A Special Case: Humphrey Jennings
FEW MEMBERS OF THE DOCUMENTARY MOVEMENT, FEW OF THE NOTinconsiderable number of filmmakers who made documentaries in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and, maybe, moved on to other film practices, have received the amount or degree of critical and scholarly attention of Humphrey Jennings—save for John Grierson himself. A whole auteurist school of criticism has built up around Jennings and his films. Whether Jennings was a genuinely original film artist, or whether he was a beneficiary of timing and the opportunities of history, or both, is not my present interest to decide. Jennings was not the only artistic documentarist of the period. Basil Wright, through The Song of Ceylon, if no other film, indicated directorial qualities equivalent to those of Jennings. Wright, under the conditions prevailing in the 1930s and presumably for reasons of his own, left the GPO Film Unit before the war, and his involvement with the CFU was limited until 1945 when he was appointed head of production. Jennings, arriving at the GPO Film Unit a little before the war broke out, was in fortuitous position to take advantage of the opportunities the war provided. So too were some others, of course. Watt, while he was with the CFU made the most of his, but his predilections and his abilities lay in other directions than those of Jennings. An auteurist study of Watt might be interesting nonetheless.
There exist more studies of Jennings than of other documentary filmmakers (and most British filmmakers in general), and it is Jennings's films more than those of any other that are remembered, cited, and examined when wartime documentaries are discussed. Roy Armes (1978), for instance, devotes one chapter of his overall history of British cinema to wartime documentary; the chapter heading is instructive: "The Documentary at War—Humphrey Jennings." Seven pages of this chapter cover all other documentaries