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Fires Were Started (1943)


Main image of Fires Were Started (1943)
35mm, black and white, 63 mins
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
ProducerIan Dalrymple
ScriptHumphrey Jennings
Story CollaborationMaurice Richardson
PhotographyC.M. Pennington-Richards

Cast: Commanding Officer George Gravett (Sub-Officer Dykes); Leading Fireman Philip Wilson-Dickson (Section Officer Walters); Leading Fireman Fred Griffiths (Johnny Daniels); Leading Fireman Loris Rey ('Colonel' J. Rumbold); Fireman Johnny Houghton (S.H. 'Jacko' Jackson)

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One day and night with the National Fire Service in London during the Fire Blitz of Winter/Spring 1940/41

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The heroic bas-relief and the stirring score behind the opening titles leave us in no doubt that this is a film about heroism, a propagandist documentary using real firemen that doesn't pull its punches. Lives are lost during war and one of the main characters in the film will lose his: a fire sacrifice for the greater good.

The establishing scenes show us a very ordered, safe set of procedures (lots of jargon and abbreviations) underpinning a strong team ethic, and by seeing the crew arriving for duty we see their camaraderie. The arrival of newcomer Barrett allows director Humphrey Jennings to introduce all the characters, main locations and key issues.

He does this during daylight - by day the crew (and the audience) are 'safe', dealing with the familiar, whereas night brings the battle against the 'enemy' (fire). Visually, the film contrasts light and dark to echo this. The use of night shots, sometimes rather murky and threatening, often in silhouette, shows clearly(!) the chaos of war.

There are shots that show Jennings' artistic eye - the Thames sailing barge, the munitions ship safely underway at the end - and there are some less lyrical but quirky, such as a horse being led to safety, a disabled man making his way through debris, a penny whistler.

Music (and sound) plays a key role. Through most of the early scenes the score helps build the mood and sense of anticipation. At the height of the action, the soundtrack carries the almost relentless noise of war. In more sombre scenes, where Raleigh or Shakespeare (both typifying England) are quoted, there is a respectful silence.

The crewmembers sing to show good spirit, which also bonds them firmly to one another and to a shared common purpose. The sirens cutting into the (gallows) humour of 'One man went to mow' add a startling discord, but the songs resume until the pressure is really on. At other times, a plaintive accordion - or the penny whistle - presage a sense of loss. Above all, listen to the bells: fixed bells summon crews to action; telephones ring regularly and bells on the appliances are heard throughout the film - one even seems to toll at the final shot of (the now dead) Jacko's newsagents - but there can be no church bell at the funeral due to wartime regulations, although a kind of last post is sounded.

David Sharp

*This film is the subject of a BFI Film Classics book by Brian Winston.

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Video Clips
1. Maintenance (2:29)
2. Mowing meadows (3:41)
3. Johnny's death (4:28)
Complete film (1:01:42)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Bells Go Down, The (1943)
North Sea (1938)
Topical Budget 167-1: Great Forest Fire (1914)
Topical Budget 856-1: A Monster Fire Fighter (1928)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Crown Film Unit
Social Realism