What’s it about?
It is tempting to label director Humphrey Jennings ‘the George Orwell of British cinema’ if such a declaration could revive interest in this filmmaker’s work. However, ultimately, such comparisons may muddy the water than offer clarity. Yet temptation waits.
Jennings remains one of the great poets of our national cinema, one of a few, and his work for the GPO and Crown Film Units is being restored by the BFI and released in dual format (DVD and Blu-ray). Jennings’ work is much more experimental in approach than others working at the time for the units and contains frissons of surrealism (only ever a flirtation, but it’s definitely there). The comparisons with Orwell emerge, if briefly, from Jennings’ inclusive vision of British society and obsession with Englishness and its spirit. Of course this can stretch out to the term ‘Britishness’ but there’s a sense England and its heartbeat is what matters. It is hard not to watch the masterful Listen to Britain, co-directed with Stuart McAllister, and not think of George Orwell’s writings and critical essays such as The Lion and the Unicorn.
This second volume brings us some of Jennings most extraordinary and flawed work. Jennings was an artist with a complicated relationship with the medium of film and his handling of content ranges from hack-eyed to inspired. It was noted by several people that Jennings was considered too intellectual for cinema and funnily enough, they said it about his original vocation as a painter too. Perhaps Jennings was the sort of character who struggled with the artistic force inside, but once he nailed it – he delivered something extraordinarily moving.
The Heart of Britain, Words for Battle, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and The Silent Village make up an important period for Jennings. The films here range from just over ten minutes to over sixty-five minutes. Fires Were Started is considered ‘the’ masterpiece and at first it is hard to understand such a claim. The opening act, as many critics have noted since, is a bit stodgy and likely to put some off sitting through it all. Yet once it gets going this is both a poetic feature and wonderfully evocative record of life during wartime. As Lindsay Anderson writes in his superb essay on Jennings (included in the accompanying booklet): “This is what it was like. This is what we were like – the best of us.”
How’s the picture and sound?
The BFI have given Jennings’ work HD transfers from elements stored by the BFI in their archives. Now it is important to place the GPO and Crown Film Units in their social, and later, propaganda contexts. These were public service shorts and short features created to bolster nationalist pride and feeling, especially during the years 1939 – 1945.
This latest volume was transferred in 2007 (Words for Battle and Listen to Britain) by Midnight Transfer with the rest done at Prime Focus London in 2011. The films do possess signs of ageing and wear. Frame wobbles, sound interference and scratches are visible despite the sharpness of the HD transfer. One must remember the restoration of film is an incredible difficult process from aged celluloid to a new digital home. Jennings work has never looked this good (remember they were public service films and not standard pictures). Well done BFI and those companies whose hard work allows fresh audiences and old admirers to see these films in near tiptop shape.
The two main disc extras are a re-titled Listen to Britain (for US audiences and government) with commentary from famous journalist Ed Morrow, titled This is England. Also included is Jennings’ longer cut of Fires Were Started – titled less effectively as I Was A Fireman.
The booklet which accompanies this second volume is brilliant. Included is director Lindsay Anderson’s 1954 Sight and Sound article ‘Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings‘. Anderson’s insightful and persuasive look at Jennings work is likely to offer the reader fresh angles with which to approach the director’s films. Patrick Russell’s short essay ‘Humphrey Jennings and Crown’ puts the director within the wartime propaganda context.
It gets better. Each film included on this disc comes with recent reviews by academics and writers Adrian Smith, Patrick Russell, John Wvyer, Kevin Jackson and Wendy Webster. These are excellent dissections of each film. A short biography article on Jennings by Julian Petley and short notes on film editor Stuart McAllister and producer Ian Darlrymple round things off.
The disc extras might be light but the booklet more than makes up for it with plenty to ponder and help the reader understand the director’s film work and the economic and historical context in which they were produced.
Humphrey Jennings was a propaganda artist not interested in ramming any sort of ideology down the viewer’s throat. This is unusual in itself. Instead, Jennings sort to explore themes of national identity and a nation’s fortitude under increased hardships and very real threats from Nazi Germany. What unfolds is an important film record of life during this era matched to an artistic sensibility which experimented with techniques to produce something poetic and unusual.
Humphrey Jennings may or may not be a ‘George Orwell of the screen’ but he remains an important filmmaker in British screen history. Look what his short career left behind – a reminder of ‘the best of us’.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Monday 23rd April on dual format