Most people, if asked to name the finest British director, would probably plump for Hitchcock, Lean or Powell. Some, however, would say Humphrey Jennings, once described by Lindsay Anderson as the only true poet of the English cinema. Fires Were Started is his most celebrated film, and undoubtedly a masterpiece.
Jennings was a poet and a painter too – a man, in fact, of the widest possible culture. But he saw a way of combining everything in what may seem to be the most unyeilding cinematic metier of documentary. When he died young in 1950, he had only worked for 17 years as a film-maker, all of them in what we would now call docu-drama.
Fires Were Started is his longest work, made in 1943. But it was not the only extraordinary film he made, for the GPO Film Unit before the last world war and for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry Of Information during it.
In other hands, many of these films would have been mere propaganda made to stiffen the national mood. But in his, the images of Britain were often so powerful and so moving that people would be in tears watching them.
The nature of the images available to him are perfectly expressed in a poem he wrote, in the same year as he filmed Heart Of Britain and Words For Battle, two superb shorts:
I see a thousand strange sights in the streets of London
I see the clock on Bow Church burning in daytime
I see a one-legged man crossing the fire on crutches
I see three negroes and a woman with white face-powder reading music at half-past three in the morning
I see an ambulance girl with her arms full of roses
I see the burnt drums of the Philharmonic
I see the green leaves of Lincolnshire carried through London on the wrecked body of an aircraft
He called his films ”camera poems” and the characters in Fires Were Started were the firemen and firewomen of the Auxiliary Fire Service working in the most heavily bombed docks of London.
His achievement in the film has been most potently described by David Thomson, who said of him: ”His fires, which were, like Blake’s, a condition of the soul, might even have burnt down English good manners.”
The film’s early scenes introduce us to the eight characters we follow – each are fictional but all are played by real firemen. One 24-hour period is dramatised. In the morning, the men leave their homes and ordinary occupations to start their tour of duty.
A new recruit arrives and is shown the ropes. There is a full moon due and warning comes that a heavy attack is anticipated. Night falls and the sirens begin to wail. The unit is called out to a riverside warehouse where fire threatens an ammunition ship at anchor by the wharf. The fire is fought and finally mastered, though one man is lost and others are injured. The ship finally sails with the morning tide.
The way the story is structured provides a portrait of what was then a beseiged Britain that is astonishingly intimate. Jennings’ firemen are not treated in the patronising way servicemen were often depicted in post-war films of the stiff-upper-lip variety.
True, the observation is affectionate and matter-of-fact, in a typically British manner. But there is humour and irony too, as in the sequence when the firemen enter their recreation room in turn as Barrett, the pianist of the group, strikes up One Man Went To Mow and other popular songs of the day. The fire fighting scenes and their aftermath are remarkable, shot and edited with no melodramatics whatsoever.
Jennings had founded the Mass Observation movement which collected information on the British way of life much as Malinowski had documented the behaviour of the South Sea islanders. He put this to good effect in Fires Were Started and other films, notably the equally famous Listen To Britain and Diary For Timothy.
But, though ineffably patrician, he transcended the class clichés of the time by recognising the way war can unite disparate people and by making us think about what would have been lost if the conflict had gone the other way.