Friday, December 7, 2012

London's Burning

Film: Fires Were Started (I Was a Fireman)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s always something fascinating to me about propaganda films, especially those that try to proclaim themselves something other than propaganda films. A case in point is director Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (also called I Was a Fireman). This is a wartime film, released during World War II about the Blitz of London and the men who risked their lives as firefighters every night in the aftermath of the latest raid. It’s not really a documentary, but rather a re-creation using actual fires lighted on bombed-out buildings. It’s more or less based on the specific hell these men and women when through on a nightly basis.

Really, what I’ve said above is pretty much the bulk of the film. The first half consists of a group of firemen relaxing and jawing with each other. They play pool and gather around the piano singing songs. This is particularly important since one of them, a man named Barrett, is new on the squad. The second half of the film is little more than the various firefighting teams heading out to battle the blazes caused by yet another bombing run. In particular, one fire threatens to be significant thanks to the location of live munitions near the blaze.

The film very much seems to be saying that these men are no less heroes than those who went and fought on battlefields. In many ways, in fact, the film depicts these men in just as desperate a struggle and one just as vital to the war effort. Certainly they risk their lives no less than men on the front lines do. Additionally, there is a sense of camaraderie here. Social lines are not simply crossed but become non-existent as people work for the common good at the risk of their own lives regardless of their pre-war stations in life.

But here’s the thing—despite the massive amount of acclaim this film (the only feature-length film of Jennings’s career), I couldn’t help but find it less than enthralling. Sure, there’s some tension in what might happen if the fire reaches ammunition, but even here, there is less excitement than there should be. Part of this is because I know this to be a propaganda film created in part to boost the morale of the British people.

In truth, I wanted to like Fires Were Started a lot more than I actually did. I think this is attributable to several factors working in conjunction. First, and most significantly, Fires Were Started is in desperate need of being restored. While the picture quality is decent in general, the sound is frequently very muddled and muffled. Certain parts of the film are difficult to understand. Second is no doubt the use of non-professionals as actors. While this works at times, frequently, we have situations that are more or less one brick talking to another brick.

But the film does show some promise from Jennings, whose career was cut tragically short with his death at a relatively young age. It was the right decision to create actual fires in desolate, needing to be destroyed buildings, because this lent a certain level of realism to the film. However, I could have stood some actual tension.

I can’t help but wonder if I might have liked this film more had I watched it at a different time or under different circumstances. As it stands now, though, I can’t sa I didn’t appreciate the film, but it’s a long stretch between appreciation for what it is and enjoyment based on how it goes about doing it. In that respect, Fires Were Started is sort of half a film. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either.

Why to watch Fires Were Started: A rare war film that doesn’t really have a lot of war in it.
Why not to watch: It really needs to be restored.


  1. It is a bit boring. I think you're point about whether this is a film one needed to see at the time of its release is a good one.

    1. Sad. I really did want to like it. I have an affinity for that period in history.

  2. I just got done watching this. You mentioned the muffled sound. Combine that with the non-professional actors who have never been trained to speak clearly, and the accents, and I could only understand maybe one sentence in five. The DVD I received from Netflix (Listen to Britain and other stories) did not have subtitles, so I might as well have been watching the movie in French.

    I agree that the use of non-professional actors, no matter how much it might add in authenticity in regards to using the equipment, is a bigger negative because of their inability to convey emotions.

    Also, in the back of my mind I couldn't help but wonder why they were taking real firemen off their normal duties during wartime in order to shoot a movie. It would seem to me that they and their equipment would have been far more valuable in their regular jobs.

    By the way, did you intend for the title to this post to be "London Burning"? If so, you have a typo. Normally, I don't mention those, but I noticed it when I was looking back through your recent post titles because I remembered you had just reviewed this.

    1. I'll respond to the last bit first--the apostrophe is intentional ("London is burning") and was a reference the song of the same name by The Clash ( There are other ways to interpret it (London's burning = the burning of London), but if we get off on a grammar sidetrack, we'll be here all day. It's one of the few topics I feel qualified to lecture on (and yes, the ending of the sentence with a "preposition" was intentional, because here it's part of the verb. See?).

      Yeah--one sentence in five is about right. I wonder if a restoration would fix it, or if it's somehow inherent to the film itself. Isn't this the sort of thing that Criterion lives for?

      Good point about the use of the equipment. I never thought of that, but evidently the needs of propaganda sometimes outweigh the needs of a particular building or neighborhood.

    2. The way I sometimes make things worse when I'm trying to make things better sometimes really amuses me. My original intent was to point out that the "n" is missing from the word "Burning" in the title and I messed this up by A. not referring to it directly, and B. not re-creating your title as you wrote it. As you correctly point out, it has an apostrophe s on it. I did get The Clash reference; I'm a big fan. Sorry for the confusion.

      By the way, I also watched the Listen to Britain short on the DVD because it's listed in Time Out's 2011 list of the Top 100 British films. It was actually in worse shape than Fires Were Started in regards to picture, and the sound was similarly muddled.

      And in keeping both with the Britain and grammar theme, one of my favorite quips from Winston Churchill is that ending a sentence with a preposition is "something up with which I will not put." Personally, it's probably the most common grammar rule that I disregard. I do it regularly because rewording the sentence to avoid it usually makes it come off sounding unnatural.

    3. Okay, so I feel a bit silly now. I fixed it, although the name of the actual page is still wrong, so it's there forever.

      Most of the time, sentences that end in prepositions are actually ending in verb particles. One of my professors once presented as an example of it being really okay to end sentences this way the following story. A father was going to read a story to his daughter before bed, but he brought the wrong book. The daughter responded with a five-preposition-ending sentence: "Why did you bring that book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

  3. I wonder if there is an entirely different version used for region 2. My DVD including the same films is perfectly audible and the picture quality is excellent. In fact despite lack of subtitles, plenty of slang and me not being a native speaker I had no problems following the dialogue. In fact I found it very including for me as a viewer to peek into the lives of these people.
    I wonder if what we got here is a fundamental difference between a Hollywood and a British approach to documentary / reconstruction / propaganda. Instead of whipping up conflict and drama this film and indeed the British style downplays the drama and let the action play out with an understated coolness which in my book is way more effective than the contrived confrontation scenario. The feeling here is that firefighting is a group effort and that these blokes are just your average guys that you would have a beer with at the pub, but when hell breaks loose their coolness is what saves the day. What could have been a meltdown is averted and these men and women are pretty ordinary except that they are excellent at doing their job. To me that was not boring at all but very engrossing. I wonder if you would like it better with a better version.

    1. That's a great question. I agree that with a better version, I'd probably like it a lot more. The problems I had with this were almost exclusively with the quality of the version I had.

  4. I watched Fires Were Started this weekend and found it very interesting, especially all the singing of popular British songs I've never heard. So cheery and enthusiastic!

    I was wondering how Fires Were Started was shown. Was it treated like a short subject and shown with the cartoon and the newsreel before the main film? Or was it advertised as a main feature or perhaps part of a double feature along with some other war-oriented film? I'm just curious. I'm imagining what it must have been like to go to The Strand on a weekend afternoon and sitting there for more than an hour watching the newsreel and then Fires Were Started and finally The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

    1. That I don't know, and it might make a difference. I have trouble seeing this as a main feature, but it would work as something more newsreel-ish.