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Savant Preview Review:

Listen to Britain and other Films by Humphrey Jennings

Listen to Britain and other Films by Humphrey Jennings
Image Entertainment
1940-51 / B&W / 1:37 / 182 min. / Street Date June 4, 2002 / 24.99
Starring Myra Hess, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier (voice)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

As their earliest geniuses, documentarians point to American Flaherty and Englishmen John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings as three of the most influential pioneers. This DVD collects a series of Humphrey Jennings' most famous works, all of which center on England during or just after WW2.

What often passed for a documentary in the '30s was a haphazard assemblage of images, often with a live narrator to accompany them. Jennings' sophisticated films were painstakingly shot and edited to have an emotional and aesthetic effect far beyond simply conveying information. Many of the films are comprised of image after image as carefully composed and exposed as a great photograph; some have very delicate editing rhythms, and a couple are elevated by experimental uses of audio to create a mood and evoke a semblance of reality.

These must be the most gentle and non-confrontational propaganda films ever made. The majority of them deal directly with the English response to the bombing of their cities by the despised Germans, who threaten their entire way of life. Yet, unlike Capra's Why We Fight series, Jennings' work seeks neither to inform about atrocities or to incite hatred. Instead, in an almost inspirational way, the resilience and will of the English people are stated in terms free of hyperbole or exaggerated emotion. Perhaps this is the stiff upper-lip people talk about, but it's really just restrained understatement. The subject matter is already emotionally loaded; Jennings doesn't exploit that. The stirring voice of Laurence Olivier and the acting of John Gielgud remind us of how noble England can be.


London Can Take It!
1940 / 9 minutes / Directed by Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings.
An American reporter relates a day in the center of London during the Blitz, stressing how the citizen moreale is actually fortified by the bombings. London is being torn to bits by the nightly bombardment, but the city is determined to resist, no matter what.

Jennings' most famous film almost off-handedly shows the utter destruction raining on London (including the tossed bus on the DVD cover illustration). The shots are more newsreel-oriented than later Jennings films, but they're very carefully arranged. By openly, proudly showing the bomb hits instead of trying to minimize them, the film concentrates on honoring the character of the Londoners, going so far as to make little jokes about the wrecked stores, etc. The message to Londoners and enemies alike is that the bombing isn't going to put the nation out of business, far from it. It was wildly popular in the UK and very influential in America, where it had an enormous impact on public opinion to support the beseiged Brits.

Words for Battle
1941 / 8 minutes / Compiled and Directed by Humphrey Jennings.
A medley of visuals accompanies Laurence Olivier as he quotes great Englishmen like Milton, Blake, and Browning, as well as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.

Brief and verbally poetic, Jennings reportedly assembled this film from found footage instead of shooting new scenes. The quiet reserve in Olivier's voice is hypnotizing, as he reads some of the most famous and stirring words written in the English language. We pass through clouds and see rather literal representations of the great author, but the message is clear to Englishmen: you have a cultural heritage and a nobility second to none, and a National will based not on competition or hatred but on the rights of man. The war is scarcely mentioned, except for some shots of aircraft being prepared for battle.

Listen to Britain
1942 / 18 minutes / Written, Edited and Directed by Humphrey Jennings. and Stewart McAlister
A montage of wartime activity, focusing on naturalistic montages of trains, people dancing and working, and preparing defenses for the country - but concentrating on an audio montage of noises, voices and music.

Another, more extended tone poem that has no formal narration or set plot. Instead, we're given an aural portrait of a nation working, fighting back day to day. Planes are seen battling high in the sky, but we see ordinary Britons at their labors and their entertainments, with a complex and detailed sound montage that stresses bits of 'overheard' dialogue sandwiched between familiar sounds. The most artistic of the films here, this is still powerful propaganda. It seems to shout, "We're not defeated", without a single overt outcry of defiance. A special treat is a look at the youthful John Gielgud performing the Yorick scene from Hamlet.

Fires Were Started
1943 / 70 minutes / Written and Directed by Humphrey Jennings.
A day in the life of a fire crew that must fight to keep the docks functioning during the Nazi air raids. Organization, teamwork, and sacrifice are required as the firemen fight through the night, with bombs falling around them.

Jennings' second most famous film, this feature length docu is the most dated, simply because it goes on so long and is so literal. Essentially a naturalistic drama extolling the heroism and dedication of the firemen (certainly a topical sentiment today), its detail and realism is impressive but gets stretched rather thin over the running time. Apparently shown in varying lengths under different titles, this is purported to be the long version.

A Diary for Timothy
1945 / 39 minutes / Narration by E.M. Forster / Directed by Humphrey Jennings.
A baby arrives exactly five years after the start of the war, and the film reviews events to catch him up on the violent and uncertain world into which he's been born. The sacrifices of his parents, and their hopes for the future are what young Timothy has for a legacy.

The most all-round satisfying of the films, this imaginative chronicle welcomes the brand-new Tim into a struggle-in-progress, telling him times are tough but he's part of a good crew. Jennings mixes some of his most beautiful and carefully-shot images with famous author Forster's compelling narration, following not only Tim's family but the day-to-day work of a railroad engineer, and a pilot recovering from a wound to his leg (which is graphically real). With the war presumed won but more heartbreak expected, we see a string of headlines talking about Arnhem (the subject of A Bridge Too Far that was initially reported as a victory) and the Battle of the Bulge, but experience things from the home view. The Home Guard is disbanded with a parade; sappers defuse and explode mines on the beach, so Timothy, 'Won't be blown to bits when he's old enough to play there". Sentimental but never weepy, this strikes a nice balance between visual beauty and narrative momentum.

Family Portrait
1951 / 26 minutes / Written and Directed by Humphrey Jennings
Made for a celebration of Britain, this film examines the English character and its new place in the post-war world.

Sort of a letdown after the at-sword's-point eloquence of the wartime films, this show does its best to talk about the better aspects of the British political system ("where politicians dine with the opposition") and the desire to make the classed society more equitable. After the clear issues of the wartime films, it now seems slightly evasive in its applauding of the commonwealth - in actuality, Britain by 1951 was broke, stripped of most of its colonies and enjoying few of the benefits of victory that the Americans had claimed. The film isn't hollow, but neither does it seem to encompass the whole picture of a Nation in crisis, either.

This famous filmmaker didn't have the opportunity to let his work subside into lesser achievements; according to the very scholarly and thorough liner notes by Dean W. Duncan, Humphrey Jennings died in an accident soon after Family Portrait, at the age of 43. The films in this collection require historical and emotional context to be appreciated - Not just for their cinematic value, but for their unrelenting humanism in the face of possible extinction. The films are soaked in certain noble 20th-Century values that are becoming very rare in our new world. It's not easy to be proud of one's country, when it broadcasts hateful warnings and self-righteous threats to other countries on a daily basis.

Image Entertainment's DVD of Listen to Britain and other Films by Humphrey Jennings is a well-assembled group of great films in only passable condition. None are broken, but all are well scratched from wear, and are too grainy and contrasty to be from archive-quality materials. David Shepard is the producer, so it might be surmised that these prints are all there are to be had, except that since they come from the Blackhawk Collection, we can also assume that these are not from original English sources. A couple of the prints have original censor cards, but are not in any better shape. The disc bears a disclaimer stating that the sound quality is not always up to par. In general, the audio is serviceable, but almost always has some distortion. Fires Were Started suffers the most, as it has the most dialogue, often delivered off the cuff by non-actors. Much of it is just unintelligible, which may have contributed to its lack of impact on this reviewer. And the disc had no closed captions or subtitles that would have helped one through (or, God forbid, make the disc accessible to deaf viewers).

Yet, the beauty here comes through largely unimpaired. The films should be required viewing for film students. Better yet, today's television 'journalists' with their trash 'news' should be forced to watch these elegant & responsible works of art.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Listen to Britain and other Films by Humphrey Jennings rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Fair
Sound: Fair
Supplements: Extra: Myra Hess playing Beethoven on the piano, a full short-subject extension of a segment in Listen to Britain.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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