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Front Line, The (1940)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Front Line, The (1940)
35mm, black and white, 6 mins
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
SponsorMinistry of Information
PhotographyJonah Jones

Dover during the first few months of the war: everyday life as usual despite German bombing, anti-aircraft defences, and volunteer services.

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In his book of memoirs on his time in documentary, Don't Look at the Camera, Harry Watt described how he and cameraman Jonah Jones were sent to Dover with the simple brief to 'cover everything [they] found interesting or exciting, and try to make a film out of it'. The spotlight had fallen on Dover in the summer of 1940 after the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk had left it as 'Frontier Town', within sight of German-occupied France. Watt was disappointed to be refused permission to film the military retreat, and instead found himself bottled up in the only hotel left standing, alongside hordes of international journalists peering across the Channel, waiting for an invasion. The purpose of Watt's film was to contrast the spreading outlook of impending doom by showing the sanguine, happy-go-lucky attitude of the Dover people who were just getting on with their lives.

For a documentary short, albeit propaganda, that features real people, the film is quite happy to indulge in caricature. Images of people in bathing suits and tin hats, and phrases such as 'getting proper fed up with fishing jerries out of the sea' have an almost pantomimic character. People talk directly to the camera, and therefore the audience, in a very different style from the 'story documentary' approach that Watt had developed in earlier GPO films such as The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936) and North Sea (1938). These earlier films and his later Target For Tonight (1941) brought elements of dramatic storytelling to documentary with real people essentially playing themselves. However, for the short six-minute running time of The Front Line, direct address to the camera proved the best away to show the stoic, determined character of the Dover people that the film sought to represent. The shot of an auxiliary fireman nonchalantly describing life in the firing line ('We see a flash, count 60, there she is') was clipped for use in a Film Board of Canada short, Churchill's Island (1941), directly juxtaposed with German newsreel footage of Hitler threatening Britain with bombardment. The contemporary periodical Documentary News Letter cited how "this single shot demolishes the Nazi panoply in a manner which could not be achieved in any other way".

Jez Stewart

*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 (5:36)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
The GPO Film Unit: 1940