It's possible to speak about British cinema in the forties in the way that we speak about German cinema in the twenties or America in the seventies—as a kind of high point. The war years weren’t kind to Britain’s literary scene; they virtually brought the vibrant modernism of the 1920s and ’30s to a screeching halt. But they invigorated its filmmakers. In addition to seeing the rise of Ealing Studios, the emergence of Carol Reed, and a spectacular run of films by Powell and Pressburger, the 1940s brought about a whole host of films about or inspired by the war: Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries. His 18-minute newsreel Listen to Britain (1942) was released in the same year as William Wyler’s hugely successful blitz drama Mrs. Miniver.
Like Mrs. Miniver, Listen to Britain is a dignifiedly patriotic portrait of British civilians bravely going about their lives—crowding into dance halls, eating and drinking in pubs, attending concerts—even in the midst of danger and destruction. Jennings gives us shots of children playing in a schoolyard and fields of wheat waving in the sun, and he ends with “Rule, Britannia” on the soundtrack. As far as propaganda goes, it’s at least pleasant to look at; it doesn’t slide into smarminess or aggression. Quiet, tasteful propaganda—if such a thing exists, Listen to Britain is it. Britain’s war films are always careful never to make patriotism vulgar. The beleaguered civilians in Jennings’ film are neither smug nor abject; they’re just decent, good, ordinary people. The assumption is that they will emerge from the war triumphant by virtue of their quiet decency and goodness rather than their military strategy (aside from a few shots of some soldiers chatting in a pub and some planes flying overhead, Listen to Britain de-emphasizes any associations with actual combat). As a documentary, Listen to Britain is also surprisingly and refreshingly free-form, at times even poetic. Jennings doesn’t impose a narrative on his subject; being that his subject is the sights and sounds of Britain during wartime, how could he? He simply watches and listens.