Arts: Blake, Shakespeare, Orwell... and Jennings

The poetic vision of Humphrey Jennings' films can stand comparison with the work of England's greatest writers. So why is he so neglected here?
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The Independent Culture
About six months ago, the National Film Theatre invited me to programme a season by a major British director for its January 2000 series: an agreeable task which I was happy to accept, since it consisted largely of sitting in a screening room for several days watching a series of films I already knew and loved.

There was just one minor embarrassment. I knew that a friend was going to be joining me for one of the screenings; I knew, too, that some of this director's films have an almost unequalled capacity to bring a rising mist to my eyes and a lump the size of a grapefruit to my throat; and, by and large, I consider that upper lips should be worn well pressed and starched.

So I sat in the dark with my face clenched rigid, concentrating furiously on the quality of the print, the composition of the images, the rhythm of the editing - all superb, incidentally - and the swell and ebb of the music track, and I just about preserved my composure. Somewhere in the middle of the final reel, however, I risked a quick peek at my companion, and noticed a small and (of course) wholly manly tear trickling down his cheek.

Now, since this small anecdote may suggest to the unsympathetic reader nothing more than that my friend and I are a couple of big girl's blouses, I had better hurry to add that I am (of course) hard, damned hard, especially when it comes to watching weepies. I huffed and tutted through the finale of Titanic, fell asleep during Love Story, spent much of Shadowlands thinking about the real-life CS Lewis's unfeasibly prominent nasal hair and can still remain Sahara-eyed through the last sequence of It's a Wonderful Life, even after one too many glasses of Madeira. When a movie has palpable designs on my tear ducts, that is to say, I tend to find myself patting my wallet.

So what was it about the film my friend and I were watching which so disarmed us? It was called The Silent Village, and is one of the less well-known works by a director who, though enthusiastically admired, is not really, I'm sad to admit, all that well-known outside the enclosed circles of cinema fans, social historians, art critics and Second World War buffs: Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950).

Made in 1943, The Silent Village dramatises the Nazi massacre of the Czech village of Lidice with a simple but powerful conceit: Jennings relocated the story to the Welsh mining village of Cwmgiedd, and had the local people act out the fate of their Czech counterparts: occupation, clandestine struggle, deportation, mass execution.

At the film's conclusion, the Welsh miners step out of their dramatic roles to reassert the terrible reality of the preceding scenes, and to deny that the Nazis have obliterated the village of Lidice from history. On the contrary: the name of Lidice lives on as an emblem of popular resistance to tyranny.

It is an overwhelming moment, and there are dozens like it elsewhere in Jennings's slim but indispensable oeuvre. I think, pretty much at random, of the plump middle-aged, middle-class woman confessing to the camera of how "useless" she feels watching recovery squads pull bodies from the blood and dust of bombed houses in Heart of Britain, and of how she then pulls herself together as she recalls giving the workers cups of tea; of the mongrel band of volunteer fireman performing a goofy dance together in Fires Were Started, and of how one of them, Jacko, "cops it" that night on the roof of a blazing warehouse.

I think of Lawrence Olivier reading magnificently from Abraham Lincoln in Words for Battle; of Chopin's Polonaise Militaire thundering in triumph over shots of gloomy London streets in A Diary for Timothy at the cold dawn of the New Year, 1945... and, on another day, I would probably chose an entirely different handful of simple, sensuous and passionate sounds and images, because Jennings's films are so rich in both.

"It is difficult," Lindsay Anderson began a classic essay, "to write anything but personally about the films of Humphrey Jennings," and he went on to propose that Jennings was "...the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced". Both of these propositions seem to me true, though in the last few years I've been squeamish enough to neglect the wisdom of the first declaration and found myself thumping the tub for Jennings in terms which are anything but personal.

Talking to graduate seminars or to gatherings of history teachers, film students and the like, I've generally stressed Jennings's place in the evolution of the British documentary form, and noted his violent disagreements with the man who more or less created the form, John Grierson. I've acknowledged the vital contribution to his best films of the cantankerous and hugely gifted film editor Stewart McAllister. I've tried to highlight the subtle but significant loyalties to the principles of Surrealism in his apparently realistic documentaries.

In short, I've too often been tempted to play the safe game of impersonal scrutineer, rather than lay myself open to the jeers of cynics by admitting that, after Lord knows how many viewings, I still feel a tingle creep across my scalp at the sound cut in Listen to Britain which links a corny old song by Flanagan and Allen to the soaring notes of Mozart's G major Piano Concerto.

Anderson would, I suspect, have laughed that game of impartiality to scorn, and quite right too. The main reason I chose to begin this piece with a (very) minor piece of autobiography was not to suggest that I like Jennings's films because they make me blub, but to remind myself that if Jennings's films did not retain their extraordinary emotional power, none of the other things one could, or might, say about the man and his works, however interesting and true, would really matter very much to anyone except a coterie of specialists.

At the moment, alas, Jennings's reputation does remain largely in the hands of the specialists: a regrettable fate for any artist, but particularly for one whose works - as I've seen time and again - can speak so powerfully to viewers of all ages and nationalities. Unlikely, but guaranteed true story: on a 48-hour visit to Japan last year, I received a phone call out of the blue from a total stranger, Mr Hisashi Okajima, who proved to be an erudite young film archivist, and who took me out to a Shinjuku bar to drink whisky, enthuse about Jennings into the small hours and discuss the possibilities of a major retrospective in Tokyo.

In his Independent on Sunday "Guillotine" column a few weeks ago, Gilbert Adair included Humphrey Jennings in his hit-list of artists unlikely to survive into the new millennium. Naturally, I hope that this prediction will prove unnecessarily gloomy, and I certainly plan to carry on thumping the tub in front anyone who will listen.

If Jennings's films do come to be utterly forgotten, it will be our loss rather than Jennings's fault, because there is, simply, nothing else quite like them. To do them adequate justice in a few phrases means reaching, as others have before me, for the shorthand of big adjectival guns. Jennings's greatest films are Orwellian in their honesty, Blakean in their vision of ordinary men and women transfigured by adversity, Shakespearean in their portrayal of a class-divided nation suddenly finding a wholly unexpected solidarity. See them and weep.

The National Film Theatre's season of Humphrey Jennings films begins on 2 Jan (Box office: 0171-928 3232)