Mobilising the movie-makers

The British at War
January 14, 2000

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the British government's plans for film propaganda were clear, concise and brutally simple: there would not be any. Cinemas, the powers-that-be had decided, were peculiarly vulnerable to aerial bombardment and would all be closed for the duration. This caused such an outcry that the cinemas were hastily reopened, and within the newly formed Ministry of Information a films division was cobbled together, staffed (according to film-maker Roy Boulting) by "a hotch-potch of dilettantes, academics, odds and sods, writers".

For a while the division was headed by Sir Kenneth Clark, previously director of the National Gallery, who was as bemused as anyone by his appointment. It came about, he later quizzically suggested, because "I was believed to be an authority on pictures".

If the government was floundering, the film companies were hardly better prepared. For years, politics had been nervously banned from British screens by the British Board of Film Censors. As late as 1938 a March of Time episode, Inside Nazi Germany , was vetoed because it might "give very grave offence to a nation with whom we are on terms of friendship".

Now the studios suddenly found themselves exhorted to go over to the offensive. It is hardly surprising that their earliest efforts - Alexander Korda's The Lion has Wings , Ealing's Convoy - look woefully inept, like a lounge lizard crammed into ill-fitting khaki and set to perform pack drill.

The film-makers of the documentary school, nurtured in the 1930s by John Grierson, were better placed to answer the call. Propaganda, after all, was their raison d'être . But they were regarded with suspicion by many on the commercial side of the industry, who considered them a bunch of tendentious lefties who, given half a chance, would preach audiences into a stupor. The documentarists returned the antipathy with interest. Not least of the Films Division's problems - once it had sorted out its internal chaos - was to keep these mutually jealous entities on side and willing to cooperate. Lacking the powers of coercion available to the German and Soviet authorities (though they must now and then have envied them), the MoI officials devised carrot-and-stick techniques for dealing with the professional film-makers - applied clumsily at first but, as James Chapman argues, with growing skill as the war progressed.

At first the division was widely slated for being inflexible, indecisive and (as Documentary Newsletter put it) choosing its subjects "at random out of Harrod's catalogue".

Film historians have dwelt with relish on the rancour between civil servants and film-makers. As Chapman observes, "conflict is always more interesting to historians than consensus", and part of his purpose is to redress the balance.

His thesis is that, especially after Clark was replaced as director by Jack Beddington, the division rapidly became far more professional and clued up, with episodes of productive cooperation increasingly common: so much so that Michael Powell, looking back in 1987, could write: "The Ministry of Information was a great success, and its films division was one of its triumphs."

Powell's views may have been coloured by the fact that his 49th Parallel was the only feature film to receive financial support from the MoI (though he later famously clashed with the ministry - and indeed with Churchill - over The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ). But the MoI funded a wealth of documentaries, including the classic films made by Humphrey Jennings with the Crown Film Unit and dozens of five-minute "informationals" on saving waste, avoiding careless talk and so forth. The films division also helped hack a path through the red-tape jungle when film-makers needed special facilities or dispensations.

The first half of Chapman's book, "Organisations and policies", focuses on the internal politics of the MoI and the dealings between the films division and the film-makers. Drawing strongly on the files of the Public Record Office, this is valuable, detailed stuff.

The second half could usefully have gone on to give us the wider picture, examining the relationship between the film industry and the government as a whole, where decisions were made and attitudes formed that would have far-reaching effects in the post-war years. The Board of Trade, for example, engaged with the film-makers both on a macro and a micro level: while Hugh Dalton and Hugh Gaitskell developed a close interest in the structure of the industry as a whole, the board's clothes rationing officials took a dim view of a florid cycle of bodice-rippers - not on moral grounds, but because of all the yards of strictly rationed fabrics they required.

Instead, Chapman gives us a section called "Subjects and themes", in which he runs through most of the best-known British wartime movies - In Which We Serve , Millions like Us , Fires were Started , etc - while noting how, as the war proceeded, the prevailing message shifted from "Britain can take it" to "Britain can dish it out", and from "Let's beat the Nazis" to "Let's start building a better post-war world". It is a lucid and sound enough survey, but several other writers have been here before andthis account sheds little new light on the subject.

It seems a pity that Chapman devotes so little space to the wartime newsreels, a key element in the cinema's propaganda war and one that so far has remained relatively unexamined; but they are dismissed in a page or two in his concluding chapter.

There are one or two regrettable omissions in his survey of feature films, too - such as Ealing's They Came to a City (1944), a key text in the "building a better world" debate and perhaps the most outspoken piece of cinematic socialist polemic produced anywhere outside the communist bloc. But for that, and much else, we shall probably have to look to Charles Barr's long-awaited 1940s volume in The History of the British Film.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian.

The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945

Author - James Chapman
ISBN - 1 86064 158 X
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £29.95
Pages - 308

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