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Christmas Under Fire (1941)


Main image of Christmas Under Fire (1941)
35mm, black and white, 10 mins
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
ProducerCharles Hasse
PhotographyEric Cross, H.E. Fowle
Commentator Quentin Reynolds

The British defy the Blitz to celebrate Christmas as cheerfully as possible.

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Believed to be the only film that credits the Ministry of Information, the GPO Film Unit and the Crown Film Unit in the opening titles, Christmas Under Fire announces itself as a transitional work. Although the MOI had taken over the GPO Film Unit in April 1940, it wasn't formally renamed the Crown Film Unit until the following January, with this being one of the first productions. It's a propaganda film intended for screening on the other side of the Atlantic, with Quentin Reynolds of the popular news magazine Collier's Weekly contributing an on-screen introduction and US-friendly narration.

Christmas 1940 was the second Christmas of the Second World War, but the first spent under German firepower. A few months earlier, western Europe had been overrun and the Battle of Britain fought, though German bombing raids continued despite that setback. Coventry was devastated in November, and between then and Christmas other towns and cities were targeted, including Birmingham, Bristol, Gosport, Leicester, Manchester, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Southampton. Christmas itself brought a temporary respite, but few harboured illusions about its length.

Accordingly, the film's central message is that life goes on, but not without considerable modification. Holly, barbed wire, guns and tinsel are explicitly juxtaposed, and children are as likely to be fighting mock battles as participating in nativity plays ("England is fighting for her life, and even the smallest child understands that"). Church bells are silent, lest they mislead people into thinking the Germans had launched a full-scale invasion, though the choir of King's College, Cambridge provides a mellifluous substitute. Christmas trees are trimmed to fit air raid shelters and Underground stations, the latter providing mass overnight accommodation for those who lacked suitable facilities at home. Model RAF planes are now the toy shops' Christmas bestsellers, displacing 1939's now-redundant Maginot Line fortifications.

The last thing Watt wanted to convey was a sense of defeatism, since the intended American audience needed to see that Britain was still worth fighting for - as Reynold stresses, "we shouldn't feel sorry for them because they don't feel sorry for themselves". This spirit is neatly encapsulated by window cleaner J. Winkle's defiant poster advertising "Business As Usual: if you've got no windows, we'll clean your chimneys".

The film was nominated for a Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar, losing to the Canadian propaganda film Churchill's Island (d. Stuart Legg, 1940) - which was also about the British under fire.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (9:38)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
Crown Film Unit