Voices from a distant war
From Viewfinder magazine. Published on: 14th May 2019
I’d better say a few words now that I’m here: it was six years ago we last spoke, do you remember?".
Louis Shinberg was speaking to his family in Manchester, from Burma in 1944, one of 8000 messages filmed in the Far East at the end of World War II. The films offer an extraordinary confrontation with men (and a very few women) speaking from the past, produced on very high quality 35mm film and synchronised sound, for the time the latest technology, as the servicemen speak directly to the camera, looking straight their families, and at us. In their shrinking of time, where for the first time men speak spontaneously on film, they are powerful and moving documents. These unfiltered messages from men in wartime offer a unique perspective on the presentation of masculinity on film from the era. Fifteen years before the kitchen sink films made regional and especially northern accents on screen commonplace, men speak in their own voices from Manchester or Sheffield or Wolverhampton, in a seemingly impromptu way, a huge contrast to the highly formalised and scripted documentary style of the late 1930s and 40s.
Still from 'A Message Home'
The Calling Blighty films were made with men gathered together in India or Burma from particular regions and cities, and screened in local cinemas such as the Regent in Sheffield or the Regal Twins on the Oxford Road, Manchester, to an audience of their relatives – parents, children, wives and sweethearts. They were produced to boost morale for the members of the 14th Army in the Far East, engaged in what had hitherto been a war of failure to dislodge the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and their invasion of the then British colonial possession of Burma. Home leave was impossible for the men due to the vast distances involved, rations were monotonous and beer in short supply, and the physical conditions of warfare in the tropical heat and monsoon appalling, with almost every combatant suffering diseases such as malaria and beriberi.
A remarkable 60 films still survive of 1200 men delivering messages home in their authentic voices, and over the past three years I have along with Marion Hewitt from the North West Film Archive, recreated several of these wartime screenings, by tracing the families of the men on screen and presenting the films to an audience of relatives as they would have been seen in local cinemas in Manchester, or Sheffield or Brighton 75 years ago. However, viewing the messages in the age of Skype and Youtube, they seem to us to be stilted and halting, unsurprising when none of the men would have had experience of presenting themselves on film, and few of any kind of public speaking at all. There is a remarkable regularity to the performances, despite there being no ostensible censorship, and the men told merely to talk to their relatives and keep it fairly brief. The individual films seen more like spoken postcards, the usual pattern being ‘Hello Mum, as you can see I’m quite fit. I’m getting your mail regular and I hope you’re getting mine. Remember me to Sis and Dad. Keep smiling and keep your chins up, I’m in the pink. Well cheerio for now’.
Of course the men would have been aware of the unspoken limits of what could be said from the censorship of their wartime letters, but even given this, the conformity of expression is striking. The preoccupation with the mail is perhaps unsurprising; some men had been away for many years, and the weekly letters from home represented a vital lifeline with family, normality, and the past. The men often sought other reassurances of a lost world, far from the jungles of Burma –‘I hope you’ll send me the Mexborough and Swinton Times regularly’. But in the absence of any other models of how to present themselves on screen, the men grasp for ways of making sense of their extraordinary circumstances by fitting their expression into a familiar mode. Thus some are almost literally talking postcards, relying on a spoken form of written expression. ‘Hello Evelyn, I hope this finds you as it leaves me’.
Almost none of the men refer to the war they are engaged in, and in talking to relatives after the recreated film screenings the dominant mode of the men’s response to their experience when they got home was that they never said another word about it. This silence can be explained within the discourse of the films by the need to reassure; they were intended to boost morale after all, and the men lay great stress on their wellbeing even when physical evidence contradicts it. ‘I’m looking a bit thin I know but that’s only to be expected in this heat’. Post-war there was often a sense of looking forward to a newer brighter future, not dwelling on the past, on painful memories, and perhaps also that the servicemen felt that apart from their comrades. No-one was really interested in experience that was unimaginable on the home front.
Most of the filmed messages project reassurance and normality, which belies the reality of wartime service, especially in the 14th Army, the ‘Forgotten Army’ as Mountbatten called it. There was an another reason for positivity which also appears in contemporary Mass Observation accounts, the feeling that to give into difficulty would be letting the side down, that the risk of death in wartime should be understated, as in films such as Mrs Miniver. It was unpatriotic to complain, although some men in the Calling Blighty films did in relatively mild language: ‘I’m a bit browned off with this country’. ‘There are some wonderful places in India, of course this isn’t one of them’. ‘I hope that soon Jack’s got his ticket and the bloody war’s over’.
In the golden age of cinemagoing, when the home movie was a rare and expensive hobby, to conceive of oneself on the large screen was almost unimaginable. With no framework to rely on, some men referenced the contrast between their film appearance and glamorous world of cinema they were used to. ‘Hope I don’t look funny on the films, but there you are I’m no actor’. ‘Yes it’s me, not Hitchcock or Mickey Mouse’. Others borrowed familiar phrases from popular song ‘Hiya good looking, what’s cooking’. ”In the words of the famous song, I love you truly’. But in a few cases men enacted an obviously scripted and purposefully ironic performance, undermining both the Army, the war, and their status as film stars. Flying Officer Timmins in Burma; with grim humour and in Lancashire dialect (he uses the word ‘gradely’ meaning ‘excellent’), refers to the possibility of death. ‘This film comes to you by courtesy of the bully beef, beans, and browned off tea corporation, showing you some of Britain’s bonny boys stationed in Burma. Of course folks you have seen Hedy Lamarr with Charles Boyer, you’ve seen Dorothy Lamour, in, and out of her sarong, you have seen Betty Grable with the twinkling legs, but you have seen nothing yet until you have seen the stars in the green battledress. Ee, it’s a real gradely place, a real gradely place for anybody, to die in’ (his companions laugh).
The illusion of the naturalistic informal interview we are used to today was unknown on screen at the time. G. F. Anstey’s Housing Problems of 1935 is often cited as the first documentary in which working class people speak freely in an unscripted way, but the East End women and men portray themselves in an equally stilted and awkward way to our eyes. Very little of the wartime documentary output, the high point of the British documentary movement, allows men to speak openly in their own regional accents–most films were made by upper-middle class filmmakers who admired the workers in theory but for whom that did not stretch to allowing them an unmediated voice. The men in Calling Blighty deliver ‘self authored statements’ in John Corner’s formulation rather than off the cuff informality, but despite this, a surprising number transcended the artificial situation to understand how the intimate tone of the message would resonate within a public setting. So some of the messages manage to be moving and delivered from the heart. ‘You have been wonderful darling, keep it up, were over halfway now’. ‘Look after Mary for me, because my love for her will never die, and I’m looking forward to the day when we’re once again united’. ‘Lift up your heart bright eyes, be in God’s keeping’.
The men seem dislocated also from the countries they were in and the men of other nationalities they were fighting alongside, who are not allowed a voice in the films. The 14th Army was a multinational force, and of the 690,000 men who fought within it, over 600,000 were Commonwealth forces, including Indian (the majority), Gurkhas, Burmese, East and West Africans and others. The uncredited film directors, if they show other races at all, relegate them literally to the background, as servants in the canteen (actually a constructed film set in Bombay), lifeguards on the beach, or as native children on the sands at Malabar Bay. In one sequence obviously staged for the camera, a group of African troops is berated in their own language by an English officer, ostensibly for being lazy. In another film African troops perform a tribal dance, an ingoma, for the entertainment of their British comrades ‘which we like a lot’. The battlefield and the Far East in general is seen as a strange place, the men set within it but apart from it.
The messages are delivered by men predominantly to women– mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts – but women themselves are mostly absent from the films, partly because so few were serving in the Far East. The handful of women who were filmed, express themselves with almost the same inhibition as the men. The men mostly employ expressions of love or formality, but a few stray into a more intimate sphere whilst mindful of the very public space that they would be shown in. ‘What I want to write wouldn’t be passed by the censor’. ‘Keep the bed warm until I get home then we’ll get up them stairs’. But the real contrast between the awkward formality of address and the release of emotion that the films delivered came at the cinema screenings back in Blighty where the audiences were predominantly made up of women and children. Contemporary newspaper reports, and the memories of those who attended them, show a profound difference to the on-screen mode of masculine expression.
Reports show that these were highly charged events- ‘laughter and tears merged as mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, sweethearts and children saw 36 Bradford men who have been in India three and a half years appear before them one by one, talking, smiling, and betraying the emotion they tried to hide’. ‘Many wives’ and mothers’ eyes were dimmed with happy tears’. What can we read from these first films of men speaking openly, where the stiff upper lip of wartime Britain is overlaid by something more revealing of masculinity? They were finding their own ways of portraying themselves, with no previous models to rely on, borrowing from written postcards and popular film and song. They had to fit into the power structures of the army– sometimes the officer in charge appeared onscreen alongside them–and perform for their comrades as well as their loved ones in local cinemas thousands of miles away. Through all this uncertainty, they manage to speak with their authentic voices transcending the hurdles of class and awkwardness, in a way that still resonates powerfully, as they gaze directly at us 75 years later.