Fires Were Started (1943)

“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”

‘Fires Were Started’, directed by Humphrey Jennings in 1943, is a British propaganda documentary/drama released by the Crown Film Unit during the Second World War. Jennings’ film focuses on a night in the life of a team of firefighters as the working in central London during the Blitz. When a warehouse is bombed in the east end, the crew rush to stem the blaze, but the scale of the fire and the problem with locating enough water leads to a tragic accident. It’s a film that matches the acts and coordination of the firefighters with the soldiers on the front link. The film moves between the heat and intensity of the firefighting and the focus and control of the central command as they track the bomb-blasts, work to limit the fires and try to place the crews in the optimum locations. The crew, in the drama played by the real firemen, is shown to be socially diverse with accents ranging from broad cockney to middle class. This works perfectly with the propaganidsing that Jennings is aiming for. The casting of real people also adds to the sense of authenticity. Jennings captures the danger and stoic duty perfectly, whilst also managing to direct a stylish and cutting edge film.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s short but packs a punch. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Went the Day Well’.


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