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Bells Go Down, The (1943)


Main image of Bells Go Down, The (1943)
35mm, black and white, 90 mins
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayRoger MacDougall
Written in consultationStephen Black
CameramanErnest Palmer
MusicRoy Douglas

Cast: Tommy Trinder (Tommy Turk); James Mason (Ted Robbins); Philip Friend (Robert 'Bob' Mathews); Mervyn Johns (Sam); Philippa Hiatt (Nan)

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At the start of World War II, three volunteers sign up for the Auxiliary Fire Service. As London endures the Blitz, the amateurs soon find themselves tested.

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The Bells Go Down was among the last of Ealing's wartime films to take the conflict as its subject - by 1943, the war was already on the turn, and the Blitz could be remembered with a tinge of pride, as an early challenge that was seen through with courage and fortitude. So the tone of the film, even though it allows for tragedy, is largely celebratory: a testament to the bravery and endurance of volunteer firefighters in the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS).

Like Nine Men (d. Harry Watt, 1943), released a few months earlier, it is about teamwork and comradeship. But The Bells Go Down emphasises solidarity not just among the fire crews, but in the community at large. Petty differences are set aside as neighbours pull together to support one another through difficult times. Ted saves Tommy from an exploding bomb, despite his resentment of Tommy's flirting with his girlfriend, Susie. Likewise Ted's Ma drops her disapproval of Susie when the latter saves her and her husband from the ruins of their pub.

Similarly, class divisions are forgotten - the fire chief is a bluff Scot, like Nine Men's Sergeant, and the one upper-middle-class fireman, Bob, is not an officer but simply one of the crew. Like Nine Men's North African unit, the firefighters include one, Brooks, who fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

The film was released in May 1943, just a few weeks after Humphrey Jennings' semi-documentary about the AFS, Fires Were Started, and seemed to confirm that Ealing's filmmakers were keeping a close eye on their counterparts in the documentary film movement. Indeed, an early title considered for Fires Were Started was The Bells Went Down.

But where Fires Were Started employed real firefighters in a fictional but plausible narrative, The Bells Go Down's AFS crews are actors, and the realism goes only so far. Particularly unconvincing is a scene in which Bob, at the top of his ladder, spots a telephone on the windowsill of a burning building and calls his pregnant wife, Nan (Philippa Hiatt), who is then almost killed when a bomb goes off near the phonebox. Improbable though this is, it is a poignant moment in a film dedicated to ordinary bravery in the face of extraordinary hardship.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Story of a village (3:25)
2. New recruits (1:51)
3. Down with the pumps (2:30)
4. A toast to Sue (1:17)
5. The morning after (1:49)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Fires Were Started (1943)
Nine Men (1943)
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Currie, Finlay (1878-1968)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Hartnell, William (1908-1975)
Johns, Mervyn (1899-1992)
Mason, James (1909-1984)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)
Ealing at War