Often inspired by or extended from documentaries and short films made as propaganda by the Ministry of Information, wartime feature films such as In Which We Serve and Went The Day Well? (both released in 1942), and Millions Like Us (1943) told the stories of “the people’s war”, in which ordinary people performed heroically under terrible conditions.
These films aimed to raise morale on the home front and many featured many of the most popular comedians and stars of the time. West End star Celia Johnson made her movie debut in two such films: the female recruitment film In Which We Serve; and A Letter From Home, a film directed by Sir Carol Reed and shown exclusively in America as a plea for American women to encourage the government join the war.
Their Finest, featuring a cast which includes Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy and Sam Clafin, revolves around the production of one of these morale-boosting wartime films. Ahead of the film’s release, History Extra spoke to Lissa Evans, the author of 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, about the films that were created to lift the nation’s spirits and the people that made them…
Q: What kind of subjects would these wartime British films have covered?
A: It was hugely variable. When America was neutral, it was able to get films from both German and the UK. On the one hand, it was getting these tremendously well-made films from Leni Riefenstahl, a German film director and actress who became a favourite of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. On the other hand, Britain was sending these slightly stuffy, emotionally repressed ‘stiff-upper-lip’ films, which the Americans found quite hard to identify with. When researching, I found memos from American distributors to the British Ministry of Information asking for films with more ‘oomph’ and more action. They wanted films with ambulances careering around corners and loud explosions, so they found the muffled, ‘plummy’ feel of British films to be understated and unimpressive.
There were films made by Hollywood like Mrs Miniver (1942), which aimed to show how Britain was coping with the start of the Blitz, the battle of Britain, or Dunkirk. But on the whole, they were making films that they felt reflected the British character, which Americans found perhaps more difficult to understand.
When I looked through boxes of notes and memos from the Ministry of Information’s film division, I found a man called Sidney Bernstein, who became a special advisor to the division. He was a very shrewd man who’d been head of Granada Cinemas before the war. When he got the job at the division, Bernstein asked his managers to write to him every couple of weeks and tell him what audiences were watching at the cinema and what they were saying about it. These letters form a fantastic archive into the peculiar difficulties of making films in the war and of people’s opinions at the time. There’s one description of a film about munitions workers called A Call to Arms! (1940). It was shown to an audience that had a large contingent of arsenal workers, who booed at the inauthenticity of the film. Part of this event appears at the beginning of Their Finest.
The early wartime films were hastily put together. One film called The Lion Has Wings (1939) was basically slapped together by three directors and contained lots of newsreel footage of planes taking off and so forth. It was only later in the war that they began to make far more realistic films using ordinary people and ordinary stories that the people at home could identify with.
Meanwhile, the informational shorts that the Ministry of Information film division oversaw covered every subject imaginable, from the ‘dig for victory’ campaigns to shorts about carrier pigeons, or where to go on holiday during the war years. They came in many forms, from the cheapest, dullest documentary, to little mini-mystery films; there’s one about the blackout, in which a man on a motorbike is knocked over and later you find out who did it. Some of them were immensely imaginative.
Cinema owner and director of the Granada Television Network, Sidney Bernstein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Q: How did these films aim to inspire those on the home front?
A: Films were still a form of escapism. In fact, some of the most popular films weren’t anything to do with the war; they were very broad comedies, by a group of British entertainers called the Crazy Gang, or by George Formby [who appeared in films such as Spare a Copper (1940)]. Costume dramas also provided utter escapism, but as the war progressed there were more realistic films being made to keep morale up.
Millions Like Us (1943) is a wonderful film about an ordinary family with two stay-at-home daughters, and both the girls go to work in the munitions factories. It was made partly with the intention to inspire women to go to work themselves and partly produced as pure entertainment, and it showed the world opening up for women in a way that hadn’t happened before. There’s one scene that shows the girls taking to their dormitories which demonstrates that, for a lot of these women, that was the nicest place they had lived. Girls might have come from homes where they had shared a bed, where they had had outside lavs, and suddenly they were somewhere that was clean and comfortable.
Another film called San Demetrio London (1943), based on a real event during the war, was made incredibly quickly. It was about a merchant navy ship that was torpedoed; the crew abandoned ship and took to one of the lifeboats. After sailing for 24 hours, they came across a ship. It was their own ship which hadn’t sunk. They got back on board, put the fires out and sailed back to Glasgow to collect the salvage money.
It was filmed largely in the studio, quite brilliantly done and very witty, and it showed all the ranks working together. This was the big aspect that changed; films before the war were mainly about officers, and during the war it became much more about all of the crew working together.
George Formby poking his head out from below floorboard in a scene from the film 'Spare A Copper', 1940. (Photo by Associated British Film Distributors (ABFD)/Getty Images)
Q: Did the war change women’s roles within the film industry?
A: On the studio floor, women would have been largely confined to the costume department. On the whole you wouldn’t have found many women in many any other roles at all, though certainly there were a few more women writers during wartime.
One was Diana Morgan, who in some ways was the inspiration for Catrin Cole [the copywriting lead character in Their Finest]. She was a Welsh writer, a successful playwright before the war, who went to work in the very ‘boysy’ writers’ room at Ealing. Morgan wrote on a large number of wartime films, including Went the Day Well? (1942), adapted from a story by Graham Greene. Morgan had to put up with extraordinary amounts of sexism and contempt in the workplace, though she was the sort of person who came to relish the cut and thrust of the writers’ room. She was known as the ‘Welsh bitch’; colleagues would say: “Send the Welsh bitch to go and write the nausea,” which was what they called the women’s dialogue – in my novel I used the word ‘slop’. Although she doesn’t get many writing credits, Morgan wrote on many films during the war; she says she got credit for films she hardly wrote and no credit for some films that she completely rewrote.
There were at least two female directors of informational shorts that I know of, including a woman called Ruby Grierson who was the sister of documentary maker John Grierson. She made beautiful, moving shorts about how women on the home front were living ordinary lives during the Blitz. She might have had a remarkable career, but in 1940, she was travelling on a ship called the SS City of Benares that was taking evacuees to Canada. The ship was torpedoed and went down, a tragedy which took the lives of 87 children and 175 adults. Hardly anyone survived and sadly Grierson drowned.
Q: In your book, the fictional production company is making a morale-boosting film about Dunkirk, which becomes a potent rallying cry for the government. Was this really the case?
A: When I invented the small independent film production company in my story, I wanted it to make a film of the types that were being made then, which were often about real events, or at least touched upon real events. I realised that there had been no feature film made about Dunkirk. Though a lot was written about it and it comes into Mrs Miniver and one or two other films, there was no central film about Dunkirk.
What’s remarkable about Dunkirk is that an event that could have been seen as a retreat in disarray actually became an extraordinary rallying cry. Thirty three thousand British and French soldiers were rescued using civilian craft and civilians – while the navy commandeered a lot of the smaller boats, there were also fishing boats run by their own crew. The rescue of these thousands of soldiers became an extraordinary symbol of resilience.
While the twins who stole their father’s boat featured in my story are entirely made up, there were a lot of fantastic real stories. There was a remarkable story about a 12-year-old boy who was part of a fishing boat crew and who went to ask his mum’s permission if he could go; for three days, he went back and forth across the channel. When he got back, his socks stood up by themselves and his mum displayed them to the neighbours. People did some extraordinary things and in my view, it was one of the most remarkable stories in the whole of the war.
Actors Sam Clafin and Gemma Arterton in 'Their Finest'. (LIONSGATE)
Q: Beyond the tragedy of war and the London Blitz, there are some other tragic moments within the film – did you come across any such real events in your research and what can they tell us about the spirit of this time on the home front?
A: It was an extraordinary time with loss around the corner for everyone. One thing I included Their Finest Hour and a Half was a film studio accident. I discovered very early on in my research that, during the making of In Which We Serve, there was an accident on set, in which the chief electrician died of burns following an explosion. I talked to someone who had been there and he remembered it very vividly. I kept coming across accounts of it and what was remarkable for me is that this accident actually took place during the Blitz; there was death all around and yet the thing that people remembered the most was an accident in the studio. That’s why I had to include a character’s death, to show that even within the Blitz, even during the war, there were these random deaths that stayed with people.
Yet during this time, people just wanted to get on with their lives and do ordinary things; they wanted to celebrate birthdays, put their feet up at the end of a long day, go to the cinema, or buy a new hairbrush when an old one broke. I think that’s what the Blitz spirit is for me: the will to live an ordinary life when extraordinary things are going on. That shared experience was remarkable. Before the war, the government thought that in the event of bombing there would be psychiatric clinics packed out with distressed people, but that simply didn’t happen. The fact that there was this shared experience bizarrely improved mental health on a broad level. People could talk to others about what scared them and I think that that made an enormous difference to problems of loneliness and private suffering. Even though these were very dreary years and the food was awful and people worked sometimes six or seven days a week with very few holidays, there was an extraordinary camaraderie. I think that because it happened in a world that we can just about recognise, a world in which people went to the cinema and to dances, we can place ourselves in that position and ask what would we have done with bombs falling out of the sky in London for 57 days in a row.
Their Finest is released in UK cinemas on 21 April. Lissa Evans is the author of Their Finest Hour and a Half (Black Swan, 2009)