Commuters picking their way through rubble-strewn streets; an upended double-decker bus; a woman sweeping bomb debris from her doorstep. These indelible images of the Blitz were captured in 1940 by the newly-formed Crown Film Unit (CFU). Contained in the short film London Can Take It! they helped to convey the ‘blitz spirit’, and showed audiences in the United States that Britain was far from beaten. It was a very successful start for the CFU, and one that they would repeat and build on throughout the war.
Until mid-1940, the Ministry of Information (MoI) had no “official” film production agency. Early propaganda documentaries, such as The First Days (showing the preparations for, and initial reaction, to war) and Spring Offensive (explaining how farmers were coping with the challenge of feeding the nation) had been filmed by the GPO Film Unit in 1939, more or less on their own initiative. It was Duff Cooper, appointed by Churchill as Minister of Information in May 1940, who moved the GPO Film Unit to the MoI’s direct control, and renamed it ‘The Crown Film Unit’.
With the remit of producing informative and morale-boosting films, as well as providing a cinematic record of the war, the CFU had its work cut out during its first few months – the Low Countries and France surrendered, troops were evacuated from Dunkirk Britain stood alone. It was as the Blitz began that the CFU produced London Can Take It! Direction is sometimes credited to Humphrey Jennings, sometimes to Harry Watt and in the case of imdb.com to both men. The film itself bears no directorial credit, only one for the narration by Quentin Reynolds, the American war correspondent for Collier’s Weekly. Harry Watt had served his apprenticeship with Film Units at the Empire Marketing Board and the GPO, and had already begun to develop a ‘drama-documentary’ style in pre-war films such as The Saving of Bill Blewett (1937) and North Sea (1938). In London Can Take It! striking images of devastation were juxtaposed with a laconic ‘business as usual’ narration that likened the city to a prize fighter getting up after a knock-down blow and coming back swinging. Immensely popular in Britain, the film was also hugely successful with its target audience in the United States – by October 1940 it had already taken over £11,000 at the American box office.
A follow-up , Heart of Britain, was filmed in the north of England by Jennings. With scenes ranging from the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District through to factories and furnaces, it featured stirring music from great British composers such as Elgar and Handel. The final shots – of Wellington bombers taking off to target Germany – was accompanied by The Hallelujah Chorus.
As the air-raids intensified, the MoI realised that the CFU’s offices in Soho and Blackheath might not be the safest places to be, and moved the Unit out to Pinewood studios in Buckinghamshire. There, the documentary makers and the commercial film makers learned from each other, and the CFU were able to access much better equipment.
In a new departure, Harry Watts took the CFU into feature-film territory, with a fifty-minute story starring RAF personnel Target for Tonight. One of the first films to show Britain taking the fight to Germany, and consequently a big hit with audiences, it eventually became the CFU’s biggest box-office success, and even won an ‘honorary’ Oscar for “its vivid and dramatic presentation of the heroism of the RAF”.
Two more of the CFU’s ‘five minute films’ also proved popular Words for Battle and Listen to Britain. In both cases it was the combination of audio and images that provided simple reminders of what the country was fighting for, and made them so effective.
By the end of 1942, the MoI decided that the ‘five minute’ features had served their purpose, and replaced them with slightly longer films of 10-15 minutes. The CFU produced a number of these over the next few years, including The Eighty Days – also shown in shorter form as The V-1. Written and narrated by Fletcher Markle, V1 was a bookend to London Can Take It! with its scenes of broken streets and dusty pedestrians. The narration acknowledged the death, suffering and chaos caused by the ‘doodlebugs’ but the emphasis was still on the fighting spirit of Londoners, the armed forces, and the city’s defences.
While the filming of shorter features continued, the success of Target for Tonight also enabled the Unit to make more full-length films. In 1942, Coastal Command, which featured the Atlantic and Channel operations of the flying boats, provided the CFU with another critical and box-office success. Director JB Holmes had at one time been Production Supervisor at the GPO Film Unit. Though he had started out in commercial film-making, he had concentrated on training and educational films for the GPO; Coastal Command proved to be a mixture of both. The plot bore more than a passing resemblance to Target for Tonight, following one plane and its crew through their various adventures, but in drawing attention to a rather neglected branch of the Services, it also proved its worth as an instructional film.
Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started became one of the best-known feature-length films, with its story of ‘twenty-four hours with the Auxiliary Fire Service’. Not all the critics were kind – the Daily Telegraph’s Campbell Dixon felt that the action took “an unconscionable amount of time to get started” and, when it did, “the spectacle is disappointing” – but it is nowadays regarded as a prime example of Jennings’ docu-drama style.
As with all the CFU films, the stars of these features were uniformed personnel, not actors. This sometimes made for indistinct delivery of dialogue, and some stilted action, but the films were successful enough for the CFU to continue with the ‘non-professional’ approach with The Silent Village and Western Approaches.
Inspired by a letter from Viktor Fischl, of the Czech Ministry of Information in London, The Silent Village showed how the massacre at Lidice might have happened in the Welsh mining village of Cwmgiedd, if the Nazis had managed to invade. Featuring astonishingly naturalistic performances from the villagers, it was shown on TV as recently as 2009 (on Sky Arts) and, thanks to the complete conviction of everyone involved, it remains a compelling and deeply moving film.
Western Approaches, an ambitious Technicolor production, moved the focus back to the Auxiliary Services. Written and Directed by Pat Jackson, the actors were, of course, provided by real Merchant Navy personnel. Jackson, and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, travelled on an actual convoy from New York to Liverpool (under threat of U-Boat attacks) in order to obtain authentic footage. “You can’t make a [water] tank look like the Atlantic,” Jackson explained on the 2004 DVD commentary. Even the staged scenes in the Lifeboat were done out at sea, to Jack Cardiff’s discomfort – in the small, wave-tossed craft, he was constantly seasick.
The CFU’s importance waned in the last few years of the war, when the photographic units attached to the armed services began to produce exciting and award-winning documentaries of their own, with actuality footage of battles on land, sea and air. The Unit was finally closed down in 1952; but during its short life it had served its purpose of putting across the urgent and important messages that the government deemed necessary. Thanks to the talents of the film crews, and directors such as Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt, the Unit also produced some memorable and award-winning films, the best of which still make for fascinating viewing.