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Words for Battle (1941)

Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Main image of Words for Battle (1941)
35mm, black and white, 8 mins
DirectorHumphrey Jennings
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
SponsorMinistry of Information
ProducerIan Dalrymple
ScriptHumphrey Jennings
EditorStewart McAllister

Commentary Spoken by: Laurence Olivier

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A call to arms through images and words of Britain's countryside, people and poets.

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The first of four films that Lindsay Anderson considered Humphrey Jennings' best work, Words For Battle was described by the filmmaker himself as being "about the Lincoln statue in Parliament Square". This seems a curious definition for a documentary originally known as In England Now, which marries excerpts from major passages of English poetry and prose with footage of the contemporary, war-afflicted landscape, and in which Lincoln's statue only appears at the very end. But it makes sense of the whole trajectory of the film and of Jennings' underlying theme.

In the first chapter, we descend from the rolling clouds - a Godlike viewpoint looking down on England - into the fields and provincial towns, to eye-level with the local people. This movement is repeated in each succeeding passage - the camera watching from above as schoolchildren are evacuated before settling among them as they play on the river - until it reaches its climax with the people flocking past the Lincoln Statue. As narrator Laurence Olivier reaches the passage "The government of the people, by the people, and for the people" from the Gettysburg Address, the camera fixes on Big Ben, before moving in among the passing tanks and then the bystanders on their way to work. Clearly, the sequence is meant to appeal to an American audience and act as a call to arms but, more importantly, it underlines Jennings' belief in the ordinary man and woman as both the nation's driving force and the rightful beneficiaries of victory in war. That's why this paean to England ends not with Churchill, the bulwark of British Imperialism, but with a spokesman from the New World - and, not coincidentally, for a new order.

Michael Bartlett

*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. William Shakespeare (0:42)
2. John Milton (1:18)
3. William Blake (0:54)
4. Robert Browning (1:02)
5. Rudyard Kipling (0:40)
6. Winston Churchill (0:53)
7. Abraham Lincoln (1:17)
Complete film (7:30)
Production stills
Canterbury Tale, A (1944)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
McAllister, Stewart (1914-1962)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Crown Film Unit