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March to Aldermaston (1959)

British Film Institute

Main image of March to Aldermaston (1959)
35mm, 33 min, black & white
Production assistanceLindsay Anderson
 Karel Reisz
 Chris Menges
Producer (uncredited)Derrick Knight

Narrator: Richard Burton

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The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's 1958 march from Trafalgar Square to the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

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1958's Easter march to Aldermaston enjoys landmark status in the annals of peaceful protest. Its filmed record is similarly recalled as a milestone for campaigning documentary.

CND emerged from Aldermaston as a campaign uniting disparate wings of the political left with otherwise apolitical concerned citizens. Echoing this, the volunteers responsible for the film, under the Film and Television Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, united different sectors of their industry: from lab technicians processing footage for free, to Contemporary Films, which handled its distribution. The involvement of Free Cinema practitioners Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz is noteworthy, but this is not a Free Cinema film. Equally important were the contributions of contemporaries outside that movement (such as the Committee's Secretary Derrick Knight, and Stephen Peet) and others (like Wolfgang Suschitzky) with roots in the older Documentary Movement.

Credited only to the Committee, March to Aldermaston demands appreciation as the product of selfless collaboration. By most accounts, however, Anderson came to dominate the film at the editing stage. The crisp documentary shaped from the miles of raw footage is amazingly coherent. With the crucial addition of Richard Burton sensitively reading Christopher Logue's commentary, it is succinct and moving, never hysterical or sentimental. Courageously, it does not flinch from criticising the Eastern Bloc as harshly as Western politicians. And, in documenting the march's generally middle-class demographics (despite attempts to portray the movement as more broadly-based), it's now a great period piece, awash with cut-glass accents, trad jazz, and sensible hats and coats.

Precisely because it deserves recognition as a sincere attempt to advance its cause through documentary, it deserves the respect of being asked tough questions. It echoes the weaknesses, as much as the strengths, of the disarmament movement. Politically, CND influenced only the Labour Party - mainly to Labour's electoral detriment. It soon caused damaging divisions within the party and, as late as 1983, Aldermaston veteran Michael Foot's landslide defeat was widely blamed on Labour's anti-nuclear platform. The film, too, fails to mount a convincing case for unilateral disarmament (its best shot is the claim that Britain can set a powerful moral example, arguably reflecting a dated faith in the UK's international influence). It no doubt had an electrifying effect at campaign meetings, but was less likely to win over the undecided, if it even reached them. Like too many other campaigning films, March To Aldermaston is ultimately a feel-good film for activists.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Free Cinema'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (29:49)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Burton, Richard (1925-1984)
Menges, Chris (1940-)
Reisz, Karel (1926-2002)
Suschitzky, Wolfgang (1912-)
Beyond Free Cinema
Free Cinema
Political Film