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
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.