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Humphrey Jennings$

Keith Beattie

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078552

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078552.001.0001

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Documentary reconstruction and prognostication: Fires Were Started and The Silent Village

Documentary reconstruction and prognostication: Fires Were Started and The Silent Village

(p.82) 4 Documentary reconstruction and prognostication: Fires Were Started and The Silent Village
Humphrey Jennings

Keith Beattie

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Humphrey Jennings' films Fires Were Started and The Silent Village involve a different variety of experimentation in the form of dramatisation and re-enactment. Such practices were ingrained within the British documentary movement, though a heightened degree of dramatisation, especially in Fires Were Started, raised issues of authenticity. This chapter discusses the strategies Jennings adopted in his films Fires Were Started and The Silent Village. Critics argue that Jennings has gone all arty in Fires Were Started by including snippets of Raleigh and Shakespeare within a speech by one of the characters. What the arty criticism of Jennings' inclusion of poetry ignores is that a person quoting poetry or literature may in itself be authentic. For Jennings, whose understanding of national character and personal experience were informed by the words of Milton, Shakespeare, Blake and other prominent poets and writers, the literary extracts were natural components of everyday life.

Keywords:   Fires Were Started, Silent Village, dramatisation, Raleigh, Shakespeare

After the experiments with sound and image relations in Listen to Britain, Jennings’ next films, Fires Were Started and The Silent Village, involved a different variety of experimentation in the form of dramatisation and re-enactment. Such practices were ingrained within the British documentary movement, though a heightened degree of dramatisation, especially in Fires Were Started, raised issues of authenticity.1 The question of authenticity in representation received further attention within considerations of the nature of wartime propaganda and its connection to experience. Studies of authenticity in literature have identified the concept in relation to a sense of legitimacy, sincerity, the genuine and the ‘concrete’.2 Such issues were at stake within the contemporary criticism published in the Documentary News Letter that Jennings had ‘gone all arty’ in Fires Were Started by including snippets of Raleigh and Shakespeare within a speech by one of his characters.3 For Jennings, whose understanding of national character and personal experience was informed by the words of Milton, Shakespeare, Blake and other prominent poets and writers, the literary extracts were ‘natural’ components of everyday life. Brian Winston argues that the reading of a literary text permits Jennings to convey the heightened situation of the calm before an air raid. ‘Using the most cerebral of the [cast] (and a Scotsman) to read Raleigh solves the problem at least as well as having the men express their fears, or indeed anything deep, in their own words. That would, perhaps, have been even more unlikely than showing one of them reading aloud’.4 What the ‘arty’ criticism of Jennings’ inclusion of poetry ignores is that a person quoting poetry or literature may in itself be authentic. In this way the criticisms were condescending in the inference that ‘Englishmen’ of whatever class are shy of poetry and literature. More particularly, the issue of ‘going all arty’ has relevance beyond the immediate example – it points to broader, more profound, questions of authenticity raised within Fires Were Started. (p.83)

Fires Were Started: scripting the real

Questions of authenticity surrounding the documentary representation of Fires Were Started were not compromised by the fact that the film involves a degree of scripted fictionalisation. The poet William Sansom (who plays the character of Barrett in Fires Were Started) insisted that Jennings had ‘[n]o script. A general scheme, of course, which we did not know about. The film was shot both on and off the cuff. Dialogue was always made up on the spot – and was of course the more genuine for that – and Jennings collected details of all kinds on the way, on the day, on the spot’.5 Sansom's impression captures Jennings’ ability to give reign to his actors to fill in aspects of the action, but misinterprets the degree of scripting which Jennings brought to the filming of Fires Were Started. The special collections section of the British Film Institute holds research notes and outlines heavily annotated by Jennings of six drafts of what would become a script for Fires Were Started, written between October 1941 and January 1942.6 The notes and synopses constitute a script in progress and the dates of the treatments demonstrate that Jennings rapidly developed the ideas that would, together with the sort of ad hoc inclusions referred to by Sansom, be used in the final version of Fires Were Started. Jennings complemented the scripting by making notes on possible cast members and their on-camera presence during rehearsals. From this process Jennings arrived at the final cast: the Scottish sculptor Loris Rey became Rumbold (‘the Colonel’), and William Sansom played Mike Barrett. Fred Griffiths (Johnny), T. P. Smith (B. A.), John Barker (Joe Vallance), Johnny Houghton (Sidney ‘Jacko’ Jackson), Philip Wilson-Dickson (Section Officer Walters) and George Gravett (Dykes) were all members of the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service. Relying on ‘real’ firemen to enact the script was a central component of an authenticity inscribed in the film.

The script – which deals with the activities of a team of AFS firemen in London's dock area during the nightly air raids on London during the winter of 1940–41 – reinforced its authenticity through the inclusion of aspects of historical experience. By situating Fires Were Started among the docks of the East End Jennings located the action among the historically verifiable targets of German air raids during the first phase of the Blitz (from late August to early September 1940). Later raids widened the target area beyond the East End boroughs, though the docks continued to be heavily bombed.7 During production Jennings wrote to his wife Cicely that he had ‘never worked so hard at anything or I think thrown myself into anything so completely’, and he recognised that Fires Were Started was an ‘advance’ in his filmmaking.8 He described (p.84) the advancement in his film-making practice in terms of gaining and applying ‘real’ or authentic insights into people and ‘not just looking at them and lecturing or pitying them’.9

Halfway through shooting Fires Were Started Jennings described the film in terms of an unlikely mixture of ‘slapstick and macabre blitz reconstruction’.10 The fire-fighting scenes were reconstructed on St Katherine's Dock on the lower Thames and filming was finished by October 1942. An opening credit announces that the events of the film occurred during the winter of 1940–41, prior to the integration of the AFS into a National Fire Service. The completed film has three distinct sections: before, during and after a fire in a warehouse caused by a heavy nighttime raid. The first section employs a simple narrative device to introduce each of the characters. A new recruit to the AFS, Barrett, arrives at fire sub-station 14Y and is assigned to the fire-fighting device Heavy Unit One. As he is introduced to his fellow crew members so too each character is introduced to the audience: Johnny, Jacko, Rumbold, B. A., Vallance and Walters.

Johnny is assigned to show Barrett the fire station's area of operations, a region adjoining the docks at Trinidad Street, where a munitions ship is moored. The brief expedition is a simple yet effective device through which Jennings specifies the geographical location of the fire-fighting team. Spatial specificity is reinforced throughout the film. In the second section scenes in the fire-fighting operations room frequently feature a map of the area. Telephone calls to and from the command centre continually refer to the Trinidad Street dock area. Various point-of-view shots contribute further to spatial orientation. In one such shot crew members of a ship anchored in the Thames look back to shore and the flames of the warehouse fire. Jennings paid close attention to the geography of the area in his research for the script, walking the streets near the docks scouting for suitable locations, and, as he put it in a letter to his wife, ‘living in Stepney the whole time’ of the shoot.11 While the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ scene – in which, on entry to the fire station's recreation room, each member of the fire crew is accompanied by Barrett playing the song on the piano – is important to the narrative emphasis on group spirit and communal feeling, in its specification of spatial location the script takes on metonymic associations. In this way, one small patch of land – the area of operations – becomes exemplary of national experience. Importantly, this specific area is isolated yet not cut off from other regions. It is integrated through the device of constant telephone communications from the command centre to other centres, and the connections between specific and wider locations is underlined in the arrival of a fire engine from ‘sixty miles away’. (p.85)

The second section centres on two events, the need to quell flames in a burning warehouse before they spread to an ammunitions ship anchored nearby, and Jacko's death in the warehouse fire. The nighttime filming of the scenes resulted in outstanding images of silhouetted forms framed against smoke and fire. During the night bombs continue to fall, and Jacko and Dykes ascend to the roof of the blazing warehouse in an attempt to stem the fire. The water pressure in the hoses drops and hoses are diverted to a nearby sunken barge, which serves as a reservoir. Barrett is ordered to the rooftop to retrieve Jacko and Dykes. As flames engulf the stairs to the warehouse roof an exploding incendiary knocks Dykes unconscious. Barrett descends from the roof on a turntable ladder, as Dykes, still unconscious, is lowered down via a rope steadied by Jacko. The flames spread, and Jacko falls to his death into the inferno of the blazing warehouse. The third section depicts the morning after the fire, a time in which relief at saving the munitions ship is tempered by mourning for Jacko. Workers arrive on the docks as the firemen depart the scene of destruction, though as Johnny points out, the munitions ship is untouched. In a piece of bitter irony, Jacko's wife, unaware of her husband's death, listens to a radio report that announces that though ‘fires were started’ casualties are likely to be few. Shots of members of the crew at Jacko's funeral are intercut with shots of the munitions ship heading down the Thames – with the clear and unmistakable implication that Jacko's death was not on vain.

Propaganda and authenticity: the price to be paid

One commentator has found the sum of the three parts of the film's structure less than convincing in terms of authenticity, and argued that the depiction of the Blitz ‘in this supposed documentary’ is ‘utterly and grotesquely unreal’.12 Other commentators have argued that authenticity suffered as a result of the strictures of the Ministry of Information propaganda policy and the resultant mythical interpretation of the Blitz that, by the time the film was made, a year after the events depicted, was hardening and conflicting with history.13 Indeed, elements within Fires Were Started of an official propaganda policy are revealed within a comparison of Fires Were Started and the booklet Front Line, 1940–41, the Ministry of Information's ‘Official Story of Civil Defence in Britain’ published in 1942. Front Line includes many of the details of fire-fighting contained in Jennings’ film – water supply and water pressure were constant problems; flying embers were a particular hazard; bombs fell all night, often rekindling fires that had been quelled; and ‘[m]any (p.86) fires were started [though] none got right out of hand’.14 The imagery of this particular document, in the form of numerous black-and-white photographs, also bears a close resemblance to the mise en scène of Fires Were Started: night-time shots of blazing buildings with the silhouetted figures of fire fighters aiming hoses into the flames and smoke, London's auxiliary firemen carrying hoses, firemen on extension ladders above flaming buildings, fire-ravaged buildings collapsing into the street, a tangle of hoses amid rubble in the street, and flaming and gutted warehouses on St Katherine's Dock (on the night of 11 September 1940). Throughout the representations of Front Line London is depicted in organic, corporeal terms: ‘[t]he enemy sought to destroy the bodily life of the capital: to cut the nerves, pierce the veins, sever the muscles’.15 The body metaphor displaces the literal depiction of bodies; death and images of the dead are absent from Front Line. ‘Sacrifice’ is aligned in the text with the characteristics of fortitude and hard work in the face of persistent fires and continual air raids, and exemplified in repeated images of Londoners ‘taking it’.

The prohibition on images of death within the Ministry of Information's publication was reflected in the Ministry's propaganda policy for film. Aspects of the Ministry's film policy were set out in 1940 by Kenneth Clark in a committee paper entitled ‘Programme for Film Propaganda’. In this paper Clark, who at the time was director of the Ministry's Films Division, codified the three central planks of the Ministry of Information's propaganda policy: ‘What Britain is fighting for’, ‘How Britain fights’ and ‘The need for sacrifice if the fight is to be won’.16 The demand to represent the latter point, arguably the most contentious of the three strands of the policy, had to negotiate an understandable aversion by viewers to images of death and dying. In this way a study of wartime films by Mass-Observation noted that footage and films of the Blitz ‘tended to be popular when they did not include horrific scenes of the dead or the physically mutilated’.17 Within this context an effective way for film to fulfil the notion of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ is through fictionalised devices. Such a device was employed in Fires Were Started in the form of Jacko's death, and indeed that ‘one of the characters should die was deemed intrinsic to the project by the Ministry of Information; it was vital to demonstrate that sacrifice was necessary. Thus a note that one of the firemen was “going to get killed” [is included] in Jennings’ earliest plans for the film’.18 In these terms Jacko's death is the price paid for the Ministry of Information's propaganda policy, and while the fictional death accords with the literal loss of life in the raids it is, in terms of its heavy-fhanded and melodramatic rendering, an inauthentic element within the film. (p.87)

‘Other irons in the fire’: the story-documentary and fiction film

As crucial as it was to aspects of wartime representation, the Ministry of Information's propaganda policy did not necessarily ‘determine’ textual or formal outcomes. The scene of Jacko's death was in one way a response to the implementation of official policy. In another way the death scene – in which references to home-front casualties are expressed within and through components of fictionalised drama – reflects the film's investment in the form of the so-called story-documentary, a product of various factors within the film industry at the time. In certain estimations the meeting of fictional and documentary elements characteristic of the story-documentary has been interpreted in relation to the ‘wartime wedding’ or ‘wartime marriage’ of documentary realism and fictional film which, it is argued, resulted from staff exchanges between the documentary sector and film studios such as Ealing.19 The exchange – which was somewhat one-sided, marked by the exodus from documentary production of people such as Harry Watt and Cavalcanti to Ealing (Jennings considered the move on more than one occasion) – contributed to a renewed emphasis on realism within British wartime cinema. According to Paul Rotha, Jack Beddington, as head of the Ministry of Information's Film Division, actively encouraged closer cooperation and exchange between fiction film producers and documentary film-makers.20 In making this case Rotha suggests that the creation of the story-sdocumentary and its wedding or mixing of elements of fictional film and documentary was the result of Beddington's official policy directives. However, in terms of fiction film-making, the ‘wartime wedding’ may have had more to do with a process of differentiation of national cinemas – a pronounced realism as a response by the British film industry to the fantasy of Hollywood film then beginning to seriously encroach on British markets – than with Ministry of Information policy on staff exchange. (Indeed, staff movements between sectors of the wartime film industry were in all probability motivated by expanded opportunities for realist fictional filmmaking).

Within the documentary sector, on the other hand, the impetus for the ‘story-documentary’ was the result of conditions within the sector, as opposed to any response to official policy. Harry Watt, who first applied the so-called story-documentary form in North Sea (1938) and who extended its applications in Target for Tonight (1941), described the development of the form in relation to a split in the mid-1930s between Grierson and his followers who favoured non-theatrical exhibition of documentary, and Cavalcanti, Jennings, Pat Jackson, Jack Lee and himself who felt that theatrical distribution was the most (p.88) viable way to reach a large audience for their work.21 Watt described the form in terms of ‘“taking true events”, using real people, but also using “dramatic licence” to heighten the tension and the story-line’.22 Jennings’ application of the story-documentary form tended in Fires Were Started towards an emphasis in the first half of the film on ‘classic’ documentary sequences, and the use of ‘dramatic licence’ in the film's second half. The first part of the film, with its traditional frame, involves Barrett's arrival at the substation, where he is introduced by Johnny to the station's organisation and operating procedures. Johnny's instructions to Barrett and the voice of a controller on the telephone checking the condition of fire-fighting appliances serve a function similar to that of expository voice-over narration. Within these sequences specific items of fire-fighting paraphernalia are identified, as are the routines of the substation.

The film's distributors, General Films Distributors, attuned to the audience expectations of fictional texts, wanted the first half of the film, with its expository sequences, cut. Representatives of General Films Distributors argued that the opening sequences lacked dramatic tension and that the first half-hour was very slow, thereby detracting from the film's effect as entertainment and propaganda.23 Jack Beddington, who succeeded Kenneth Clark as director of the Films Division, agreed with the estimation and wrote to Ian Dalrymple within the Crown Film Unit on 26 November 1942 to say that judicious editorial cuts would improve the film from a ‘propaganda and an entertainment point of view’.24 Jennings was, understandably, irate. In reaction to the criticisms made by General Films Distributors he wrote to his wife that:

All sorts of people – official and otherwise – who apparently had not had the courage to speak out before, suddenly discovered … that the picture was much too long and much too slow and that really instead of being the finest picture we had ever produced (which was the general opinion till then) it was a hopeless muddle which would only be ‘saved’ by being cut right down and so on … All of this arising out of the criticisms of one or two people in Wardour Street, who had other irons in the fire anyway and who fight every inch against us trespassing on what they pretend is their field’.25

A compromise was reached whereby eight minutes were cut from the opening and the title changed from I Was a Fireman to Fires Were Started.

The move into theatrical distribution was not, then, without problems for the story-documentary. Jennings may have been correct in his impression that the ‘other irons in the fire’ – the commercial fiction film industry, with the commercial distributors and producers (p.89) of Wardour Street – resented and resisted the incursion on ‘their field’ by the story-documentary. In turn, the story-documentary was compromised: its moves to authenticity were besieged and denatured by the expectations associated with fictional film, which led to the demand that editorial cuts be made to the first half of the film. The differing expectations of fiction film and documentary are inscribed in the story-documentary form of Fires Were Started as a tension between a narrative focus on spectacle and sensation – including the climactic fire scene and the heavy-handed death scene – and the authentic details of the operations and procedures of the volunteer fire service.

Distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and the place of authenticity within such distinctions and dichotomies, were further highlighted by the impending release of the fictional The Bells Go Down (1943). Much of the unease felt by the distributors of Fires Were Started was related to their desire to compete with The Bells Go Down, a film that is strikingly similar in content to Fires Were Started. Both films focus on a fire crew in the London docks area. The daily routines of a fire station are common to both films, as is a dramatic engagement with a major fire. In both Fires Were Started and The Bells Go Down a central character dies in the fire fighting, and both films end with a funeral. However, though similar in content the fictional film and the documentary are dissimilar in their varying approaches. The fiction film is clearly marked as such within its emphasis on the lives and personal background of each of the central characters. In contrast, there are few revelations of the personal lives of Jennings’ characters. In another way, the tone of Fires Were Started is that of the traditional documentary, a ‘discourse of sobriety’, to use Bill Nichols’ phrase.26 In contrast, The Bells Go Down indulges in comedic sequences, at the centre of which is the film's star, Tommy Trinder, a well-known vaudevillian comic. Editing style is another difference between the two films. The editing of Fires Were Started is directed in the main at providing information about the fire service, rather than constructing drama, and the film maintains this stance even during the final, climactic scenes involving the fire. Most notably distinctions between The Bells Go Down and Fires Were Started are pronounced within the function of re-enactment. Rather than collapsing the representation into a fictional mode, re-enactment within a documentary frame validates the depiction as documentary. The point is central to Vaughan's analysis of the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ scene. In this sequence Barrett is seated at a piano in the recreation room playing a tune, when Johnny enters the room, recognises the music and begins to sing. ‘Thereafter, the six others have to enter precisely on cue for their respective verses; and for a bonus, the air-raid (p.90) siren begins just as the last chord is fading. Such a device would … register as contrived and unconvincing in any normal feature film … If we find this sequence acceptable in Fires Were Started, it is because we are not responding strictly within the conventions of narrative realism, but are seeing it as a re-enactment in which the world is granted a certain licence for its self-representation’.27

Witness and re-enactment

Vaughan's example indicates the ways in which re-enactment within the frame of documentary authenticates fictional scenes. The point is clarified through reference to the range of possible re-enacted performances. Brian Winston's elaborate typology of the interventions and types of performances characteristic of re-senactment or reconstruction is valuable here. Winston's continuum includes, at one extreme, non-intervention by the filmmaker in the profilmic scene – the filming of natural disasters is such an example – and total intervention at the other – as in completely fictional representations of people, places and events. From non-intervention ‘[w]e can move on this continuum [to] unfilmed interaction between film-maker and subject (the asking of permission to film, for example)’, and from there through ‘specific unfilmed requests made without prior research to repeat or delay action, to specific requests to re-enact actions witnessed during the research process, to specific requests to re-enact actions witnessed by the subject or others in the past (what may be called history), to specific requests to re-enact actions witnessed elsewhere during the research process performed by other people of the same type as the subjects (what may be called typical), to specific requests to enact actions which are possible but unwitnessed, to specific requests to “act” (that is, to perform before the cameras at the request of the filmmaker without reliance on any witness in ways unrelated to the subject's actual behaviour and personality)’.28 Thus, the steps within the continuum are: non-intervention; permissions; delays and repetitions; re-enactment of witnessed action; re-enactment of history; re-enactment of the typical; enactment of the possible; acting; total intervention.29

According to the continuum, Fires Were Started involves re-enactment of witnessed events (by non-professional actors). In these terms authenticity is conveyed within and through re-enactments, which are endorsed by the fact that they are based on prior realities. ‘The claim on the real in these circumstances was not that the camera filmed things as they were happening, but that it filmed things as they had happened (p.91) and been witnessed’.30 Examples of this process in the film include, among others, the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ sequence. Writing to his wife in October 1940 of the effects of the Blitz, Jennings commented on ‘[p]eople in the north singing in public shelters: “One man went to mow – went to mow a meadow.”’ In the same letter he notes another image that was to reappear in Fires Were Started: the presence of ‘WVS girls serving hot drinks to firefighters’.31 In May 1941 he included among the Whitmanesque lines of his poem ‘I See London’, a series of observations of the capital in the time of the Blitz, the line ‘I see a one-legged man crossing the fire on crutches’, an image which is reproduced in Fires Were Started after the film's climactic fire. Such witnessed events were bolstered by the research trips conducted by Jennings in the process of writing the film's script. The quality of the research is reflected in the fact that commentators praised the film's authenticity. According to a Mass-Observation survey that asked respondents to list their six favourite films of 1943, ‘never have ordinary people been more convincingly documented’ than in Fires Were Started.32

Summarising the form of re-enactment undertaken in Fires Were Started, Winston refers to the practice as ‘people acting themselves’.33 The practice can be located on his continuum of re-enacted action and closely approximates the form he identified as a filmmaker's request to subjects to re-enact witnessed actions. More particularly, however, a sense of authenticity is achieved in Fires Were Started via people being themselves during extended sequences within a documentary frame. Such a condition within the context of reconstruction, though, falls outside the continuum of re-enactment. In a direct way the practice draws on prior reality – the habitual routines of lived reality – as the source of authenticity.

‘With tired firemen’34

Jennings’ particular method of arriving at a situation in which people ‘are themselves’ is via repeated rehearsals. Fred Griffiths, who plays Johnny Houghton, recalled his rehearsals for his part in the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ scene: ‘I’ve started at half past eight in the morning and we go on singing all the way through. A break – half an hour, forty minutes for lunch. Start again. At 5 o’clock – cut! [Jennings] comes over to me, he says: “I think your voice is going.” I’d been singing for 9 hours and he said: “Your voice is going”’.35 In one way such a technique was intended to overcome the shyness and awkwardness of cast members who, in their fatigue, would forget the presence of the (p.92) camera. More particularly, seemingly endless rehearsals reduced his cast members to fatigue, which was the authentic condition of overworked fire fighters in the midst of the Blitz. In these terms, his cast members were not ‘acting tired’, they were tired before the camera. The method is, clearly, extreme. The irony of an endless artificial rehearsal to achieve an authentic condition does not hide the insensitivity, even cruelty, of the technique or dispel the suggestion of Jennings’ ‘imaginative disengagement’ from people.36 The outcome tends to a degree to contradict Jennings’ assertion in a letter to his wife that during the making of Fires Were Started he was ‘really beginning to understand people’.37 However, despite such contradictions, what remains is his commitment to questions of authenticity – often to the point of overly long, exhausting rehearsals of his cast.

What has been called the ‘deeper truth’ of Fires Were Started is revealed via Jennings’ close observation of ‘real’ personnel filmed within the reality of non-studio locations.38 Jennings depicts people from varying classes (Barrett, played by William Sansom, is clearly marked as from a different class to, say, Johnny and Jacko) in ways which refuse a reduction to stereotypes and which eschew characterisations involving, for example, positions of working-class deference or middle-class smugness. Further, the rehearsal process and Jennings’ observational attention to his subjects was capable of revealing ‘flickers of authenticity’ – moments when re-enactment broke down or was substituted by the revelation of real selves.39 Sixty years after Jennings’ film this process has become the subject of critical attention in relation to its operation within televisual ‘popular factual entertainment’. In Fires Were Started a mood of complete authenticity is maintained through a range of strategies. The effect, as William Sansom commented in the early 1960s, is ‘true to life in every respect’.40

The Silent Village: ‘It could happen here’

The Silent Village is motivated by a simple though ingenious conceit: the Nazi massacre of the inhabitants of the mining village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia is transposed to south Wales. Implicit in this approach is the much more complex question of how to represent the unimaginable that is atrocity. Jennings’ contemporary, W. H. Auden, reflected on poetry's capacity to represent human suffering in his essay ‘Squares and Oblongs’ (1948) and in the course of doing so referred to Lidice: ‘There are events which arouse such simple and obvious emotions that an AP cable or a photograph in Life magazine are enough and (p.93) poetic comment is impossible. If one reads through the mass of versified trash inspired, for instance, by the Lidice Massacre, one cannot avoid the conclusion that what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough. Could a good poem have been written on such a subject?’41 Auden queries poetry's ability to function as documentary, and to rival or outstrip other forms such as war reportage (‘an AP cable’) and photojournalism (a ‘photograph in Life magazine’). Elsewhere he concludes that the inventiveness of poetry can transcend documentary visual techniques to depict atrocity. In his poem ‘Memorial for the City’, which concerns the civilian toll of aerial bombardment, he writes that ‘The steady eyes of the crow and the camera's candid eye/see as honestly as they know how, but they lie’.42 In a different conclusion, Jennings upholds the ability of documentary to represent the atrocity of Lidice. However, Jennings the ‘cinematic poet’, like the poet Auden, does so through a major revision of documentary forms. Eschewing reportage (and first-person testimony) and the voice-over commentary employed in numerous wartime documentaries, Jennings extends the reconstructive technique applied in Fires Were Started. The structural ambiguity between fact and fiction at the core of re-enactment and reconstruction is further reworked by Jennings in The Silent Village. In this film Jennings not only reconstructs history – what happened – but also deploys a ‘preconstructive’ mode characterised by supposition and speculation – what might happen.43

The idea for a documentary film commemorating Lidice and alerting the world to the Nazi atrocity arose with a letter received by Jennings in July 1942 from émigré poet Viktor Fischl, then working for the Czech Ministry of Information in London. Fischl's letter was headed, ‘A village in Bohemia: the first draft of a synopsis for a short film on Lidice’.44 Jennings immediately saw the possibility of realising the idea and a year later recalled that he thought it ‘really one of the most brilliant ideas for a short film that we’d ever come across’.45 The British Ministry of Information agreed and Jennings commenced work on the project in the summer of 1942. Fischl's proposal drew comparisons between the coal-mining village of Lidice and a representative mining village in Wales. Jennings set about inspecting potential Welsh locations for such a village. To this end, on the advice of his friend Allen Hutt, he contacted Arthur Horner, president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, who in turn introduced Jennings to D. D. Evans, the miners’ agent for the village of Ystalyfera. Evans suggested to Jennings he reconnoitre the valleys towards Swansea. Before heading off Jennings found in Ystalyfera a postcard depicting a nearby village, Cwmgiedd. Having surveyed the village – with its white-washed Methodist (p.94) church, a stream and the surrounding hills – Jennings decided to make his film in the village and the local area. As with Fires Were Started, though for different reasons, a suitable location was crucial to the project's desired representational effect. Jennings and his crew spent six months filming in and around Cwmgiedd and the unit of a dozen people stayed with local villagers for the duration of filming. He enlisted the entire population of the village in aspects of the production process and various villagers play themselves in the film, using their own names. In a letter to his wife and children on 10 September 1942 Jennings expressed his deep admiration for the local people (a feeling that seems to have been reciprocated) and describes the film that was to become The Silent Village as a ‘reconstruction of the Lidice story’ in which he is filming the inhabitants of the village ‘as honestly as possible – neither like How Green [Was My Valley] – too theatrical – or The Grapes of Wrath – too poverty-stricken’.46

Fischl's proposal called for a straightforward documentary depiction of a Welsh locale and a reconstructed Lidice. The idea was simplified as a drama set in a single Welsh village, recasting the German invasion of Czechoslovakia as a German occupation of Britain. The approach results in a film that fulfils a dual function – it represents the events of Lidice within a re-enactment by the villagers of Cwmgiedd, while it also depicts the everyday culture of the working people of a south Wales mining community during wartime. It is in the dual representation – the re-enactment of events in Lidice and the life of Cwmgiedd, and the interaction and tension of these two components – that the film gains much of its effect. Within this framework The Silent Village is divided into two parts: life in the village prior to the arrival of the Germans, and life under Nazi rule. The first part presents the landscape and locations of Cwmgiedd, including the town's chapel, houses and shops with the chimneys and winches of the pit in the background. The daily life of the people of the village is depicted within a range of activities: singing in the chapel, workers in the mine, children in their schoolroom, domestic chores, a man in his garden and customers in a shop. The day progresses, a shift finishes and the children are let out of school. The evening activities are signalled by the miners returning home. Children enjoy cartoons at the cinema, men talk in a pub and the Miners’ Federation holds a meeting in town to discuss silicosis – a reminder that life in the village is based on a ‘double image’ of zest for life and poor working conditions.47

The second part of the film is introduced by a title, ‘Such is life at Cwmgiedd, and such too was life in Lidice until the coming of the Nazis’. The Nazi occupation is introduced through the arrival in (p.95) the village of a car mounted with a loudspeaker, ordering the people to obey Deputy Reich Protector Heydrich. The villagers immediately band together to resist the intrusion. Members of a quickly organised resistance movement meet in the ruins of a nearby castle, and an underground newspaper is printed. A sniper shoots a German and the villagers sabotage machinery. The occupiers announce that there has been an attempt on Heydrich's life, and the villagers are ordered to register with the authorities. As villagers’ names, ages and occupations are listed a radio announces that a family has been sentenced to death. ‘She only just laughed at them’, says a villager. The Germans set an ultimatum – the assassin must be turned over to them by midnight. The deadline passes and the next morning women and children are separated and marched out of town and the men are lined up against a stone wall surrounding the cemetery next to the chapel. Sounds of gunfire and shots of the school burning follow. A title in Gothic script reads: ‘All the male adults of the village have been shot, the women have been sent to a concentration camp, the children have been handed over to the authorities. The buildings of the locality have been levelled to the ground and the name of the community has been obliterated’. A final scene depicts Cwmgiedd in the present – a shepherd and his flock, children playing in the school grounds. Villagers read the proclamation which appeared in the title and a union leader states, ‘No, comrades, the Nazis are wrong. The name of the community has not been obliterated – the name of the community lives on … We have the power, knowledge, and understanding to hasten the coming of victory – to liberate oppressed humanity, to make sure there are no more Lidices’. A poster advertises a ‘Mass Meeting: Lidice Shall Live Again’, miners return from a shift, and a long shot shows Cwmgiedd in its valley.

Memory and mapping

The re-enactment undertaken in The Silent Village involves a process of memory – of events in Lidice – which is mapped onto the landscape of Cwmgiedd. In this way the site of a barbaric act is mapped on to a landscape which Jennings invests with a travel-brochure lustre. His introduction to Cwmgiedd, in the form of a picture postcard found in a stationer's shop in Ystalyfera, set the frame for Jennings’ filmic depiction. In a talk broadcast on the BBC Home Service he described the postcard image as a ‘very striking photo of a beautiful little chapel with a long wall and a cluster of miners’ houses round it, and a little stream, and a hillside in the background’.48 The terms of this description of an (p.96) image – ‘beautiful’, and the associations of the compact and the cosy in ‘little’ – resonate in his description of his first sight of the village:

[u]p in a little valley … is the village of Cwmgiedd, with a little straight street that goes up into the hill and on each side – charming, beautiful little stone houses and down the middle, parallel to the street, is a mountain stream that comes running down … [There] is a grocer's shop on the right … and on the left, a beautiful white Methodist Chapel … There is a very turbulent river running down this valley and this extraordinarily beautiful group of cottages and then the rest of the street going up … into the farms and mountains.49

This peaceful and Edenic image is replicated in the opening scenes of The Silent Village, thus rendering the violent actions and events of the second half of the film all the more disruptive and shocking. A reviewer for The New York Times captured some of this effect in a review at the time of the film's release in the US by stating that ‘because one comes to love this village as one's own, one feels its death more deeply’.50 However, even before the realisation of events in the second half of the film the memory of Lidice hovers over the imagery and, ironically, the picturesque adds to the memorialisation process – the beauty on screen inevitably evokes the horror which was undertaken off screen. In turn the Nazi atrocities call forth and reinstitute an image of the peaceful countryside, endearing and enduring, a protective place to be protected.

Lyrical descriptions of the village are absent from a ‘book of the film’ published in 1943. The focus of Noel Joseph's The Silent Village: A Story of Wales and Lidice Based on the Crown Film Unit Production is the miner, who is turned into a figure of ‘Liberty’ in the pan-European fight against fascism.51

When Mussolini threw his unwilling peasants and eager generals against the spearmen of Abyssinia, secure in the knowledge that gas would decide the issue in his favour if battle did occur, the miner had no ear for the sweetly reasonable voices which explained how well the neat blueprints of a caesarean culture would fit the wild wastes of the Ethiopias … [And in Spain, at Guadalajara] and on the banks of the Ebro, men from these coalfields had died among the first volunteers for Liberty … now these miners who had seen Fascism blight and wither the flowering hopes of nation after nation, were to hear one of their leaders tell them their own fate, tell them that their hour had struck.52

The film does not rely on such unconcealed propagandistic rhetoric. The miners play a crucial role in Jennings’ film, though their heroism is based on fortitude and a quiet courage as opposed to the overly eager ‘volunteers for Liberty’ of the book's narrative. In The Silent Village the miners are heroic in their resistance to occupation – and as such the (p.97) figure in Jennings’ film abandons the Griersonian image of the coal miner in Coalface (1935) and other films from the British documentary movement of the 1930s wherein the miner is either a victim or a heroised agent of state-endorsed labour.

Rather than such restricted depictions, or equally limiting representations of the miner as a worker in various relations to the means of production, Jennings in The Silent Village is more concerned with the evocation of a sense of what is essentially a romanticised image of the miners’ characteristics. It was this image which he repeated in a letter to his wife, in which he talked of the miners’ ‘honest Christian and Communist principles daily acted on as a matter of course … Not merely honesty, culture, manners, practical socialism, but real life: with passion and tenderness and comradeship and heartiness all combined’.53 Jennings’ description of the countryside and his depiction of its inhabitants show signs of the rural myth that pervades much of his work. The combination of countryside and nation is deployed here, as in works such as Spare Time, Heart of Britain and Listen to Britain, to suggest essential national characteristics. However, unlike the films mentioned here, The Silent Village pursues such a representation within and through a preconstructive mode.

The preconstructive mode and the future

The preconstruction of The Silent Village involves re-enactment of historical events intended to signal the possibility of varieties of action in the future. Such a category is beyond the continuum of forms of re-enactment devised by Winston. As with Fires Were Started, the re-enactment in The Silent Village is of actions witnessed by the subjects or others in the past, though it supersedes this function in its implicit exhortation to action intended to avert future possible outcomes. In these terms the re-enactment of historical events begs the assessment that ‘it could happen here if fascism is not stopped’. The preconstructive mode is also applied in the film Went the Day Well?, directed at Ealing Studios a few months before The Silent Village by Jennings’ old friend Alberto Cavalcanti. The story of Went the Day Well? concerns a group of Nazi soldiers who, disguised as British troops, infiltrate an English village as the first step towards a wider occupation of Britain.54 The film historian Clive Coultass argues that ‘By the time the film was released [October 1942], there was scarcely any danger of an invasion of Britain and the story is presented as a retrospective look at fictional events’.55 While the fear of invasion may have passed, historical context – in the form of anxieties (p.98) over invasion – no doubt informed the production of both Went the Day Well? and The Silent Village. However, to reduce Went the Day Well? to this perspective misses the point of the film. Went the Day Well? is not directed to the past; it is a preconstructive looking forward, not necessarily to a Nazi invasion of Britain but to the pressing need to conquer fascism in order to preclude such a situation. Like The Silent Village, Cavalcanti's film has a hard propagandistic edge, which functions as a warning to act to secure the British way of life now and into the future.

However, within its mediation of entertainment values the allusions to the British way of life in Went the Day Well? tend to be muted, or displaced within a plot which continually emphasises suspense in its move towards climactic action. In contrast The Silent Village clarifies its appeal to the British way of life within its consistent evocation of a rural myth that embodies landscape as the ‘heart of Britain’ and which encapsulates the essential decency of those who are sustained by such a landscape. In these terms the cogency of the message of The Silent Village exceeds that of Went the Day Well?, and Jennings’ film more effectively serves as a call to protect the British way of life. While Went the Day Well? pays attention to the nefarious Nazis, Jennings’ film rarely depicts the enemy invaders in its attention to the countryside and its inhabitants. In contrast, then, to Went the Day Well?, where the narrative focus is on ‘who we are fighting’, The Silent Village emphasises ‘what we are fighting for’. In another way, unlike Went the Day Well?, a fictional plot based on a short story by Graham Greene, The Silent Village roots its exhortation to action in the memory of historical events. The form of memorialisation operative within and via the preconstructive mode in The Silent Village thus has a dual function. It is a call to military action to stop fascism, and it is also a conservationist call to action on the home front. The latter feature, which is linked to the first, emphasises that the way of life and the landscape represented by Cwmgiedd should not be lost. In this way the film uses the past to motivate future action: to erase fascism, and in so doing maintain the British way of life.

According to certain critical assessments, the event that motivated this representation – World War II – was intricately associated with the story-documentary form through which the event was represented. Andrew Higson has elaborated this point in an analysis of the story-documentary, which stresses a focus within the form on the role of social groups in wartime (such as the firemen in Fires Were Started, or in an example not cited by Higson, the villagers of The Silent Village). The ideological effect of this emphasis, he argues, is ‘an articulation of nation as responsible community and individual desire, an articulation which finds a place for both the public and the private’.56 This mediation (p.99) of the public and private spheres within wartime storydocumentaries coincided with, and functioned in support of, a war effort that conscripted the private sphere into the national public domain. Higson contextualises the economic and policy conditions within the film industry which led to the creation of the story-documentary by arguing that the ‘ideological conditions of World War II … established the possibility of a remarkable convergence of documentary and narrative fiction modes’.57

Higson's analysis valuably draws attention to the ways in which the concept of the nation during wartime included existing understandings of its relationship to the public and expanded to encompass individual desire, wants and hopes. However, the conclusion drawn from this situation – that the enlarged concept of the nation laid the ideological groundwork for the meeting of documentary and fiction modes – is problematic. The distinction in this analysis between ‘documentary’ and ‘narrative fiction modes’ runs contrary to Grierson's foundational definition of documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’, an interpretation that accepts a degree of fictionalisation within the practices referred to as documentary. Following Grierson, the early British documentary movement frequently produced works referred to as documentaries (among them some of the best-known works of the movement such as Night Mail, 1936, and Grierson's own Drifters, 1929), which licence multiple fictional elements, including scripted acting, pointofview shots, and forms of editing which permitted narrative movement in time and space. Jennings innovatively revised this approach by including within his creative treatment of the Lidice story a preconstructive mode through which he effectively raised questions concerning Britain's future by marrying the story-documentary with the preconstructive mode. In a connected way, The Silent Village and A Diary for Timothy, both of which are linked via context and narrative with events during World War II, deploy the preconstructive mode to evoke possible future conditions and, in the case of A Diary for Timothy, explicitly to look forward to and beyond the end of the war.



(1) The correct title of the film is ‘Fires Were Started –’, which is simplified here to Fires Were Started. After the images of fire which closed Listen to Britain, Jennings’ focused on fire, and fire-fighting, as a theme of home-front experience during the Blitz. Regular references in broadcasts and newsprint to the fact that ‘fires were started’ as a result of German incendiary raids reinforced the centrality of fire within the Blitz.

(2) See L. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (London: Oxford University Press, 1972). (p.100)

(3) Documentary News Letter, 4 (1942), 200. Quoted in Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’, p. 53.

(4) Ibid.

(5) W. Sansom, ‘The Making of Fires Were Started’, Film Quarterly, 15: 2 (winter 1961–62), 27.

(6) Box 1, Humphrey Jennings Collection, BFI Special Collections, British Film Institute, London.

(7) S. Inwood, A History of London (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 788–9.

(8) Letter by Humphrey Jennings to Cicely Jennings, 12 April 1942 reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 58.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) A. Britton, ‘Their Finest Hour: Humphrey Jennings and the British Imperial Myth of World War II’, CineAction! 18 (fall 1989), 40.

(13) R. Colls and P. Dodd, ‘Representing the Nation: British Documentary Film, 1930–45’, Screen, 26: 1 (January–February 1985), 27.

(14) Ministry of Information, Front Line, 1940–41: The Official Story of the Civil Defence in Britain (London: HMSO, 1942), p. 24.

(15) Ibid., p. 39

(16) Quoted in J. Chapman, ‘Cinema, Propaganda and National Identity: Film and the Second World War’, in J. Ashby and A. Higson (eds), British Cinema, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 198. In other ways official policy stressed references to historical events and past times as elements of wartime propaganda. After 1941 MoI film policy shifted emphasis. In 1942 the Kinematograph Weekly noted that the MoI sought films ‘which were not nostalgic about the old ways and old days … but realistic films of everyday life’. Quoted in S. Harper, ‘The Years of Total War: Propaganda and Entertainment’, in C. Gledhill and G. Swanson (eds), Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 195. The near contemporary setting of Fires Were Started (it deals with events from the beginning of the Blitz, a year before production) fits within the MoI's new policy requirements. The overriding theme of MoI film policy remained that of patriotism, a theme reinforced in Fires Were Started in the ‘national service’ role of the Auxiliary Fire Service. On emphases within propaganda policy see chapter 6, ‘Adaptation to War’ of M. Dickinson and S. Street, Cinema and State: The Film Industry and the Government, 1927–84 (London: BFI Publishing, 1985), and the Introduction to F. Thorpe and N. Pronay, with C. Coultass, British Official Films in the Second World War (Oxford: Clio Press, 1980).

(17) Quoted in Fox, Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany, p. 115.

(18) Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’, p. 21.

(19) Chapman, ‘Cinema, Propaganda and National Identity’, p. 199. Other sources on the ‘wartime wedding’ include Murphy, Realism and Tinsel, chapter 2, and C. Barr, ‘The National Health: Pat Jackson's White Corridors’, in I. MacKillop and N. Sinyard (eds), British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 64–73. According to James Chapman the term ‘wartime wedding’ appears to have originated with John Shearman in his article ‘Wartime Wedding’, Documentary News Letter, 6: 54 (November–December 1946), 53. J. Chapman, ‘British Cinema and “the People's War”’, in N. Hayes and J. Hill (eds), ‘Millions Like Us?’ British Culture in the Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 35. Chapman argues elsewhere that the ‘fiction-documentary formula’ was the ‘characteristic mode of representation in most 1950s war films which were based on actual wartime events’. He cites in (p.101) this relation The Colditz Story (1950), The Wooden Horse (1950), and The Dam Busters (1956), among other titles. J. Chapman, ‘Our Finest Hour: The Second World War in British Feature Film since 1945’, Journal of Popular British Cinema, 1 (1998), 69. Andrew Higson argues that a conjunction of fiction and documentary elements characteristic of the story-documentary constituted a core of Britain's contribution to wartime and immediate post-war cinema. A. Higson, ‘“Britain's Outstanding Contribution to the Film”: The Documentary-Realist Tradition’, in C. Barr (ed.), All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1986), pp. 81–8.

(20) Quoted in Chapman, ‘Cinema, Propaganda and National Identity’, p. 199.

(21) ‘NFT Programme Notes (n.d)’ by Harry Watt, appended to G. Lambert, ‘Interview: Alberto Cavalcanti and Gavin Lambert’, Screen, 143: 2 (1972), 48.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Letter from Colonel A. C. Bromhead of General Films Distributors to Jack Beddington, director of the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, 27 November 1942. The National Archives INF 1/212.

(24) Memorandum from Jack Beddington, director of the Films Division, to Ian Dalrymple, head of the Crown Film Unit, 26 November 1942. The National Archives INF 1/212.

(25) Reprinted in Jennings (ed.), Humphrey Jennings, p. 35.

(26) B. Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

(27) Vaughan, Portrait of an Invisible Man, p. 107.

(28) B. Winston, ‘“Honest, Straightforward Re-enactment”: The Staging of Reality’, in K. Bakker (ed.), Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), p. 163.

(29) Ibid.

(30) Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’, p. 20.

(31) Reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 8.

(32) J. Richards and D. Sheridan (eds), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 225.

(33) Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’, p. 68.

(34) The phrase is by Jennings in a letter to his wife during the making of Fires Were Started: ‘But what one learns at midnight with tired firemen … ’. Reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 8.

(35) Quoted in Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’, p. 33.

(36) Britton, ‘Their Finest Hour’, 40.

(37) Reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 58.

(38) Winston refers to the ‘deeper truth’ of Fires Were Started a number of times in his analysis of the film. Winston, ‘Fires Were Started –’. See, for example, pp. 34, 64, 69.

(39) J. Roscoe, ‘Real Entertainment: New Factual Hybrid Television’, Media International Australia, 100 (August 2001), 14.

(40) Sansom, ‘The Making of Fires Were Started’, p. 29.

(41) W. H. Auden, ‘Squares and Oblongs’, in C. Abbott (ed.), Poets at Work (New York: Harcourt, 1948), pp. 163–81.

(42) Quoted in M. Bryant, Auden and Documentary in the 1930s (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1971), p. 173.

(43) The preconstructive mode expresses and embodies the conditional mood of the grammatical tense of the subjunctive – what might have been, could be or would be.

(44) Jennings discussed the origins of The Silent Village in a talk on the BBC Home Service, 26 May 1943. A rough transcript of the broadcast is printed in Jackson (p.102) (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, pp. 67–75. The reference to Fischl's letter is on p. 67.

(45) Ibid., p. 67.

(46) Reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 62.

(47) Ibid.

(48) Reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 70.

(49) Ibid.

(51) N. Joseph, The Silent Village: A Story of Wales and Lidice Based on the Crown Film Production (London: The Pilot Press Ltd., 1943).

(52) Ibid., p. 31.

(53) Letter of 10 September 1942, reprinted in Jackson (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, p. 62.

(54) The Silver Fleet (1943) returned to the theme of Nazi invasion and occupation, begging the question in its representation of resistance in Nazi-occupied Holland, ‘How should we behave if the Nazis ran the country?’, C. Geraghty, ‘Disguises and Betrayals: Negotiating Nationality and Femininity in Three Wartime Films’, in Gledhill and Swanson (eds), Nationalising Femininity, p. 234.

(55) C. Coultass, ‘British Feature Films and the Second World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, 19: 1 (January 1994), 14.

(56) Higson, ‘“Britain's Outstanding Contribution to the Film”’, in Barr (ed.), All Our Yesterdays, pp. 72–97.

(57) Ibid., p. 88.