The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

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"The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel": making propaganda in an anti-propaganda culture

Brian Winston

[Published as:

[2011: ‘”The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel”: Propaganda in eine Kulture, die Propaganda abelhnt’ Die Kamera als Waffe: Propagandabilder des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Rainer Rother & Judith Prolasky eds.). Munich: text + kritik (Richard Boorberg Verlag etc)]

The scene is a stereotypical ‘picture-postcard’ English village churchyard. A working man, played by Mervyn Johns, smoking a pipe, addresses the camera directly, as if it were a tourist:

Good day to you. Come to have a look at Bramley End, have you? Pretty little place and a nice old church too -- 13th century parts of it. Still it wont be that that’s brought you, I don’t suppose. It’ll be these names on this grave here and the story that’s buried along with them. Look funny don’t they? German names in an English churchyard. They wanted England, these Jerries did: and this is the only bit they got. ‘The Battle of Bramley End’, that’s what the papers called it. Nothing was said about it till after the war was over and old Hitler got what was coming to him. Whitsun weekend it was 1942, as peaceful and quiet then as it is now even though there was a war on…

These are the opening moments of Alberto Calvacanti’s Went the Day Well1, which was based on a short story by Graham Green and conceived as propaganda for armed resistance at a time when the British were most worried about a Nazi invasion; but it has no smell of defeat about it. Just note the date on the gravestone and in Jones’ speech – 1942: before ‘old Hitler got what was coming to him’. Unexceptional, you might think – except, of course, that the film itself was made in 1942, long before the war had been won and Hitler was far from getting ‘what was coming to him’ when that speech was first heard by British audiences. The assumption being made by the filmmakers is that British victory is inevitable; but that assurance is subtlety conveyed. Such cleverness is typical of the British genius at propaganda. Far from raucous exhortations and bombastic braggadocio, very often – as in this case – the message is conveyed in a small, understated way. British classical education, of course, taught that ‘dulce est pro patria mori’ but, against this, Great Britain was a country where it was also widely thought that, as Samuel Johnson remarked in 1775, ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. Beyond any phlegmatic national characteristic, suspicions of flamboyant nationalism were partly grounded in the fact that the United Kingdom is an artificial entity. The Celts and the English were yoked slightly uneasily together in a political union which was, in formal terms, a comparatively recent creation – 1921 in its latest formation (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Naked appeals were unlikely to work – and indeed, British authorities now knew, had largely failed to do so in the First World War (Lasswell, 1927).
Jacques Elul, in his classic book on propaganda draws a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ (or ‘sociological’) propaganda (Elul, 1965). ‘Sociological propaganda’, he writes, ‘can be compared to ploughing, direct propaganda to sowing.’ Direct propaganda is thus designed to impact on audiences producing action – ‘direct prompting’ Elul calls it. In fact, there was a certain opinion in Whitehall in the aftermath of the First World War which agreed with Lasswell’s findings: British efforts at direct propaganda had not worked very well. By the time of the Second World War, this lesson had been learned and the propaganda effort, leaving aside campaigns to improve diet in the face of wartime shortages and the like, tended towards the ‘indirect’. The British were collectively deemed by the authorities to be poor ‘soil’ (to use Elul’s metaphor) for ‘sowing’. For anybody charged with moulding and controlling opinion, British cynicism was the major factor to consider. I want to suggest that it is the main reason why direct propaganda – unsophisticated, hectoring, crude propaganda -- was not the dominant mode of public communication among the Anglo-American Allies during the Second World War.
Of course, the sophistication engendered by indirect propaganda was effective for even the most difficult of propaganda problems – turning the disaster of Dunkirk into triumph would be but the most famous example of this.2 Indirect propaganda was well able to play a role in sustaining British social fabric more or less intact during the blitz. This does not means, of course, that crude caricatures of the enemy were unknown. The Japanese were subjected to endless Der Stürmer-style racist cartooning, especially by the Americans; and Hitler was presented as an absurd, comic raving lunatic, especially by the British. But this last was somewhat at odds with the stereotyping of Germans in general as humourless, efficient and brutal. This fissure between the representation of the German people and the Nazi leadership should be noted. It was especially important in the USA because of the large numbers of Americans with German ancestry.
But leaving this point aside, on balance, the majority of Second World War film propaganda, especially the British effort as Went the Day Well illustrates, was surprisingly subtle, subdued and sophisticated: ‘indirect propaganda’, ‘ploughing’ to sustain morale by means of endlessly presenting a national mythology. The myth was of a nation essentially un-militaristic, un-riven by class and other social divisions, resilient, phlegmatic, liberal and tolerant; and, perhaps above all in the context of film propaganda, a nation too intelligent and sophisticated to be browbeaten into action and belief.
The main mechanism deployed by British indirect propaganda was always to combat the assumed cynicism of the audience by grounding its mythic messages in recognisable realities – even negative realities. This was a time-honoured technique. It was known to Shakespeare. His King Henry V, epically transferred to film by Lawrence Oliver in 1944/5, encapsulates patriotic fervour but even here, even as it is articulated, it is undercut. Take the great speech uttered by Henry to fire up his outnumbered and ill supplied troops for the Battle of Agincourt (fought against the French on St Crispin’s Day, 25 October, 1415). This exhortation climaxes:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, 

From this day to the ending of the world, 

But we in it shall be remembered- 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 

For he today that sheds his blood with me 

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, 

This day shall gentle his condition; 

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed 

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, 

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

In the film Oliver, playing the king as well as directing, makes his voice rise to a screech – ‘UPON SAINT CRISPIN’S DAAAAAY!!!!!!’
But -- and here is the point -- that speech immediately follows a scene in which the King, in disguise, visits his soldiers to bring, as he says, ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’. These common men, with utter candour, realistically reveal – in everyday prose, not poetry -- a lot less enthusiasm for the coming battle than the King has.

Alexander COURT, a solider: Brother John Bates, is not that the morning which breaks yonder? 

John BATES, a soldier: I think it be: but we have no great cause to desire the approach of day. 

Michael WILLIAMS, a soldier: We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think we shall never see the end of it.
The King joins them and, in the course of conversation, still without revealing who is, suggests to them that the king (i.e. not him)…..:
KING HENRY V: …. when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army. 

BATES: He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as 'tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here. 

KING HENRY V: By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king: I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is. 

BATES: Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved. 

So, immediately before the heroics of the ‘St Crispin’ oratory, we have doubt, fear and uncertainty. Here in the midst of greatest dramatic patriotic poem in the English language, we find outnumbered soldiers, unwillingly fighting a war in mainland Europe far from home – wanting to be back in London, ‘in Thames, up to the neck’ – ‘as cold a night as tis’. It is entirely apposite Oliver dedicated the film to the armed forces. The balancing, in it, of nationalistic duty with private reservations exemplifies the central technique of British indirect propaganda. This crucially consists in acknowledging negatives in the midst of patriotic positives, and thus more truly reflects the audience’s own conflicted position than chauvinistic rhetoric does; it lets them understand the awful reality of war the better to re-enforce morale. Yet, in doing so, because it acknowledges their reality, it sells the propaganda message more effectively.
King Henry V also illustrates how the pressure for the demonization of the enemy was downgraded. Henry’s arguments make no mention of the French enemy. Demonizing them, after all, would not of itself quell private reservations. At its most extreme, one actually finds sympathy for the enemy – as in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger’s complex tale of the relationship between a British and a German military officer in the decades leading up to the Second World War.

The name ‘Colonel Blimp’ was that of a character created by the radical cartoonist David Low to illustrate the stupidity, pig-headedness and snobbery of the British military officer class. The cartoon was massively popular but not, of course, with the War Office. They objected to the film's view of both the British Army and its outdated, 'Blimpish' officers and the German characters whose 'thug element is ignored'. As if that were not enough, there was also a deep friendship between a British and a German soldier stretching over a period of 40 years. Pressburger, a Jewish refugee to England from Hungary, in particular was labeled by some - ironically, if not absurdly -- as pro-German. The two officers lives are intertwined – fighting on opposite sides in earlier wars, falling in love with the same woman and so on. Eventually, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, the German (played by Anton Walbrook), find himself in England, a poor refugee from Hitler. In a crucial scene, the dilemma for anti-Nazi Germans is movingly explained to the British audience as Walbrook recounts to an examining official why he has come to England and what his anti-Nazi bona fides are. The situation is tense because he has to convince the official; otherwise he will be interned as an enemy alien. In essence, he claims that he did not realize what was happening in Germany until it was too late:

When in summer 33 we [he and his English wife] found we had lost our children to he Nazi party and I was willing to come [to England] she died. None of my sons came to her funeral. Heil Hitler [with regret, a sigh].

The official says he should have been quicker to understand. Theo replies that the British had been equally slow. At the scene’s end, his friend, Clive Candy (played by Roger Livesey), with whom he had lost touch and who is now a ‘blimplish’ retired Major-General, appears and vouches for him. He is not interned.

The reality, reflected here by Powell and Pressburger, was that the country was essentially pacifist following the bloodletting of the First World War. That Britain was at war, and at war once more with Germany, was, at one level, persistently confusing: how to explain German art and culture, for instance? Humphrey Jennings, arguably the greatest of all British documentary film propagandists, does even try: in A Diary for Timothy(1945)5, it is simply presented as a conundrum. We are in the National Gallery where a mid-day concert is underway, given by the pianist, Dame Myra Hess. She is playing Beethoven. The commentary, spoken by Michael Redgrave and written by E.M.Forster, is addressed to the eponymous baby of the title:
Did you like the music that lady was playing? Some of us think it is the greatest music in the world yet it is German music and we are fighting the Germans. There’s something you’ll have to think over later on.
Acknowledging such confusions, like Shakespeare’s common soldiers’ doubts, reflected reality. British propaganda, like all propaganda, propounded myths; but it inserted enough nuggets of reality – often negative reality -- into them to make them believable.
The central myth was that of ‘one nation’. After the social tensions of the Depression this was crucial and Jennings, who I think genuinely believed in it, was the master at deploying it in all his wartime films. The people are seen as one, differences of class and region wiped out by common action. At the Christmas table, surrounded by his family, the farmer says: ‘Here’s a toast: Absent friends’. An air-raid warden is in the pub talking to the barmaid: ‘No, I haven’t seen him for two three months. I don’t quite know where he has got to. Ah, well: Absent Friends’. ‘Absent friends’, says the engine-driver and his wife, and Timothy, cradled in his mother’ arm, surrounded by members of his family hears the same toast: ‘Absent friends’. A Diary for Timothy, Jennings’ last wartime film, is a veritable hymn to the myth of ‘one nation’ but this does not mean that Jennings is unrealistically pretending class and other serious differences among the British do not exist. He just flips the possible import of those differences. Each person drinks exactly what a member of their class would drink – sherry for bourgeois, beer for the male workers, a little glass of port for the train-driver’s wife but all share the same toast -- ‘Absent Friends’ –– all are celebrating the same Christmas -- all are engaged in the same effort to win the war.
Even minor, anti-social illegalities can be acknowledged in the name of this reality, the better to sustain the propaganda of the overall myth. The black market, for example: in Humphrey Jennings’ docudrama Fires Were Started (1943)6 we find the heroic firemen, without taking any moral stand, indulging in a little black marketeering. You need the understanding of the original audience to follow this. The dialogue concerns buying a pair of braces. Braces were an item of clothing, all of which was rationed, so you would need a rationing coupon as well as money to buy them. One of the older firemen, ‘B.A.’ is his nickname, tries to sell a new arrival, a shy retiring middleclass young man, a pair. An ebullient cockney, who has been showing the young man, a new recruit, the ropes, jokingly intervenes to stop this happening. ‘I bought these pair of braces off him [B.A.] not a fortnight ago and all they’re good for is hanging yerself!!’ There are no coupons in sight. It was quite extraordinary that this got past the censors in 1943.
(Also, let me add a note about the title of this film as it reflects yet another propaganda sensitivity. The phrase ‘Fires were started…’ was used by the BBC News quite deliberately to avoid mentioning who started the fires. This use of the passive voice avoided attributing them to the Luftwaffe.7)
Such obfuscations as well as nuggets of truth allowed for the most unpalatable messages to be conveyed – the ultimate one being that of sacrifice. It might not be dulce, ‘sweet’, but the war was going to require civilian as well as military deaths. In 1941, the Public Relations Committee of the Civil Defence had suggested to the Ministry of Information that a film emphasising teamwork would be of value (Winston, 1999). Fire fighting was an obvious choice as a topic for such a theme. The Ministry had absorbed the old film unit set up by John Grierson, the father of British documentary, in the 1930s for the General Post Office. It was now the Crown Film Unit and Jennings worked for it. The importation of the British documentary tradition into the central government propaganda effort resulted in the dominant feel of the British wartime archive being a documentary one – although many films were, of course, made by the British commercial feature film industry. But the documentary influence was profound and soon fictional features, such as Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), also adopted a gritty, realistic documentary style.
In the brief commissioning what became Fires Were Started, the Ministry insisted that a death should occur in the line of duty and Jennings’ earliest plans for the film note that one of the firemen was ‘going to be killed’. This is exactly what happens in the climactic scene. A fireman, ‘Jacko’, sacrifices himself by remaining on the roof of a burning building steadying a guide rope so his comrades could make good an escape. This defeat, his death, is – like Dunkirk – turned on its head. The blazing warehouse was next to a ship being loaded with munitions which, we are told, were vital for the overseas war effort. The firemen prevented the blaze from reaching the ship. The final shots of the film crosscut the fireman ‘Jacko’’s ‘burial’ with the ship steaming triumphantly down the Thames, unharmed.
There was another aspect to the British output. It was important to show the Allies – essentially the Americans and the British Commonwealth -- how well the country was surviving. Just filming life going on amidst the rubble and also that many buildings were standing was deemed to be evidence enough. All the films work towards this end automatically, as it were; but, more specifically, North American voices, often those of journalists based in London, are heard confirming, one way or another, the resilience of the British. The myth of one nation, so necessary to maintain British morale, also implicitly demonstrated that all Allied efforts to save Britain would not be in vain. There was still much worth saving.
After the United States entered the war in 1942, their output reflected the same of sort of indirect propaganda I have been suggesting characterised the British effort – but with some significant differences. The first thing to note is that the genre of heroic Hollywood war-films, with their often tenuous connection to actual historical events, date not from the war years but from the 1950s and should not be considered in the present context. Secondly, as I said, the Japanese were subjected to racist caricaturing in contrast to American treatment of the Germans. Here, because of the need to avoid alienating the descendants of German immigrants, there was a reticence about demonizing the German enemy. And, thirdly, as in Britain, there was the myth of ‘one nation’ unwillingly under arms although, obviously, the American egalitarian sense of ‘nation’—the ‘melting pot’ -- made this easier to deploy than it was in the UK.
The underlying initial drive of Hollywood was a direct propaganda need to push the idea of mobilisation. But, as the war progressed, the British-style of indirect propaganda, and with it an increasingly realistic reflection of sacrifice, loss and discomfort, became more usual. The very title of John Ford’s 1945 film They Were Expendable (starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery and based on a true story) indicates this tone; but its apotheosis can perhaps be found in last two wartime documentaries made by John Houston.
The Battle of San Pietro 8, also released in 1945, details the repetitive, confused and bloody nature of conflict as the American Army fights to take one small Italian village on the march towards Rome. Huston’s commentary is deliberately flat and unemotional, written in the style of a military dispatch. Despite the fact that it depicts a victory -- the village is eventually taken with the loss of over 1000 men, the film was so depressing that the army tacked a General, Mark Clark, speaking an uplifting message to camera, on the front. Huston’s next documentary, Let There Be Light 9, about the effects of shell shock – post-traumatic stress disorder as we would call it today – was so harrowing that it was not released at the time.
A tendency towards indirect propaganda – that is what I have suggested characterises the British and American approach to propaganda in the Second World War; certainly the matured and developed approach apparent by the war’s end. This maturity is well seen in The True Glory (1945)10. Directed by Hollywood screenwriter and director, Garson Kanin, the film is a deliberately un-triumphant Anglo-American account of the end of the war in Europe and, especially in the script provided by the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, a perfect example of indirect propaganda’s strengths. Apart from General Eisenhower’s statement to camera at the outset of the film, the film uses news-camera footage to detail the invasion of Europe by the allies. The footage includes shots of the allied leaders but en passant as it were. They are never indentified. The film’s focus comes in the commentary, a sub-Shakespearean account of the advance interspersed, and indeed undercut, by a montage of ‘ordinary’ voices, in fact actors reading speeches written for them by Chayefsky and his co-writers. These speeches, very demotic in tone, are like those of the cockney soldiers in King Henry V – they reflect the hopes, fears, humour and cynicism of the men and women of all allied nations and (some of the voices make clear) races. It is as if the tone of the ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech is being constantly cross-cut with the tone of ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’. That is where the indirect propaganda locates ‘the true glory’ – in the myth of a modest, persistent army, united in one purpose and unstrained by divisions and differences, defeating a great but ill-delineated evil – Nazi Germany. ‘One nation’ had become one world; and a way had been found to use propaganda in a cultural context hostile to its deployment.

1. Went the Day Well? - 1942 | 92 minutes | War Drama | B&W. Director: Alberto Cavalcanti. Producer: Michael Balcon, Screenplay: John Dighton & Angus McPhail. Music: William Walton. Starring: Leslie Banks.

Alberto Cavalcanti had arrived in England seven years before the production, invited by John Grierson. Grierson’s GPO documentary film unit was grappling with synchronous sound and the avant-garde Brazilian director was seen as having the experience with the new technology the British documentarists lacked. Went the Day Well was his first feature, made for Balcon’s Ealing studios. The script is from a short story by Graham Greene. The title is taken from English classicist John Maxwell Edmond’s lines,

'Went the Day Well?

We died and never knew,

But well or ill,

For freedom we died for you' .

In flashback we are told about a group of ‘tommys’ arriving in a quiet English village. Slowly the villagers realize that they are not what they seem but perfectly bi-lingual German soldiers. The film documents the villagers heroic resistance to the invaders. Calvacanti came to see this as a plea for pacifism – a demonstration of the corrupting influence of violence on a group of civilized, peace-loving English people; but this is a somewhat ahistorical reading (Perry, 1991). In 1942, the need for the civilian population to resist invasion by all possible means was overwhelming

2. The term ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, meaning to pull together in the face of adversity, has entered the English language, a clear indication of the effectiveness of the 1940 propaganda effort.
3. Henry V - 1944 | 135 mins | Drama | Colour. Directors: Laurence Olivier and Reginald Beck. Producers: Filippo Del Giudice and Laurence Olivier. Script: Dallas Bower, Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (from the play by William Shakespeare). Music: William Walton. Starring: Laurence Olivier, Renée Ashershon.

It was a great boon to British propaganda that the nation’s greatest dramatic patriotic poem should have been written by Shakespeare. Its relevance to the period in which it was filmed is made clear from the very opening frame dedicating it to those then fighting for the country’s survival. Filmed in Ireland on a budget of $2 million, it was the most expensive British feature to date and functioned, almost automatically given the time, as a morale booster for the British public and the Allies.

In the centuries after Shakespeare, the role of the army, as opposed to that of the navy, had not been celebrated in the British national narrative. Soldiers, in novels and plays, were more often than not a source of disruption and villainy than heroics. The bloodshed of the World War I had done little to correct this. King Henry V, the celebration of an underdog English army’s triumph in a continental European war, was thus of particular value, the rawness of its propaganda messages softened by the patina of Shakespeare’s language and its nonpareil cultural status. The text, though, was abridged with as much an eye to sanitizing Henry’s actions as to shortening its length for the cinema and modern audiences. Henry’s brutality, which Shakespeare does not hesitate to reflect, is cut from the film.

It was a bonus, as it were, that Olivier, despite this, brought such flair to the production – not just the acting which, as could be anticipated, was wonderful but the exceptional, indeed experimental, mixture of artificial and realist settings and the luxuriousness of its visual sweep and cinematic rhythms were seldom seen in British cinema (Powell and Pressburger apart, that is). The film does not disguise its theatrical origin and begins within Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction accurately reflecting our understanding of how the plays were originally presented. As it expands beyond the Globe’s ‘wooden “o”’, the sets ape 15th century painting until the military campaign is photographed realistically. The play’s climax, which sees Henry and the Princess of France unite the two kingdoms, is once more in the realm of the painted.

Olivier was never again to be so daring a film director.

4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - 1943 | 163mins | Drama| Colour|. Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Producers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Script: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Music: Allan Gray. Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is essentially a love story which along the way suggests that British Army tactics were out of touch with reality, with the generals wanting to fight a gentleman's war according to set rules. The name ‘Colonel Blimp’ was that of a character created by the cartoonist David Low to illustrate the conservatism and snobbery of the British military officer class. Referencing ‘Colonial Blimp’ had become a popular way of criticizing the failings of the country at war which is why Powell and Pressburger took the name for their title; but their film humanizes and explains their ‘Colonel Blimp’, ‘Major General Clive Wynne-Candy’ (Livesey), a forty-year military officer, whose life has been intertwined with that of a German of the same caste, ‘Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff’ (Walbrook). The opening title is in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry and the film indeed offers a tapestry of Anglo-German relationships in the first 40 years of the 20th century. The two men meet in Berlin in 1902, fight a duel, fall in love with the same nurse who cares for them after this encounter (the German wins her), fight on opposite sides in World War I (the German is captured and imprisoned in England). In the 1930s, Theo returns to Britain as a refugee from Hitler. Clive vouches for him before the Enemy Aliens tribunal.

The film was not approved for overseas release for two years and then, in the US, it was cut by 20 minutes. A restored print was created in the 1970s at some 2 ½ hour running time, a response to the growing reputation of Powell and Pressburger as major, somewhat overlooked, British filmmakers. In 2009, Martin Scorsese restored another masterpiece, Red Shoes, which was rapturously received at Cannes.

5. A Diary for Timothy - 1945 | 40mins | Documentary | B&W|. Director: Humphrey Jennings. Producer: Basil Wright. Script: E.M. Forster. Original Music: Richard Addinsell. Narrator: Michael Redgrave.

The eponymous baby Timothy (Tim) and his mother, an engine driver, a farmer, a Welsh miner, an upper-class fighter pilot and other less prominent characters, such as the air raid warden, represent ‘one nation’ at war. The ‘star’ of the film, though, is Tim and it is to him that the film’s narration is addressed by an avuncular voice-over narrator, Michael Redgrave. With the help of editing virtuosity (from an 18 year-old Jenny Hutt) linking detail to detail by continuously making striking associations of image, music and commentary, Jennings weaves a tapestry of the utmost complexity, outlining the major events of late 1944 [‘Operation Market Garden’ (Arnhem), ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ (The Ardennes), the Red Army advance in Poland] against personal moments [an accident in the mine, a drink in the pub, Tim’s Christening etc etc]. The effect is to re-enforce the idea of ‘one nation’ under arms, which, given the realities of class divisions, was something of a myth. E.M.Foster’s script is of a quality seldom matched, e.g.: ‘Death and darkness, death and fog. Death across those few miles of water for our people and for other. For enslaved and broken people. The noise of battle getting louder. And death came by telegram to many of us on Christmas eve.’) The ‘by telegram’ is masterly.

Jennings completed less than 10 films and most of them are short subjects celebrating the ‘one nation’ myth, but nevertheless showing (in Lindsay Anderson’s famous words): ‘This is what it was like. This is what we were like - the best of us’. Diary represents the highest achievement of his oeuvre and, in the opinion of many, it is the greatest of all British classic documentaries. He died in an accident in Greece in 1950 while scouting locations for a film.

6. Fires Were Started - 1943 | 63 mins | Drama-Documentary | B&W (originally entitled as I Was A Fireman but shorted and retitled for release). Director: Humphrey Jennings. Producer: Ian Dalrymple. Script: Humphrey Jennings (with Maurice Richardson). Music: William Alwyn. Starring: Fred Griffiths Wiliiam Sanson, Johnny Houghton* (*fireman seconded to the making of the film, not professional actors)

The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit to make a film illustrating the impact of civilian deaths on morale, emphasizing that both team-work and sacrifice were necessary. To meet this brief, Jennings set the film among the auxiliaries (that is volunteers) who had joined the National Fire Service, fighting the 2nd major blitz of London by the Luftwaffe in 1942. In effect, it is what we would today call a drama-documentary. Jennings (or Richardson who collaborated on the research) spent months with the men and woman of the Service and all the events of the film, including much of the dialogue, was witnessed by the writers during this period.

Fires is no gung-ho propaganda piece: it simply records the everyday lives and acts of courage of seven fire-fighters and their new recruit over a fictional 24-hour period. The film begins during the day as the unit gather from their varying walks of life at the fire station, prepare their apparatus, participate in training, inspect the daytime bombing damage caused in London, and socialise together as night begins to fall. The sound of an air-raid siren and anti-aircraft fire signals the beginning of the bombing raid, and promptly the unit is called out to attend to some incendiaries that have fallen on a warehouse and threaten to ignite an ammunition ship moored to an adjacent dock. We follow the firemen as they fight the blaze through the night and see one of them fall to his death. The film ends as day breaks, the all-clear sounds and the unharmed munitions ship sails down the Thames.
This straightforward narrative, edited by Stuart McAllister (who can be considered as important to these films as Jennings himself), is less flamboyant than the shorter subjects because it is not impressionistic, not a mosaic; but, like the other films, it is replete with minute observation.
7. The fires in the film were started not the Luftwaffe but by Jennings. During the pause between the first and second London blitzs of 1941/42, he burned St Katherine’s Dock in London every night for six weeks, more or less. The footage is now often used as actual newsreel of the blitz which, of course, it is not.
8. Battle of San Pietro 1945 | 32 mins | Documentary | B&W. Director: John Huston. Producers:John Huston, Frank Capra. Script: John Huston. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Starring: John Huston (narrator).
At this point in the war, the realities of battle were too well known to be easily subjected to propaganda mythologizing. Huston’s blow-by-blow account of the battle for the village of San Pietro Infine , which sat athwart the Allied armies route to Rome, makes no attempt to glorify – or even untangle the confusions of – conflict. The authorities thought Huston had captured the slog of battle far too well for audiences’ comfort and, after delaying release, eventually produced the 32 minute version with the General’s moral boosting piece to camera tacked on the front. Huston was accused of making an anti-war film and famously said that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot.
9. Let there be Light 1946| 58 minutes | Documentary | B&W. Director: John Huston. Script: John Huston and Chalres Kaufman. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Starring: Walter Huston (Narrator)
Set in Edgewood State Hospital on Long Island, a psychiatric hospital, Huston documents the plight of US soldiers suffering from ‘shell-shock’ (what we today would call post-trauma shock disorder). Although the film finishes on a note of hope with patients recovering, the overall effect of it was too demoralizing for the film to be released. It was not to be released in 1980.
10.The True Glory| 1945 | 87 minutes | Documentary | B&W. Directors: Garson Kanin, Carol Reed. Producer: . Script: Paddy Chayefski (and others). Music: William Alwyn. Starring: Dwight D Eisenhower (as himself), Robert Harris (narrator)
The tag line was ‘The story of your victory… told by the guys who won it’.


Ellul, Jacques (1965) Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, New York: Vintage Books.
Lasswell, Harold (1927,1971) Propaganda Technique in World War 1. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Perry, George (1991) Forever Ealing: Celebration of a Great British Studio. London: Pavilion Books.
Winston, Brian (1999) Fires Were Started. London: British Film Institute

---- (2008) Claiming the Real II Documentary: Grierson and Beyond. London: British Film Institute

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