Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fires Were Started

Fires Were Started is a 1943 film directed and written by Humphrey Jenkins and starring real fire fighters and fire service staff. It was made under the auspices of the Crown Film Unit and might now be called a docu-drama.

It follows the lives of one group of fire fighters on a full-moon lit night during the Blitz. In many respects it feels like a typical wartime film as it sets up : a new member is added to the crew, one man's wife tells him not to go off and do something silly, there's a bit of a sing-a-long and a nice mix of classes.

But once we get to the fire itself it feels almost like a documentary and it's terrifying. What's most terrifying is watching these men go up against a huge warehouse fire with the most basic of equipment - no breathing masks for example.* It's a fantastic portrayal of the matter-of-fact danger that they faced on a daily basis and the risks they were taking.

The way the film also shows how - as the size of the fire grows - that the behind the scenes support kicks into action and more pumps arrive, including from 60 miles away from where the fire began. It's an illustration of the size of the problem and the staff involved.

As with most films of the period everyone seems to display a phlegmatic calm that might once have been described as 'typically British'. How true that was in the flames and fear of the real thing I don't know. I'm not sure I would have been so calm.

The fire crew know they can't save the building they're standing around but they are trying to save the ship nearby with its valuable cargo of weapons and ammunition soon to be sent off to help the troops. A war can't be won if all is lost here. It's emphasized at the end as we see the ship setting off from the docks and off to deliver its cargo, cross-cut with the funeral of a fire fighter. Here, it seems to be saying, we are all in it together. When that phrase actually meant something.

Having a cast of non-professional actors never particularly feels stilted. It reminded me most of The Bells Go Down, which also came out in 1943, but which is an out-and-out drama. The cast includes Tommy Trinder and William Hartnell. It has similar themes - that I remember as its been a while since I saw it - but obviously feels more like a film than a documentary.

If you've never seen it I'd recommend it. It's only 80 minutes long but it feels like a genuine slice of wartime life. Perhaps watch it with The Bells Go Down to contrast their two approaches. Jennings is definitely aiming for a more documentary feel and the fire scenes definitely feel like you're watching a documentary rather than a drama.

*There's a fantastic of its time moment where the water pressure drops on the hose that one group of fire fighters are using on the roof and whilst they wait one of the firemen lights up a cigarette.

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