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Hell Unltd (1936)

Courtesy of Anna Shepherd

Main image of Hell Unltd (1936)
DirectorNorman Mclaren
 Helen Biggar
ProducerNorman Mclaren
 Helen Biggar

Experimental, political film, mixing found footage, animation, titles, staged action and rapid editing in order to protest against government spending on armaments.

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Hell Unltd. was made as a protest against profits in armaments during a period when fascism was growing throughout Europe. The film is extremely political in nature but, unlike many political films of the period, also heavily experimental. This is because the film was made not within a workers' film movement - the main area of political filmmaking activity - but by an experimental filmmaker (Norman McLaren) and a sculptress (Helen Biggar) at the Glasgow School of Art.

The film mixes animation, acted footage, archival footage and titles, editing the images at an extremely rapid tempo. It is structured not as a narrative but as a sequence of images, each relating to a political theme, often announced in the titles. In this sense, the film addresses its audience in the form of a lecture or a political broadcast, yet in a highly innovative manner.

The film counters the contemporary government's claims to have reduced spending on weapons of destruction. It begins with a chart of spending on health, education and armaments over the years. As the years peel away into the 1930s, the armaments bar gets higher and higher, eventually bursting out of the chart.

Hell Unltd. links government's preoccupation with armaments to a likelihood of war, and relates this to the First World War. Stock footage of the horrors of this war is shown, while titles such as "die" and "to make a world safe for democracy" are displayed. This combination of titles and image is intended to show the negative effects of war and to condemn a government committing itself to further warfare.

Biggar and McLaren's main strategy is to employ animation techniques to show the 'truth' behind official government declarations (often denoted by titles or live footage). Perhaps the most striking sequence follows a clutter of titles and footage showing the government boasting about economic revival. There follows a cut to a man listening to the speech on his radio, and then - in animation - to plants in his room sprouting monstrous growths, including grenades and fighter planes.

The film depicts a rapid succession of frequently violent images, warning of the consequences of war. At the end, titles implore the audience to take direct action and demonstrate against war. The concluding animated sequence offers a vision of popular triumph, with models of people pushing weapons off a chess board, then joining hands in a circle.

Jamie Sexton

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The cost of 1914-18 (2:03)
2. War! (2:02)
3. 'Stop it!' (1:53)
Production stills
McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)
20s-30s Avant-Garde
Political Film
Short Films