The Films of Humphrey Jennings

From 1939 to 1946, Jennings may have been the most prolific documentarian of Britain during World War II or, if not the most prolific, certainly the most celebrated. His films lead Lindsay Anderson to call him “the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced.” Of the some 19 films Jennings made during the period, a mere six are presented on the (now out of print) DVD collection from Image. Clocking in at a total runtime of nearly 190 minutes, it may be a bit much to go through in one setting (though I did). If you do manage it in a single sitting, what emerges is both an incredibly fascinating portrait of a place and its people during one of its most trying times, as well as the distinctive voice of one of that place’s foremost artists.

London Can Take It!

Of all the films on this collection, London Can Take It! may be the most ostensible piece of propaganda. But it’s also one of the most haunting and visually powerful. With a voiceover narration by Quentin Reynolds, Jennings documents London nights as they are invaded by German bombers, which can turn buildings into rubble in seconds. As with Jennings other documentaries, he shows an acute artistic sensibility towards juxtaposing sound and image, as can especially be seen (and heard) when the bombs begin exploding and guns begin firing and the voiceover declares “these are not Hollywood sound effects, this is the music they play every night in London, the symphony of war.” Jennings also shows his talent for montage, gradually building tension by editing between London days where people lead a relatively calm, normal life, and London nights, which are full of high contrast visuals and moody drama. Even here, Jennings has an eye for the grand diversity of the land and its people, effortlessly switching between those who man the gun turrets, to the firemen, to those who sound the alarms. Like most films in this set, this is visually and aurally satisfying film-making at its near best.

Words for Battle

If throughout this set Jennings national pride is never in doubt, what emerges as a particular pride is his taste for British cultural and artistic history. Here, Jennings enlists the tremendous help of perhaps the finest actor of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier—or, more specifically, enlists the help of his voice—to read poetry from the likes of John Milton, William Blake, and Rudyard Kipling. He also includes excerpts from Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. Of course these words are juxtaposed with images of England preparing for war. But here, as opposed to London Can Take It!, Jennings fills the images with an eerie calm, allowing the words to imbue the images with a palpable electricity. Olivier turns in a predictably eloquent and eloquent performance that’s full of quiet power and confidence, and the result is perhaps the most linguistically poetic work in the collection, if not the most visually powerful.

Listen to Britain

Listen to Britain is where all of Jennings cinematic strengths and poetic sensibilities culminate into a near masterwork. Here, he does away with commentary, voiceover, and narration of any kind and uses sound, music, and images to say all of the intangible things that can’t be put into words. This is undeniably cinema at its purest, freed from the restraints of story, characters, and language all together. Jennings taste for classical music can be seen in the clips of Myra Hess performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata (a performance that can be seen in its entirety as an “extra” on this disc). But the most remarkable thing about the film is how Jennings uses images, sound, and music as if he were constructing a symphony. He then uses the artistry of montage as rhythm and drama to deliver an aesthetic experience that is indeed closer to music than it is traditional film. The result is a film that is best experienced than described. Listen to Britain isn’t just documentary filmmaking at its best, its filmmaking at its best, period.

Fires Were Started

Fires Were Started, aka I Was a Fireman, is the only feature length film in the set and its also Jennings most well-known and praised film along with Listen to Britain. Sadly, I equally found it the most disappointing. Jennings strengths as a cinematic poet seemed to be best expressed in short films that aren’t in need of a narrative or story “anchor” to sustain their power. At 80 minutes, Jennings certainly recognized he had to use a form of character-driven narrative in order to push the film into feature length. The result is a film that’s an uneasy mix of documentary and fictionalized drama. It uses real life firemen and documents their daily life and routine by staging such events. The problem is that no real characters emerge, and because the film takes so long to build up to its finale where the team set out to fight a towering inferno (which was staged by Jennings and the crew and photographed/edited for maximum drama), the tension and drama is infinitely less than it should be. In fact, the finest moment of the film may also be its lightest where the firemen gather around a piano and begin singing about so many men gathering in a meadow. This all isn’t to say the film is bad; on a technical level it’s as accomplished as any other in the set, and Jennings’ montage, especially during the fire sequence, is riveting on its own. But I still couldn’t help but thinking that it’s way overlong and that all of Jennings’ shorter films were more successful.

A Diary for Timothy

A Diary for Timothy may be simultaneously the most moving film in this collection and the most inventive. While it’s not as “pure” as Listen to Britain, it’s equally poetic with an emotional undertow carried by its unique premise. The film is structured as a “Diary” for the newborn Timothy. The voiceover commentary was written by E.M. Forster and read by Michael Redgrave and revolves around the recovery efforts near the end of World War II. When compared with the war-time films that came before it, A Diary of Timothy feels much more sobering; there’s not as much zeal and patriotism here, and, indeed, Jennings seems to be turning his attention on family and individuals struggling in a world that’s been torn apart. The film contains some truly inventive moments, perhaps most striking is a scene which cuts between John Gielgud performing Hamlet (the Graveyard/Yorick scene) and men sitting and discussing life over lunch. While the film is the second longest in the set, it doesn’t feel overlong because of how well structured it is, and, in a sense, it feels like the richest representation of Britain at the time as it both recollects and reflects with an eye on the past, observes the present, and looks wearily, but hopefully, towards an uncertain future.

Family Portrait

In 1950, the war is over and life has largely moved on. Here Jennings turns his attention to Britain as a whole, and particularly the annual Festival of Britain celebration. Michael Goodliffe provides the somewhat dry narration that has perhaps the largest compass of any film in the series, moving between the political, social, science, industrial, rural, and more intimate aspects of British life. But Jennings visuals and editing seems uncharacteristically bland here, and he’s unable to generate the same kind of visual power and poetry as he does elsewhere in the collection. Although some of the failing could be my own, considering this film came last in what was a lengthy marathon of Jennings’ films, so I could have been rather fatigued and uninterested by this time. Nearly all of these films are rich enough to warrant multiple viewings, and I suspect that if I came back to Family Portrait I would enjoy it and appreciate it more than I did during my first time around.

When you combine my general dislike for documentaries, my disinterest in politics, and my distaste for propaganda, the films of Humphrey Jennings would seem like a viewing disaster waiting to happen. To my surprise, what I found was a rarity: documentaries that are more poetry than non-fiction prose, more visually inventive than visually flat, and more aesthetically and emotionally stirring than grossly manipulative. It certainly made for a fascinating night of cinema viewing, and gave me a new appreciation for the kind of artistry that can be achieved in documentaries when you have the right artist behind the camera.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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