The Whitman of the Blitz

Humphrey Jennings was a unique filmmaker whose personal and innovative work captured the spirit of the home front. So why isn’t he a household name?
July 20, 2011
Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943): one of the director’s wartime masterpieces

It is now more than half a century since Lindsay Anderson asserted that film director Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) was “the only true poet” of British cinema. Yet very few of those who care about such matters would find the sentiment outdated. To be sure, there are now some additional contenders for those poetic garlands: Derek Jarman, Bill Douglas, Terence Davies—perhaps even Lindsay Anderson himself. But admiration for any or all of these talents should not lessen our regard for Humphrey Jennings’s magnificent accomplishment, which has been summed up in a simple phrase: he was the unofficial laureate of the British during the second world war. The news that the British Film Institute will issue his complete works on DVD prompts mixed feelings: gratitude, yes, but also exasperation that it has taken so long for this great director to receive his due.

It is true that Jennings has never been a household name, save in unusually well-informed households. Still, millions of people have seen his images without knowing their provenance. Just about every time you catch a documentary about the Blitz, you will see shots of firemen training their hoses on blazing buildings, or a bus overturned by a bomb blast, or domestic interiors suddenly on show to the world: all culled, without acknowledgement, from the precious handful of short masterpieces he made during the war years—Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, A Diary for Timothy. If you have been lucky enough to see any of those films in their entirety, you will already know why generations of film-makers have admired and learned from him. Kevin MacDonald’s new film, Life in a Day, is very much in the Jennings spirit, and made by a director who knows those films intimately.

What makes Jennings’s work so enduring? Much of their power is due to their subject matter: the home front. His films have great value as historical documents, but they are much more than simply reportage. As Anderson pointed out, there is a quality in Jennings’s best films which is unmistakable and deeply personal.

This personal note is a triumph over unpromising circumstances, since Jennings was employed as an official propagandist. All of his most important films were made for government-sponsored agencies, above all the Crown Film Unit, of which he was a full-time employee. He was expected to play his part in the war effort, and to make films which celebrated the fight against Hitler and raised national morale.

He was happy to go along with this mission, if in highly idiosyncratic ways, some of which prompted others in the documentary world to anger and disgust. Listen to Britain—a free-associating montage of words and images—is now regarded by some as his masterpiece. Yet one of his colleagues argued that it presented the British in such an eccentric and unheroic light that it shouldn’t be shown in America in case it damaged attempts to persuade the US to join the war. (In fact, an earlier film on which Jennings had worked, London Can Take It!, was watched appreciatively by President Roosevelt, and might even have helped stiffen his resolve to fight Hitler.) Others felt that by showing the British in an decidedly Orwellian manner—as shabby, gentle, stoical, touchingly ugly at times—Jennings created a humanistic, democratic view of his country which is the stylistic as well as the political opposite of, say, Leni Riefenstahl’s slick Nazi fantasias.

One reason for agreeing with Anderson in finding Jennings’s films “poetic” is that they appear simple on the surface—children can enjoy them—yet have latent riches that yield themselves up on repeated viewings. Jennings was a man of many callings; so many that he had been at risk of lapsing into dilettantism. He had been a brilliant student at Cambridge, where he took a high First in the still-young English Tripos, and for a while seemed set on an academic career. He edited an edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and carried out original research on the poetry of Thomas Gray. He also devoted much of his time to writing poems and painting, and to designing sets and costumes for the theatre.

In the years between abandoning his doctorate and settling with the Crown Film Unit, Jennings was a mercurial spirit who jumped nimbly from discipline to discipline. He was a key member of the British surrealist movement, and helped organise the notorious 1936 London surrealist exhibition—the one in which Salvador Dalí almost suffocated inside a deep-sea diving suit. He went on to co-found Mass Observation, an attempt at bringing the methods of anthropology to bear on modern-day Britain. And he began work on a project called Pandaemonium—a hugely ambitious anthology of writings on the industrial revolution, still unfinished at the time of his accidental death in 1950. An edition containing about a third of the extant manuscript was published in the mid-1980s, to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jennings brought something of all his previous callings to his wartime films: there are traces of the painter, the anthropologist, the historian, even the surrealist. Lindsay Anderson was right, though—above all, Jennings was a poet, the Whitman of the Blitz. Revisionist historians have criticised him for contributing to a pernicious myth of national unity; it is true that there is no room in his work for black marketeers, looters, Nazi sympathisers or vandals.

Does this mean that his films are founded on a lie? Contemporary audiences did not think so: when Listen to Britain was shown in factories and barracks, viewers—keenly derisive of anything that smacked of “flannel,” fake uplift or prettifying—stood up and cheered, seeing their own lives caught so truly and cherished so warmly. They had never seen the likes before. Neither have you, if you have never watched one of Jennings’s four or five best films. Let’s hope that the BFI project will help introduce his work to new generations. He is too important to be left in the reference books.

Kevin Jackson’s biography “Humphrey Jennings” is published by Picador