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Face of Britain, The (1935)

Courtesy of Viewtech Educational Media

Main image of Face of Britain, The (1935)
35mm, 18 min, black & white
DirectorPaul Rotha
Production CompanyGaumont-British Instructional
 British Instructional Films
SponsorCentral Electricity Board

The destructive impact of industrialisation on Britain and its people, and the relief promised by electricity and other developments.

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Branded from its opening titles as 'A Documentary film by Paul Rotha', The Face of Britain marks a real development in the British Documentary Movement in terms of its personal and political ambition. Where Robert Flaherty and the Empire Marketing Board's Industrial Britain (1931) saw craftsmanship behind the smoke clouds of industry, Rotha looks beyond to show the degradation and poverty caused by the rapid expansion of manufacturing.

The socio-political nature of the film, with its commentary spoken by liberal journalist A.J. Cummings, certainly does not inhibit its artistry. The film makes progressive use of sound and image, particularly in its impressionist sequence of men at work in 'The Smoke Age' sequence. In fact, it is perhaps here that the creativity of Rotha tends to obscure his message about the destructive power of unchecked industry; the rhythmic clanging of man and machine is so effectively handled it becomes almost seductive.

The film builds up the futuristic appeal of the expanding national electricity grid while simultaneously attempting to tie it firmly to nature. By placing such an emphasis on clean, hydroelectric power, the film smudges the reliance on burning coal to produce the majority of the nation's electricity. However, Rotha is careful not to let the uncredited sponsorship of the Central Electricity Board tread too heavily on his message. The film is clearly propaganda, but its appeal is one of humane optimism rather than corporate publicity.

The ending of the film follows the outstretched arms of an idealistic young couple on a hilltop in looking out on a pastoral horizon. Like most documentary films of the period, The Face of Britain often fails to extend its portrait of the British people beyond using them as iconic motifs in such scenes. Contemporary films such as Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935) would begin to break down these barriers by letting the residents of slums speak for themselves. But although even Rotha considered his film over-ambitious, it is this very ambition that enables it to deliver its emotive message of restoring humanity through scientific progress.

Jez Stewart

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (18:21)
Production stills
Industrial Britain (1931)
Transfer of Power (1939)
Rotha, Paul (1907-1984)
Science in Non-Fiction Film