by Allan Fish
(UK 1943 35m) not on DVD
p/d/w Humphrey Jennings ph H.E.Fowle ed Stewart McAllister
What does one think of when one thinks of the Welsh in the movies? I hear the answers – Stanley Baker, Richard Burton, Sian Phillips, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Sheen, even Ray Milland technically. Let’s rephrase the question; what does one think of when one thinks of Wales on screen? The obvious answer, especially across the pond, would be Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Ford’s fans would see it as poetic, when it is actually merely fanciful claptrap. For a really poetic study of Welsh mining, one needs to look elsewhere. Lindsay Anderson once said that Humphrey Jennings was Britain’s one true poet. He was understating some.
If one looks for mentions of Jennings’ work in film books, one would most likely find reference to Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and A Diary for Timothy. A film that often gets overlooked – not helped by the fact that it was for long periods impossible to see – is The Silent Village. It tells the story of the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice, whose small population hid the perpetrators of the assassination of the Deputy Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. In response to their conspiracy, the Nazi occupiers shot all the men in the village, marched the women off in wagons to concentration camps, took the children to the appropriate authorities and razed the village to the ground, literally obliterating it. This is all re-enacted by the villagers of the Welsh mining community of Cwmgiedd who provide the epitaph; Lidice was not obliterated so much as immortalised.
Primarily it’s propaganda, but I doubt a more chilling piece of propaganda came out of Britain during the war. There had been quislings and fifth columnists in fictional films through the war years – Asquith’s Cottage to Let, Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?, Dickinson’s The Next of Kin – yet none of them had images as powerful as Jennings’ docu-drama, done on a fraction of the budget. A quarter of a century later, Kevin Brownlow showed a Britain under the Nazis in It Happened Here, but in the whole of Brownlow’s nonetheless impressive film there is no image as powerful as that of a Nazi staff car making its way along the narrow streets in and around Cwmgiedd, a solitary swastika on the grille and a loudspeaker on the roof, as if it was nothing more dangerous than a parliamentary candidate canvassing for votes. Meanwhile Jennings is always keen to put into historical context as one sees colliers standing atop the ruins of Welsh strongholds of old, then built to keep out the terrors of Edward I’s armies, now standing ghost-like as an even greater threat to Welsh nationalism stamps it underfoot. A schoolteacher tries to recall the Norman conquests of Britain, and tells her charges to never forget their Welsh language, and to speak it always when unobserved by the Nazis.
It can be argued that there’s a fair amount of stereotypical depiction of some of the Welsh villagers, not least in the singing, but it’s a singing that betrays an intense sense of national identity and spirit. No matter how many times you have heard it sung at Rugby internationals, there will never be a more moving rendition of ‘Land of Our Fathers’ than that sung by the condemned men of Cwmgiedd/Lidice as they are lined up against the wall knowing their end had come. It reminds one of the scene at Rick’s in Casablanca when ‘La Marseillaise’ drowns out ‘Watch on the Rhine’ as the miners dwarf even Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’, heard both in the radio announcement of Heydrich’s death and in the aftermath of the obliteration of the village. The uprising scenes themselves are splendidly authentic, recalling the pioneering work of Griffith, Eisenstein and Lang. It’s of its time and yet it has this nagging sense of marking time and looking to the future. You recall the loudspeaker and the unseen speaker, the list of those shot today, the sense of being watched. Only three years later a certain author, slowly dying of tuberculosis, would make his way to the remote Scottish island of Jura and begin work on his final masterpiece. Then you hear the words, carved as if on the stones in the Cwmgiedd churchyard; “it was a bright cold day in April and the clocks…”