January 2, 2017


Humphrey Jennings (1906-1950) b. Walberswick, England.

Humphrey Jennings

Documentarist Humphrey Jennings films are so much a part of the British wartime cinema scene that they cannot be ignored; besides which, they remain the finest cinematic achievements of the World War II period in Britain. Many of the scenes in his masterwork, Fires Were Started (1943), about the horrendous work of London’s wartime firemen, are amazing, mouth-opening, agonizing pieces of montage. The sweat, the grime, the burns, the blood, are all horrifyingly real. A horse gallops through the smoke and away from the flames; a fireman dangles from his lifeline after falling from a blazing building. Beams crackle, crack and crash, the heat and the danger blaze intensely from the screen. Above all, the film inspires a feeling of patriotism, as did all Jennings’ wartime work. Poet and painter, Jennings was a master of placing scenes together in a pattern which would have the maximum emotional impact on his audience. The images have worn better than the sounds; the dialogue in these films sometimes seems portentous, even too facile, although it did not appear so at the time. A brilliant scholar, writer and critic, Jennings had joined the famous GPO documentary unit in 1934 as a designer and editor. It was not long before he was making his own very individual short documentary films. After contributing some work on Coal Face (1935), he stepped out on his own with Locomotives (1934), some parts of which anticipate the more famous Night Mail (1936). But the war truly brought out the inspiration in Jennings. Sometimes, as in S.S. Ionian, his images were misplaced, but the pure visual poetry of such films as The First Days (1939), London Can Take It (1940), Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1941) and A Diary for Timothy (1945) struck chords in the hearts and minds of the British people that no other film-maker could find. Jennings’ films were just as skilled, though slightly less interesting – after all, who could match wartime fervour? – in the post-war years. Jennings hurtled helplessly to his death from a Greek cliff in 1950 while scouting locations for his next film.

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