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Men of the Lightship (1940)


Main image of Men of the Lightship (1940)
35mm, black and white, 24 mins
DirectorDavid MacDonald
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti

The bombing and sinking of the East Dudgeon lightship on January 29th 1940, and the crew's attempted escape.

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For 300 years, the commentary tells us, lightships have been seen as neutral vessels in times of war, helping, as they do, all shipping irrespective of its ownership by a friendly or a hostile power. This is direct propaganda, telling the story of one incident in which this gentlemen's agreement was broken by brute force by a German aircraft. The strafing and bombing of the lightship is tantamount to kicking a man when he's down, or shooting him in the back. The sense of outrage is palpable and it is worth remembering the significance of the production date - it is early in the war, January 1940, and neither the filmmakers nor the British public are hardened to the horrors of warfare as they were later.

The heart of the film is its appeal to humanity. We see the routine work of the lightship in some detail on board. The men are given character - one has a tortoise called Lightning; the captain has a canary and a faithful missus waiting at home. Another is about to get married; his friend is tatting him a rug as a wedding present. The men joke around, do the washing up and work and wait for the relief ship. This activity is put in context, too, as part of the greater function of the coastal defences - in this case the Thames estuary - No. 61 lightship East Dudgeon. Strategic control is represented by the officers of Trinity House who control the lighthouses and coastal shipping. We see them aboard HMS Sheldrake, a fast-moving navy corvette or sloop, and we see a minesweeper competently blowing up a mine that the boys in the lightship have found floating nearby. We see the relief ship Argos on its way to pick up the crew of No. 61, as they are diverted by an emergency call leaving the lightship at the mercy of a solitary German plane.

The attack, as the rest of the film, is beautifully shot, with a couple of surprising touches - a point-of-view angle taken from the perspective of the German bombers diving towards the ship and a visualisation of interior thought about his wife and the canary from the British captain as he is hit by an enemy bullet. Crouching over the body, his mate looks up and says, "You dirty bastards." The language feels entirely warranted.

Bryony Dixon

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (24:02)
Production stills
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Crown Film Unit
The GPO Film Unit: 1940