ANY EVALUATION AND ANALYSIS OF BRITISH DOCUMENTARIES OF THE period of the Second World War raises two problematic issues. These may be briefly summarized as being located in the areas of defining documentary itself (as it pertains to these films, not in a more universal sense) and distinguishing between "information," "persuasion," and "propaganda" as terms useful in determining what are the principal structuring intentions behind the various films.
The "challenges" to definitions of documentary arise from the existence of a number of films ordinarily accepted as documentary, by their makers, by critics and commentators at the time and later, but that a rigorous methodology would have trouble accommodating: for example, docudramas such as Target for Tonight and Fires Were Started. "Docudrama" is the generic term I shall use for these types of films; other terms have been offered at different times, the most prevalent being "semidocumentary." Docudrama is a later entry into the lexicon, mainly from television. Within this category of docudrama as it appeared on British television in the 1960s and 1970s, there were different degrees of "documentariness"; a variable mixture of drama (fictiveness) and reality (authenticity).
The wartime docudramas used the conventions of the documentary, but as a matter of accepted practice, not with the deliberate intention of activating them toward generating a film that functioned in a documentary fashion and thus tapped into certain ways of comprehension within their putative audience. The docudramas of the war period were as much the result of experiment and expediency as of deliberate manipulation of documentary practice and aesthetics. Thus these films had varying degrees of "documentariness": Coastal Command or Ferry Pilot being "more like" documentaries (less "story"); Merchant Seamen coming closer to what would be later