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Women in Wartime by Michael Brooke
Introduction WWI WWII: Propaganda WWII: Newsreels WWII: Food Features: 1939-42
Features: 1943 Features: 1944-45 Gainsborough Women Filmmakers    
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Features: 1943
Still from Millions Like Us

Anne Crawford and Patricia Roc
in Millions Like Us (1943)

While the films mentioned in the previous section all featured female roles, they were essentially second-string. By contrast, the three titles discussed here, all from 1943, were made primarily to showcase the role of women during the war. The first, The Gentle Sex, was directed by the actor Leslie Howard, who narrates but does not appear on screen. There are seven main characters, all women undergoing basic training for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Little happens beyond this, but dramatic interest and tension are maintained through the diversity of their various backgrounds and experiences, with the working class characters tending to fare better in the face of adversity.

Howard is also credited as producer of The Lamp Still Burns, though he died before it went into production, with the veteran Maurice Elvey taking over direction. Although made with the co-operation of the Ministry of Health, in the event it painted such a grim picture of the plight of nurses in British hospitals (the war is barely touched upon, though there is one scene of an operation being carried out during an air raid) that its value as propaganda is somewhat suspect, unless the target audience was expected to be as self-sacrificing as Hilary (Rosamund John), who abandons her promising architectural career in favour of nursing. But the film is historically fascinating, particularly for what we now know was a snapshot of British hospital practices only a few years before the founding of the National Health Service in 1948. Two scenes are particularly telling: one where nurses discuss what sacrifices they have had to make in order to pursue their career, and the climactic showdown where Hilary turns a disciplinary hearing into an impassioned plea for reform (and it's tempting to assume that Ministry officials had a hand in the somewhat defensive list of government initiatives discussed after her tirade).

Comfortably the best film of this trio is Millions Like Us, the joint directorial debuts of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, two hugely experienced screenwriters who had tended to specialise in light entertainment. This film, though, was wholly serious, showing how the various members of a typical British family could contribute to the war effort: father in the Home Guard, older sister in the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), younger sister Celia (Patricia Roc) in an aircraft components factory. Much of the film follows Celia from her initial tentative trip to the Ministry of Labour offices to her first shifts on the factory floor to a brief, doomed romance with a young pilot.

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