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London Can Take It (1940)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of London Can Take It (1940)
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
Directed byHarry Watt
 Humphrey Jennings
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Commentary byQuentin Reynolds
PhotographyJonah Jones
 H.E. Fowle

Images of life in London in 1940 before, during and after a typical air raid.

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London/Britain Can Take It! is the most renowned cinematic representation of the resilient heroism of ordinary Londoners during the early days of the Blitz. Structurally, the film adheres to an established documentary format: approximately 24 hours in the life of a city, albeit at a decisive moment in that city's history. The typical day begins in the late afternoon as people leave work. They prepare for and respond to a night-time air raid, then carry on undaunted next morning. Extracts from the film, which is full of images whose resonance has been amplified by their now mythic historical context, have frequently been incorporated into later documentaries about the Second World War.

The initial version, London Can Take It!, met with considerable success in the USA, where there was already a body of opinion sympathetic to Britain's beleaguered position. Iconic images such as St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster and the royal family provided American audiences with immediate points of visual recognition. In Britain, privileging London was seen as potentially counterproductive. The Ministry of Information (MOI) Films Division press release accompanying Britain Can Take It!, a slightly shorter version for UK distribution with some amended commentary, insisted that "the film is representative of what is happening in every other British city and town, where resistance to the intense aerial attack and powers of endurance are every bit as heroic".

American journalist Quentin Reynolds was vital to London/Britain Can Take It!'s success. The powerfully intimate tone of Reynolds' voiceover commentary was reportedly achieved by him speaking quietly into a microphone placed unusually close to his mouth. His delivery combines hard-boiled admiration for Londoners, sardonic humour, and cool stoicism. Following the lead of British journalists such as Tom Wintringham and broadcasters such as JB Priestley, Reynolds says that all classes, whether office or market workers, are in this together, thereby contributing to an emergent 'people's war' discourse. Historical British resistance to invasion is also invoked in the archaic phrasing "the nightly siege of London". When Reynolds says "these are not Hollywood sound effects", prior to dramatic bombing and anti-aircraft gun sounds, and images of alternately pitch black and explosively illuminated night sky, he asserts British documentary's claim to authenticity compared to fiction films. At the same time, he implies that British documentary had reached a point where it could, in its own way, be as emotionally intense as Hollywood.

Martin Stollery

*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
Britain Can Take It (7:54)
London Can Take It (8:50)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1940