Humphrey Jennings

T. alt.: A City Prepares. Scen.: Robert Sinclair. M.: Richard Q. McNaughton. Prod.: Alberto Cavalcanti per GPO Film Unit 35mm. D.: 23′. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

This is a documentary of London in the first days of the war. Shots of children playing on an old gun, and the exhibits in the Imperial War Museum, remind us of the twenty years’ peace which ended on Sunday, September 3, 1939. That day opens peacefully; people go to church and into the country; but at 11.15 Mr. Chamberlain broadcasts news of the declaration of war. A softly rising wind grows into the sound of the first air-raid warning and people quitely take shelter. The succeeding sequences show how London gradually prepares itself. Sandbags are filled, young militiamen go into training, white lines are painted on roads and cars, children and invalids are evacuated, soldiers leave for the front, the museums and galleries are emptied, ships are camouflaged, refugees from other lands wait patiently in queues, animals are evacuated and women don uniforms of various kinds. Night falls at the end of this first day; the theatres are closed; only the familiar barrel-organ cheers the black-out gloom; work goes on in hospital and arsenal, while the searchlights pierce the sky. But the raid which many fear does not come, and on the morrow London turns to a new day, “for it is dawn that has come to England”. Shots of London standing alertly ready in the sunshine, accompanied by a rising fanfare of music, bring the film to a close.
This is certainly one of the most interesting documentaries of recent months. One of the most stimulating things about it is a complete absence of propaganda. The subtle introduction of the telephone switchboard or the sorting office, or (in other hands) the oil-lorry or the gas-retort which one has come to expect, or even any obtrusive appeal to patriotic sentiment, are entirely absent. It is not concerned to present an argument of any kind. It stands simply as a record of those first days which we remember so vividly and so achieves the rare distinction of being a documentary in the real sense of the word. Inevitably it shows scenes with which we are all familiar: yet they are presented so strikingly and realistically that the familiar becomes, miraculously, exciting.
The secret lies partly in an absence of sentimental rhetoric (only occasionally does the commentary touch the sentimental), but even more in the way in which general points are reinforced by striking details.

Anonymous, “Sight and Sound”, October 31, 1939

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