'Fires Were Started.' (Portrayal of World War II by Film Director Humphrey Jennings)

By Richards, Jeffrey | History Today, April 1995 | Go to article overview

'Fires Were Started.' (Portrayal of World War II by Film Director Humphrey Jennings)


Richards, Jeffrey, History Today


The range of subjects in our `Film in Context' series is intended to be very varied in both subjects and period covered. (Special thanks are due to Dr David Ellwood of Bologna University who originally suggested the concept as well as to Tony Aldgate, Jerry Kuehl and Arthur Marwick, for their further assistance). This month we continue our `impact of war' theme with a curtain-raiser to our special `1945' issue in May as Jeffrey

Richards looks at how Humphrey Jennings' wartime evocation of firefighting heroes produced a powerful icon of Britain defiant against the Blitz.

All countries live by and through myths, episodes from their history which are removed from their context, shorn of complications and qualification, stripped down to their essentials and endlessly repeated as manifestations of the nation's character, worth and values. The Second World War produced a succession of such myths, one of the most powerful being the myth of the Blitz. It is simply told. In September 1940 German bombers began the systematic heavy bombing of London. From September 7th, for seventy-six consecutive nights, apart from November 2nd, when bad weather frustrated the enemy, London was pounded by the Luftwaffe. Thereafter raids were frequent until May 1941. Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons were hit; death and destruction were extensive. It was the reaction of the population of London -- one of heroic stoicism -- which gave birth to the myth and to the defiant `London Can Take It' attitude that was emulated in other industrial centres and seaports to which the Germans later turned their attention.

In the years since the war, historians, whose stock-in-trade is the debunking of myths, have examined the events of the Blitz in detail. Evidence has emerged that there was some looting, there was some panic and there was unrest in the East End about shelter provision. But the general picture of a courageous, determined and good-humoured people surviving everything that the Luftwaffe could throw at them remains substantially intact. The historian Angus Calder in the most extensive and thorough examination, The Myth of the Blitz (1991) confirms that the myth developed immediately and spontaneously and was based on direct observation of how Londoners behaved. It was reported extensively in the press both here and in the United States and the fully formed myth was taken up by the propaganda machine and promoted worldwide.

One of the media by which the myth of the Blitz was perpetuated and promoted was the British documentary film movement. Nurtured and promoted by John Grierson in the 1930s, with the aims of producing an authentic picture of the real life of the common people and of educating the nation for participatory democratic citizenship, the documentary movement committed itself fully to the war effort. The GPO Film Unit, which had produced films promoting the virtues of the postal service, was transformed into the Crown Film Unit, and came under the aegis of the Ministry of Information, which prescribed for film-makers during wartime the principal themes of `Why We Fight', `How We Fight' and `The need for sacrifice if the war is to be won'.

Ian Dalrymple, head of the Crown Film Unit, explained in 1941 the documentarists' aim:

We say in film to our own people `This

is what the boys in the services, or the

girls in the factories, or the men and

women in Civil Defence, or the patient

citizens themselves are like, and what

they are doing. They are playing their

part in the spirit in which you see them

in this film. Be of good heart and go

and do likewise'. And we say to the

world, `Here in these films are the

British people at war' ... It has seen the

truth and it can make up its own mind.

So their central theme was `the People's War'. The myth of the Blitz was a prime example of `The People's War' and it was to be memorably celebrated in one of Crown Film Unit's most notable productions, Fires Were Started, directed by Humphrey Jennings. …

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