The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume 2: Fires Were Started brings together the short films and single feature that were made by Humphrey Jennings between 1941 and 1943. Thought by many to be his most fruitful period (in terms of quality), these films include The Heart of Britain, Words For Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and The Silent Village.
Produced for the Crown Film Unit during the Second World War, these five films were all commissioned by the government to boost morale and spread a positive message about Britain and all it stood for at the time. These films have much more value than mere curiosity in their propagandist qualities though. Humphrey Jennings is often thought of as one of Britain’s greatest and most influential documentary filmmakers, but unfortunately he died in 1950 aged 43 and he never got to produce much outside of the GPO and Crown Film Unit and only made one feature length film (Fires Were Started), so we can only imagine what he could have been capable of outside of the constraints of these state-led organisations.
What he did produce is still of great value though and I’ll run through the gems available in this collection.
The Heart of Britain
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Screenplay: J.B. Holmes (commentary)
Starring: Edward R. Murrow
Running Time: 9 min
The earliest film in this collection is a mix of poetry, narration and interviews with ‘everyday people’ giving a snapshot of life in Britain during wartime and demonstrating how resilient everyone was in the face of conflict. It’s probably the most clearly propagandist of the films in the collection alongside Words For Battle. The narration and clearly staged ‘interviews’ date the film quite badly, but nonetheless you can still see signs of Jennings’ skills as a filmmaker. His framing and ability to create beauty from the everyday is clearly evident and a couple of montages set to classical music show his mastery of the format.
Words for Battle
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Starring: Laurence Olivier
Running Time: 8 min
Similarly to The Heart of Britain, Words for Battle looks largely at the home front during wartime and shows us that the people were not phased by the threat of destruction at the hands of the Reich. This time we don’t get any clunky interviews though, the soundtrack is largely made up of Laurence Olivier delivering passages of prose from great British poets and authors such as Milton, Kipling and Blake. This brings Jennings’ ability to turn documentary into poetry to the fore and remains stirring to this day. Unfortunately the style has been mimicked so often since (most memorably by Chris Morris in The Day Today and Brass Eye) that it has become quite dated. This is still a beautiful piece though and set up the promise that was to be fulfilled in the next three films.
Listen to Britain
Director: Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister
Starring: Chesney Allen, Leonard Brockington, Bud Flanagan
Running Time: 20 min
I watched these first three films in order and the previous two impressed me, but it wasn’t until Listen to Britain that I truly appreciated Jennings’ work. The film is credited to two directors, Jennings and Stewart McAllister, as McAllister was Jennings’ regular editor and if anything, Listen to Britain is a masterpiece of editing as much as anything else. The film is a 20 minute montage of images and sounds from around Britain over the course of a day. There is no narration or poetry here (other than a cheesy and unnecessary introduction that I’m choosing to ignore), the film uses field recordings of the locations, subtly shifting from place to place, from the rustle of wheat blowing in the wind, the thrum of steam engines, to the hustle and bustle of an evening dance. The sound design is stunning, especially for the time, and when mixed with Jennings’ keen eye for capturing beauty and humanity in everyday circumstances it makes for pure poetry. Jennings was one of the first directors to use the documentary medium to do more than merely offer a ‘realistic’ glimpse of life, he used naturalism to create true cinematic beauty.
Fires Were Started
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Screenplay: Humphrey Jennings
Starring: Philip Dickson, George Gravett, Fred Griffiths
Running Time: 65 min
Fires Were Started is probably the most famous film in this collection (largely due to it being Jennings’ sole feature) and most critically acclaimed, but it didn’t give the same impact that Listen to Britain or The Silent Village provided for me though. It’s maybe just the hype that slightly spoiled it, but for me the film seemed more clearly staged than his others (I saw this last). Although noted as a documentary filmmaker, this could be disputed as Jennings would often use ‘real people’ (i.e. non-actors) to recreate true past events rather than be on the scene capturing them. This makes him one of the forefathers of the dramatic reconstruction. Fires Were Started is a prime example of this in that the film consists of a group of actual firemen in London recreating a day in their working life as they socialise in the station during the day and tackle the raging infernos caused by the regular German bombing raids on the city at night.
Although still containing some genuinely warm scenes of camaraderie, the first third of the film felt a little clunky to me – the firefighters at times struggle to deliver their lines all that convincingly and the usual beauty of Jennings’ imagery isn’t as evident. As the film goes on however his talents rise back to the surface. Most impressive to me was the scene where the air raid begins and the firefighters sing together by the piano as the sirens, plane engines and bombs gradually rise in the background. This is further evidence of Jennings’ mastery of sound. What he also shows later in the film is a keen sense of handling action and suspense, with the firefighting scenes cranking up the tension highly effectively to make up for a lack of convincing visual effects.
It’s a mightily impressive film that didn’t quite hit the mark like his previous and latter films did, but still goes to show how fine a craftsman Jennings was.
The Silent Village
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Starring: Villagers of Cwmgiedd
Running Time: 36 min
The latest film in this collection is The Silent Village. Like Fires Were Started, this is a dramatised reconstruction of true events. What makes this interesting is that the event being portrayed was how a rural Czech village stood up against the Nazis, but played out by members of a Welsh mining town to bring the story closer to home in the UK.
Where the previous films impressed in terms of their beauty and craftsmanship, The Silent Village blew me away with its emotional impact. I was in tears by the end of the film as we learn the fate of the villagers at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a wonderfully restrained film, but packs a great wallop, even before its rather sentimental coda. There is very little actual scripted dialogue, much of the film is played out with sound effects and music as well as several sections in Welsh without any subtitled translations. The Germans themselves are never shown, we hear their intentions over a loudspeaker driven around the village on top of a car or through the radio and any of their acts are played out through sound and images of their repercussions. This of course makes it much easier to sympathise fully with the villagers and reinforces the ‘unseen enemy’ factor that those living in England at the time and not fighting overseas would face.
Jennings handles the constraints of using little dialogue and no clear leads with ease, crafting the moving story through visual storytelling and subtly effective sound design. A scene where some of the villagers commit sabotage down the mine and assault a handful of guards is particularly arresting with its choral music and nail-biting tension. If Jennings could have survived through the 60’s and 70’s, who knows what sort of riveting thrillers he could have produced.
For pioneering the dramatic reconstruction, creating true poetry through documentary and revolutionising the use of sound editing in film, Humphrey Jennings is truly one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers. The BFI must be applauded for continuing to preserve such important pieces of cinematic history, as work such as this is at risk of being forgotten due to its age and roots in propaganda. Lovers of film across the world owe it to themselves to find and watch these classics to help keep them alive for as long as possible.
The DVD Set Itself
The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume 2: Fires Were Started is out on 23rd April, released as a Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD by the BFI. The picture quality is great for films of that age. Darker scenes are lacking detail at times and Fires Were Started is a little more scratched than the others, but overall the films look great on Blu-Ray. Sound quality is excellent, with Jennings’ wonderful sound design coming through clearly.
With regards to extras we get alternative versions of The Heart of Britain and Fires Were Started entitled This is England and I Was a Fireman which are a great find. Added to this is a 40-page illustrated booklet which is chocked to the gills with essays and further information on Jennings and the films included in the set, including a lengthy piece by Lindsay Anderson, an exceptional director in his own right.