British Cinema History

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Introduction

In my essay of British cinema history, I will be using “The Bells Go Down” (1943), as my chosen text. For this assignment, I will be studying and analysing this text in relation to the period that this film was created, the boundaries and limits that were set on this text, as well as acknowledging how other film texts around this time were created and the similarities surrounding them.

Background of Film

“The Bells Go Down” is a comedy-drama film made during the wartime of World War 2 in 1943. This text is based around the aerial bombings that occurred during World War 2 (27th August 1939 to 9th September 1940), as well as in particular highlighting the plight of the firefighters such as the NFS (National Fire Service) and the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service, who were tasked with minimising the damage caused by the bombings.

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The director of this comedy-drama is Basil Dearden, who has directed numerous different film texts between the beginnings of the 1940s to the end of the 1960s, which ended with his unfortunate death in 1971. Some of his most highly-reviewed and popular films involve the fantasy/mystery Dead of Night (1945), action/drama Khartoum (1966) and the caper story/action film, The League of Gentleman (1960).

The plot begins six days before the declaration August 27th 1939 with an establishing shot over bustling streets of London, and their complete unawareness of the full-scale war that is soon to come. Using popular comedic actor Tommy Trinder as one of the protagonists, this film gives a comical outlook on the fires that raged in the UK, whilst still hinting at serious aspects such as the possibility of death for any firefighters.

Hidden Propaganda Message

To begin this analysis, a particular interesting aspect of this film is how the text makes tribute to the fire services, who dealt with the aftermath of the ordeal, as well as how this can be associated with the possibility of this film being created for propaganda means. Considering that, this text was created in 1943, which was right in the middle of World War. A film designed not only to highlight, but glorify the efforts of the fire services or armed forces can be seen as an attempt to persuade passive audiences to possibly join the fire services, or to increase their support of them, as a way of increasing the war effort.

As part of my research, I have looked at film magazines dating back to the period of when this film was made. A brief review was made from Picturegoer in May of 1943, which refers to the wartime movie, “The Bells Go Down” as “A further tribute to the N.F.S in the 1940 blitz” (pg. 11) as well as making a comparison to its counterpart film, “Fire Were Started” (1943). This text has a very similar plot to “The Bells Go Down”, which celebrates the firefighters, who minimised the damage caused by the German bombers during World War 2 as well as famously being known for featuring real firefighters for their protagonists. This further reinforces of what was most likely the film industry’s ideology during the wartime of World War 2, which was to pursue a ways of communicating propaganda to its audiences as a way of increasing the war effort.

Fire Were Started was known for its realistic touch on how spectators were really looking for that authentic touch, which allows them to support and encourage the characters all the more, in which The Bells Go Down was unable to achieve the same level of realism as its counterpart. This may have also been attributed to Tommy Trinder’s laid-back personality, which created a film text that was more recognised a melodrama than a drama. I believe this took some of the impact that The Bells Go Down was aiming, however this was counter-acted by Tommy’s heroic death at the end of film, in which he attempted to save Chief Macfarlane from a collapsing building, and ends with building collapsing on both of them.

The Bells Go Down is rather simplistic in its approach to narrative, which closely relates to Tzvettan Todrov’s theory of equilibrium, in which a narrative follows a 5-stage equilibrium. This linear narrative that Tzvettan Todorov refers to begin with a complete and undisturbed equilibrium, which is similar to how The Bells Go Down in that it begins with look at how people were before the war and their peaceful lives. Then it moves on to stage two, which However, this film also takes a strange comedic turn from what should be a rather serious drama film, which looks into the devastation of the German bombings.

The Role of Men and Women in Society During Wartime Cinema Industry

As it was commonly known, during the wartime of World War 2, whilst men were fighting overseas as part of the Triple Entente, and their efforts to push back opposing forces. There was a huge gap in the workforce that men had left behind in the wake of war, in which still needed occupying. This task was given to the women of the United Kingdom to keep Britain running steadily, in its supply of guns and ammunitions, as well as helping the men overseas by donning the uniform to work as nurses and truck drivers.

This ideology of working-class women, who are capable of completing more than just menial tasks around the household, was finally being pushed forward into the public eye after the government’s attempts to essentially cover all of women’s work efforts during World War 1. This ideology was able to make its way onto the screens of cinema with many supporting the hard work of women and their usefulness during the wartime of World War 2.

The Bells Go Down communicates this new form of ideology with its wide shots of inside the Fire Department that the main protagonists now reside in to pursue their new careers as firefighters. In these wide shots, women are seen operating the emergency lines for the fire services, so that they can relay any disturbances that occur in the area. However, this seems to be the extent of how far films of nature are willing to go for supporting women’s rights in jobs, which is especially significant in a film considering it can be seen as a propaganda film intended to pay tribute to the men and women who dedicated themselves to the war cause. On the other hand, it could be seen that women’s roles in this movie were kept to a minimum, so that they did not overshadow the intention of this film, which was to highlight the bravery of the firefighters during the German aerial bombings of 1939 to 1940.

It also worth noting a key scene in The Bells Go Down, in which the female protagonist Susie (Meriel Forbes) walks in on Ted Robbins (James Mason) finishing up on the construction of his cradle in a daze. After being escorted to the bed, Susie confesses to fainting at work again. Ted not only proposes, but also demands that Susie quit her job, so that she can live a more carefree life, which Susie want to, accept but is hesitant due to their financial woes.

Conclusion

To conclude this investigation into British cinema history, and how the various restrictions placed upon British film due to government restrictions, and pursuit to further support for war led to texts such as The Bells Go Down and Fires Were Started. Even though these two films which paid tribute to the firefighters of 1939 to 1940 were based on the same story both texts were able to provide completely different meanings as to how they made tribute them.

Bibliography

  1. The Bells Go Down. (1943). Picturegoer, p.11e. 

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