always associated with the British documentary movement. Yet he was something of an outsider who never really fitted in - indeed he more or less drifted into the G.P.O Film Unit (later the Crown Film Unit) in the 1930's. He was something of an intellectual, and his real interests were literature and surrealism (he was an accomplished surrealist painter).

Consequently, he often eschewed the fashionable 'social realism' to explore the unusual and the unexpected. His films had carefully composed camera shots and subjects that were highly unorthodox.

This film was a tribute to the Czech mining village of Lidice, destroyed by the Nazis as a reprisal for the assassination of Heydrich. Jennings conceived the wonderful idea of re-enacting the episode in a Welsh mining village, as a way of bringing home to the British public the sort of thing that they were fighting against. Not only did he obtain the enthusiastic support of the villagers and the local branch of the miners' trade union, but he actually decided to employ the villagers themselves as an amateur cast. The dialogue and situations were all improvised. This is probably the first time that such a thing had been done in the British cinema.

The first half of the film is a series of scenes (without any narration) that build up a meticulous picture of life in the village in peace time. Then the film suddenly changes gear. The Nazis occupy this part of Wales. No soldiers are seen - just a menacing loudspeaker van issuing a constant stream of orders and directives.

Life becomes ever more restricted, and the villagers suddenly begin to learn the consequences of occupation. The schoolmistress tells her class that this will be the last Welsh lesson. Tomorrow, they will be forbidden to speak it. (She asks all the children not to forget their "beautiful language".)

The reprisal is then depicted, not in a sensational way, but in a series of stark images. The children leave the school in a procession, holding hands, as if they are going on a nature ramble. But they are loaded on to a truck, under the supervision of an armed guard.

Finally, the men assemble in front of the chapel wall. We sense what is about to happen. They begin to sing 'Land of Our Fathers'... we do not see the execution...it is left to our imagination, and is thus all the more terrible.

This is a short film. But an unforgettable one.

The Proud Valley
(1940)

Paul Robeson shows the right spirit!
This film was released in Britain shortly after the outbreak of war, and it reflects that uncertain period. Coal was a national priority, yet the coal industry had a long legacy of unemployment and bitter labour disputes.

Consequently, Robeson, in the guise of a discharged American seaman, fetches up in a South wales mining village, where he is a valuable recruit to the local choir. Unfortunately, a disaster closes the mine, and a group of the miners (including Robeson, of course), march down to London to try and persuade the colliery bosses to let them find a way round the blocked section. As they march, a succession of newspaper posters chart the events leading to the outbreak of war.

This is an echo of the pre-war hunger marches - but in this situation, a clever narrative device is used, for no-one is to blame for them being out of work. As a result, the bosses and workers are later seen working together, trying to reopen a pit that is strategically valuable to the war effort.

Of course, the plan eventually boils down to detonating an explosive charge that is, in effect, a suicidal act. Robeson knocks out the miner who has drawn the short straw and sacrifices himself. Just as the soldier on the battlefield, the miner sometimes has to lay down his life for his friends. (Mining in wartime Britain was a reserved occupation.)

There is hardly any reference to colour prejudice in this film, and full use is made of Robeson's fine singing voice.

A Diary for Timothy
(1945)

Fanfare for the wartime common man.
'Diary for Timothy' is that most precious thing - a snapshot in time of ordinary people, their hopes and aspirations. It is considered by many to be Jennings's masterpiece.

The film is constructed around the first year of life for a baby, born in the closing stages of the war. There are two radical elements that distinguish this from his previous films. Firstly, the very literate narrative, written by E.M. Forster, no less! Secondly, the characters who appear are allowed to speak for themselves, almost in the form of soliloquy. Here are the voices of Britain, and one is reminded of Chesterton's poem in that they 'have not spoken yet'.

The mood of the film is very subtle. Although not strident, it and the characters in it argues the necessity for a better world and a fairer society (anticipating the Labour landslide).

What is really poignant is the realisation that many of these hopes have not been realised.

Fires Were Started
(1943)

A realistic drama documentary about the blitz.
As in 'The Silent Village' Jennings is here experimenting with improvised dialogue (there was no proper shooting script) and an amateur cast (who were all serving London firemen). However, the result has been expanded into what is virtually a full-length drama.

Again, there are haunting images. But the whole thing is played in such a low-key fashion that everything looks natural. (One of the fireman who took part said that it was an accurate representation - apart from the omission of the universal swearing!)

The most famous scene is the group preparing for the nights work. Each enters to a verse of the old counting song 'One Man Went To Mow', which is being accompanied on the piano. How many will be left by morning?

The film was released in two versions - hence the two titles. It was very well received, but eclipsed by the release of another (more conventional) film about the fire service called 'The Bells Go Down', starring the popular comedian Tommy Trinder. (This is not to disparage this feature film, which was also realistic in its approach.)

Listen to Britain
(1942)

Sound as narrative.
Jennings makes an interesting experiment. He films a number of scenes representative of wartime Britain, but does not include a spoken commentary or an anonymous musical backing.

Instead, the sound alone (often amplified and remixed)conveys mood, emphasis, and narrative climax.

A recital given by Dame Myra Hess in the National Gallery provides the background of a stirring climax.

Der var engang en krig
(1966)

The banalities and problems of life in an occupied country.
This Danish film is about life in Copenhagen during the closing stages of World War Two. It isn't really a war film in the sense that the war predominates. Instead, it is mainly about an adolescent boy coming to terms with maturity.

The war impinges only now and again as a series of incidents. The boys on their bicycles rejoice in a roadway full of tin foil, dropped by British aircraft the previous night to confuse the German electronic defences. The schoolroom falls deathly quiet as a uniformed German officer enters - but he is only inspecting space to be allocated to bombed out refugees from Hamburg. There is embarrassment when a lonely German soldier engages the boy in conversation about his dog.

And in the midst of all this, the boy fantasies about a girl, becoming a resistance hero to impress her, and marrying her. The scene in which he is able to inspect the contents of her bedroom is just as important to him as the episodes of wartime life. His parents and their friends tell jokes about the Nazis behind closed doors in the stultifying boredom of a curfewed city in the evenings. That is the only opposition they can show.

Everyone knows that it will soon end, but life goes on in the meantime. People must endure.

This is, perhaps, what it must have been like.

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