Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fires Were Started (1943)

Crown Film Unit


War is hell, and not just for soldiers. To the citizens of Great Britain war found its way right up to their doorsteps. Humphrey Jennings’ feature film Fires Were Started showcases a unique slice of England’s own fire brigades played to the background of Nazi bombing during World War II. The picture’s result is a distinctive look at the men and the situations that they faced them Germany made direct attacks on London.

Fires Were Started is a drama covering a day in the lives of a London fire firefighters during the Nazi Blitz upon the city one evening. The feature begins with the introduction of a new firefighter joining his new station. This younger member is introduced to and becomes acquainted with his new surrounding and team members and the story turns into a heroic display of London’s finest fighting off the blazes ignited by German air raids on London. At first we, like the newcomer, are introduced to the everyday livelihood and work within the stationhouse in preparation and training, through the jovial moments of comradery, before finally facing the life threatening situations these men fight regularly. The dramatic peek of the picture comes in the bout with a blaze that threatens a munitions warehouse near London’s docks. The men battle equipment, failed water lines, and the stubbornness of the fire to extinguish the threat, but not without the loss on one of their own.

The picture recreates the situations of real life firefighters, their daily events, and their hardship the field fighting a major fire. Filmed both in a manner of a scripted drama as well as an unscripted documentary this feature shares the light heartiness of this distinct brotherhood of first responders, the dramatic fury of flames, and the sacrifice of one of these brave men in the line of duty. With a short running time of roughly 65 minutes Fires Were Started is long enough to dramatic, while not overly lengthy where the story can get a bit monotonous.

Fires Were Started was a product of the British Government’s Ministry of Information who formed the Crown Film Unit. This production company’s purpose was to inform citizens through the use of the motion pictures as well as raise spirits, created during the outbreak of World War II. So in short, they basically produced British propaganda films. Written and filmed by respected British documentarian Humphrey Jennings, this film takes an interesting attempt to manifest just how firefighters labor and aid in keeping the country safe.

In his only feature length film, Jennings mixes the world of scripted drama with a documentary feel as he utilized real firefighters to fill the roles of his characters instead of actors. Staged for the feature are massive recreations of fires for the picture’s climax. In these moments Jennings captures the practices the men would go through during their real life duties to fights these immense blazes. Shot on location in London using actual building bombed in the Blitz this film affectively recreates these fires on the sights some of these men or their close counterparts might have fought. The flames are real and enormous as Jennings captures the realism and drama these men were accomplished to battle against.

In describing the story and visuals of this feature, the film may come off as mundane, or rather dull, as if the film is nothing more than an informational piece on firefighters. What Jennings does is with this somewhat propaganda piece is inform the country on firefighters, bringing audiences intimately close to the men that fight the flames, to the point we are emotionally tied to them. We experience their brotherhood, feel their joys, struggle with their frustrations, sense the heat along with them, and ultimately become as exhausted as they are when the evening is all over. You literally live the long day and evening along with these men on the field and women in the dispatch office.

Perhaps the most dramatic moments on the picture are not even when the men are out fighting the fires, but rather the moments before they are dispatched. We spend the first half of the feature getting to know the firehouse and the mix of men that pester and torment each other, but would die for each other. After they have had their dinner and are awaiting their call they are laughing, joking, and singing, just attempting to pass the time with as much enjoyment as possible. This is when we hear the air raid sirens. The sound of impending danger looms in the distance as the sirens sound and noise of German airplanes are heard like a swarm of bees. All the while the men are in a nervous state of joy as they continue to sing to keep their spirits up, the only thing that really keeps them going. Soon after come the concussion for exploding bomb shells and reality sets in. These men should be afraid, but fear is the enemy when they are to be the brave ones to help save countless others from the damage brought on by these attacks. It is in these types of moments that really manifest what these men are like as they prepare to put their lives on the line that night.

The picture is both stirring and frightening. It literally puts us in the middle of what it could have been like to be in London during these bombings, but with a group of men that knew what they had to face in order to serve best. Critics of the time generally praised the film for its realism. In time Fires Were Started was heralded as one of the finest film in British cinema history. Despite its rather crude aging with time Fires Were Started remains just as stirring as it was when it first released. Today it serves as a time capsule for events that rocked Great Britain as war literally knocked on their door. This picture, even without visually depicting one German plane or bomb makes war real and frightening as it manifests what it was like for the many locked in their homes during those black out evening hours, as well as those braze men that went towards the danger when the time matter most.

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