One of the interesting things that arise from having joined the 1001 Movies list in the early 1940s is that these first posts, not surprisingly, are have a higher-than-average proportion of propaganda films and war subjects (and if you missed our initial post on this subject, see here, and here for the earlier posts in this series on a different site).
Today’s subject is a 1943 film produced by Britain’s Ministry of Information, entitled Fires Were Started. It tells the tale of a newcomer to the Auxiliary Fire Service, a group of civilian volunteer firefighters (the real ones pictured below) who were often put at the forefront of the fire control effort during the Blitz. It has all the hallmarks of a propaganda film*: it depicts a heroic activity in which the common man can participate during a time of war, and shows that you are better for it, and that everyone is doing their part against a terrible scourge.
One thing I did find interesting, and something I’ve also observed in other British films of the era, is that the films are very careful never to demonize Germany or the German people. While Nazis are fair game, when they are mentioned in the British films I’ve seen, they are shown as having perverted a noble race as opposed to representing it. In this film, the scourge isn’t the Nazis, it’s fire. Fire symbolizes the plight and fight of the people of Britain and gives a framework to the heroic actions of the firefighters, as well as a clear backdrop to the philosophy that, if one kept one’s head and continued working, everything would be all right. There is one particular scene where the telephone operators in the firehouse, mainly young women, suffer a number of near -and one very near-misses from enemy bombs, but still carry on with their tasks. Esprit de Corps is also a central motif here.
The fact that it’s not an actual documentary, but a dramatization of typical events allowed the director, Humphrey Jennings (pictured above), the leeway he needed to make it more effective. The film pulls at the heartstrings because the sacrifices have a human face, and it works as propaganda because the heroism of those that sacrifice isn’t wasted, it allows the war effort to proceed. The fact that Jenkins employed real members of the Service to act in the film, probably increased the amount of emotion that shone through.
As a basic course in propaganda, it is hugely effective, and I’d love to hear which other propaganda films you’ve found to be equally so. From an earlier era, Battleship Potemkin comes to mind (while October is an example of how to overdo it and bore an audience to tears). Any others? I’d love to hear your suggestions – and maybe add to the review list!
On a related but separate note, I’ve often been asked where one can get these movies, as it’s a bit frustrating to read a review of something, and then be unable to find it anywhere without resorting to piracy (although piracy seems to be less of an issue in some countries than in others). For this particular list, I’ve found that Netflix has about 80% of all the titles available, including Fires Were Started.
*I was about to write “of a good propaganda film”, but edited it, as we need to have a discussion on what exactly makes a propaganda film “good”.