Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Ealing at War

Ealing Studios' diverse and fascinating WWII propaganda films

Main image of Ealing at War

Ealing was one of only three major pre-war studios to continue production throughout World War II and, like Alexander Korda's London Films, it devoted much of its output to films designed to promote the war effort. But what distinguished Ealing's war films was their increasing dedication to realism, and the way in which they came to take an inclusive approach, with men - and women - united across class and regional divides against a common enemy.

In the studio's early war films, like Ships With Wings (d. Sergei Nolbandov, 1941), clipped-voiced, stiff upper-lipped officer types predominated. But the films later began to reflect a more complex picture, emphasising the contribution of 'ordinary' men and women, and even expressing a widespread feeling that a complacent ruling class was failing to recognise the very real risk of losing the war.

One reason for the change was the arrival of Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti from the Crown Film Unit. The two brought with them the sensibilities of the documentary movement, and were to have a major influence on the Ealing style.

Watt's Nine Men (1943), made on a tiny budget, managed to turn a patch of sand dunes in North Wales into a convincing North Africa. After the death of the senior officer, a ramshackle unit of regionally diverse, mostly working-class men is left to pull together to defeat a barely-seen foe; in the end, the film is as much about solidarity as conflict. Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) took a more extraordinary story - a German invasion of a small English village - but what was most striking was the unmelodramatic way in which the villagers' counterattack was shown: brave and heroic, certainly, but also brutal and bloody. San Demetrio London (d. Charles Frend, 1943) re-enacted a true story from earlier in the war in a way which applied documentary style to dramatic effect.

The championing of 'ordinary' heroes was matched by an often explicit criticism of authority. In The Foreman Went to France (d. Charles Frend, 1942), the hero's unquestioning trust of authority figures nearly scuppers his mission, as each one he meets turns out to be a Nazi collaborator. Similarly, in Went the Day Well?, the well-spoken, impeccably polite army Captain is in fact a Nazi, while the highly respected village leader is revealed as a German spy.

Ealing's comedians, too, were pressed into service in the name of propaganda. Will Hay and George Formby cheered British audiences and warned of traitors at home, while Tommy Trinder lightened up more 'serious' films like The Foreman Went to France and The Bells Go Down (d. Basil Dearden, 1943).

By 1944, Ealing's filmmakers were already looking beyond the war, to the kind of Britain they hoped to build when the fighting was over. Basil Dearden's Halfway House and They Came to a City (both 1944) use fantastical scenarios to evoke Britain's internal conflicts and, implicitly, ask questions about how such divisions might be healed. These were questions which were already on many lips.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Bells Go Down, The (1943)Bells Go Down, The (1943)

Stirring film about the Fire Services in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Dunkirk (1958)Dunkirk (1958)

Ealing's ambitious, sombre account of Britain's pivotal defeat of WWII

Thumbnail image of Foreman Went to France, The (1942)Foreman Went to France, The (1942)

Ealing propaganda film about a factory foreman's rescue of vital machinery

Thumbnail image of Goose Steps Out, The (1942)Goose Steps Out, The (1942)

WWII comedy with Will Hay dropped behind enemy lines

Thumbnail image of Halfway House, The (1944)Halfway House, The (1944)

Unusual cross between ghost story and WWII propaganda film

Thumbnail image of Next of Kin, The (1942)Next of Kin, The (1942)

Brutally effective WWII propaganda film on the dangers of careless talk.

Thumbnail image of Nine Men (1943)Nine Men (1943)

WWII drama: a handful of British men hold off an Italian battalion

Thumbnail image of Proud Valley, The (1940)Proud Valley, The (1940)

Paul Robeson's last British feature, set in a Welsh mining community

Thumbnail image of San Demetrio London (1943)San Demetrio London (1943)

Inspiring tale of wartime heroism based on a true story

Thumbnail image of Ships with Wings (1941)Ships with Wings (1941)

Stiff-upper-lipped Ealing war film celebrating the Fleet Air Arm

Thumbnail image of Went the Day Well? (1942)Went the Day Well? (1942)

Chilling classic imagining a brutal Nazi invasion of a small English village

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Ealing ComedyEaling Comedy

Eternal postwar comedies from 'the studio with team spirit'

Thumbnail image of Ealing Propaganda ShortsEaling Propaganda Shorts

The story of Ealing's forgotten WWII shorts unit

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company