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The decade or so that began in 1940 is generally regarded as the 'golden age' of British cinema. The experience of fighting total war regenerated the film industry and forced filmmakers into attempting to create a distinctively 'British' cinema, which would both promote the national interest and record the experience of a nation fighting for its life. By and large they succeeded, and the films produced during the war and after, won considerable popular and critical approval. The most acclaimed films of this period owed a great deal to the work of the documentary movement of the 1930s, but merging narrative conventions with documentary style and intent into what is now usually known as 'realism'. It was a time of imaginative experimentation as filmmakers looked for new ways of representing the nation at war. Among the most interesting innovations was the feature length, story-documentary; a form that was first produced in the early war years by the Crown Film Unit. This essay, then, examines the first story documentary, Target for Tonight (1941) which focused on the work of the Royal Air Force, dealt with important propaganda themes of the period, and suggested on way forward for the development of a British 'realist' cinema.

After the First World War, the British film industry struggled to survive in the face of competition from Hollywood. In 1914, only 25% of the films shown in British cinemas were British made; by 1923, this figure had shrunk to just 10%. Thoughout the inter-wars years the vast majority of the films British cinemagoers went to see were produced in Hollywood.1 British studios, in a state of almost continual financial crisis, simply couldn't compete with the high production values of American studios and the attraction of American 'stars', and in 1927, the government was spurred to action in order to ensure the survival of the industry by introducing the so-called 'quota' system forcing domestic distributors to show British made films.2 But even in 1937, John Grierson, leader of the fledgling British documentary movement, despairingly noted, 'so far as films go, we are now a colonial people….'.3 The domination of British screens by Hollywood products and the continued failure of British films to find an audience, even at home, frequently provoked critical debate about how the industry could be sustained; and not simply because of the need to preserve a significant element of the economy, but because film was also a vitally important channel for the dissemination of national propaganda. Stephen Tallents, the civil servant most responsible for the organisation of government f ilm propaganda in the late 1920s, shrewdly observed in 1932 that because of the economic disruption of the First World War and the recent economic collapse, a positive representation of the nation and empire in the media, and especially in film, was essential for national recovery,

If we are to play our part in the New World order, we need to muster
every means and every art by which we can communicate with other
Peoples…. We need continuous and sustained presentation of our
industrial ability and industrial ambitions

Cinema, then, had a significant role to play in national life and in selling the nation and its products overseas. Attracting larger audiences than any other form of entertainment, it was desperately important that British films that promoted British interests continued to be produced. In short, what was need was a distinctively 'national' cinema.
By the late 1930s, after yet another financial crisis, discourses about the path British film should follow in order to secure a major share of the market became widespread; and with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, such discussion took on a new immediacy. Influenced by the contribution of film propaganda to the final victory during the First World War, critics were happy to endorse the comments of Lord Stragboli to the House of Lords that, cinema has a unique 'importance for entertainment and in moulding public opinion… and as a means of propaganda'.5 Cinema then, was expected to play an essential role in wartime, not just as a source of entertainment to maintain morale, but as a significant channel for national propaganda:

shaping audience attitudes to the war, reflecting national concerns and speaking directly to British audiences. Yet given the failures of the last twenty years, how could British filmmakers produce films that would appeal to home audiences and find distribution overseas? Writing in Sight and Sound in 1940, Michael Balcon, the influential head of Ealing Studios, suggested that British cinema must stop attempting to copy Hollywood productions. British films were unpopular in America precisely because they were poor copies of American style, and British studios could not compete with Hollywood glitz and glamour. The way to success, he argued, was to produce films that represented the uniqueness of British culture.6 While many producers were never able to rid themselves of the chimera of success in America, the notion of distinctively British films fell on fertile ground. Sidney Bernstein of the Granada cinema chain and an adviser on film to the Ministry of Information, used a similar argument but stressed the need for the foundation of a distinctive national cinema. Bernstein accepted that the public did appreciate good British films….'not the million pound "epics"….. but the good, honest, unpretentious stories in which we have shown so much promise… the records of everyday life'.7 As Antonia Lant has pointed out,

Bernstein's analysis is exemplary of the criteria used by many critics to
define what is most 'British' about wartime cinema: it is good, honest,
unpretentious, everyday, and restrained in style, budget, and choice of
subject. It is, in short, 'freed from the influence of Hollywood

The critic Ralph Bond added that British films should be about 'real people, real situations, and real instead of synthetic emotions'.9 What critics saw as the hallmarks of future national films, then, was realism; films in which 'plausible events showing plausible characters brought plausible results'10 - only realism could accurately represent British ideas and experience; the type of film British documentarists had been producing during the 1930s.

The documentary movement emerged in the late 1920s when the Empire Marketing Board, under its director Stephen Tallents, created a small film unit, supervised by John Grierson, to produce films that would help 'sell' the empire not only to its citizens but also to the wider world. In 1933, the unit was taken over by the Post Office and became the GPO Film Unit making official films for government departments and on private commissions for state organisations such as Imperial Airways.

Grierson, along with co-workers like Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey and later Harry Watt, Paul Rotha and Humphrey Jennings, believed that film was more than simply entertainment, it had a democratic function as a powerful channel for education which could put ideas and information into mass circulation. As Grierson explained,

The basic force behind documentary was social not aesthetic…. We were,
I confess, sociologists, a little worried about the way the world we lived
in was going…. The world had become very complex - and civic
comprehension difficult. We were conscious of the abstraction of life
under the new metropolitan skies. We saw that poverty of community
life went hand in hand with the lack of civic comprehension.
Documentary film, then, was the ideal means of 'bridging the gap between the citizen and his community'

Cinema, they argued, had a public service function, to teach citizenship, to bind the individual to the community and to reinforce the importance of communitarianism, to make every citizen aware of their importance in the structure of everyday life, and of the responsibilities of good citizenship. Many of the documentaries of the 1930s focused on working class life and work in an attempt to promote what was good and explain it to a middle class documentary-watching audience, that Grierson pointed out, were 'hardly aware of an England beyond the West End'. Grierson and his co-workers wanted to promote social harmony and social inter-dependence. Certainly the documentarists were concerned with the aesthetics of film, but it was always more than simple pleasure, for here film is a means to an end, it is pragmatic and didactic - not an end in itself but a means to an end - a better society. This, of course, was uniquely British and antithetical to the rationale of Hollywood where the film and the profit that it produced was the end in itself.

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1. See Sarah Street, British National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1997): Chapter I

2. Ibid: 7

3. World Film News, 2: 8 (November 1937): 5

4. Stephen Tallents, The Projection of England (London: Faber, 1932): 17

5. Antonia Lant, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (Princeton University Press, 1991): 20

6. Michael Balcon, 'Rationalise', Sight and Sound, 9: 36 (Winter 1940)

7. Quoted in Lant, Blackout: 33

8. Ibid.

9. Ralph Bond, Monopoly: The Future of British Films (London: ACT, 1946): 10

10. Ibid.

11. Quoted in Andrew Higson, Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1995): 183.