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Land of Promise (1946)

Courtesy of National Grid Gas plc

Main image of Land of Promise (1946)
35mm, black and white, 68 mins
DirectorPaul Rotha
Production CompanyPaul Rotha Productions, Films of Fact
ProducerPaul Rotha
ScriptAra Calder-Marshall, Miles Tomalin, Miles Malleson, Wolfgang Wilhelm
CinematographyHarold Young

Cast: John Mills (the Voice); Marjorie Rhodes (the Housewife); Elizabeth Cowell (the Woman); Henry Hallat (Hansard); Miles Malleson (Mr Know-All); Frederick Allen (Observer); Herbert Lomas (History)

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A look at past responses to housing crises in Britain, with a plea for a different approach to meet the demands of troops and families returning after the war.

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Land of Promise has a dialectical structure typical of Paul Rotha's films, with sections titled Homes As They Were, Homes As They Are, Homes As They Might Be. The amount of suitable illustrative archive material is impressive, though chunks of Rotha's past output can be spotted. They are brought to new life by another characteristic technique, the 'multi-voice' narration. Competing characters argue over the meaning of the material presented to us. One is the voice of History (dominating the first section), another that of Hansard (quoting from parliamentary debates). A third is 'Isotype', representing the sociological pictogram system invented by philosopher-educator Otto Neurath, with whom Rotha had collaborated on the similar World of Plenty (1943).

Other participants personify distinct ideological sensibilities. Character actor Miles Malleson embodies complacent, conservative Middle England. The central voice is John Mills', representing ordinary Britons, increasingly confident about drawing progressive conclusions from political argument (as demonstrated off-screen by the election of Attlee's Labour government, after production had commenced but before the film was released). There are two crucial female characters. A slum-dwelling housewife argues back against the narrators, while a compassionate, velvety female voice dominates the Homes As They Are section: 'Could men not learn without a war?'

The first section, covering 1919-39, indicts national failures to coordinate housing policy. The second argues that wartime evacuation and conscription had revealed the poor health of many citizens, but that such collectivised planning proves what can be achieved in peace. The ground is laid for the film's uncompromising argument for a command economy driven by compassionate technocracy. In the final section, several of the characters appear in a bar pondering the post-war world over a drink. Mills, in uniform, joins them, supposedly from among the audience, to whom he turns and delivers a fiery, exhausting speech.

Rotha's spasmodically brilliant films typically convey cerebral rationalism with high passion: an unstable combination, and here both tendencies reach feverish extremes. The result is ambitious almost to the point of baroque absurdity, but is breathtaking in its sweep. Land of Promise's production was protracted, its release late, its audiences fairly small and specialised, and it hastened the financial breakdown of Rotha's company. His postwar work proved frustratingly fitful. Unlike peers like Edgar Anstey or Donald Alexander, he was unable to carve out a consistent documentary career in the service of the social-democratic postwar settlement for which this film vociferously argues.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

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Video Clips
1. Introduction (3:36)
2. Unwanted heroes (3:42)
3. The forgotten people (4:51)
4. Overturning the stone (3:15)
5. A different way (4:09)
6. The will to win (3:11)
Complete film (1:02:59)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Building Homes (1950)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Rotha, Paul (1907-1984)