… In the 1930s and 40s, what we now know as vérité — the spontaneous synchronous filming of events as they take what may (or arguably may not) be their natural course — was, for better and for worse, not an option. Slower emulsions demanded bulky lighting; 35mm synch cameras could not be hand-held; and sound recording equipment, rather than being something you slung over one shoulder, was something you drove around in. The key documentary requirement, that the image should represent that which had passed before the camera (i.e. should be capable of being understood as so doing), could therefore not be met with such deceptive facility as it can today.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] The only way in which it could be respected was — to speak, for convenience, as if history had moved in reverse — by a fragmentation of the correspondence between the image and its materials: a fragmentation in which this correspondence is distributed among many elements of a scene or event — clothing, faces, dialogue, properties, location, narrative — for eventual reintegration, at the level of language, in the totality of the film. A casual example of the prevalence of such thinking occurs in a letter of 1943, from the Crown Film Unit to the War Office, requiring that about twenty ‘real 8th Army veterans’ be released to take part in Humphrey Jennings’s The True Story of Lili Marlene: ‘I am sure you will agree that there is something about such men which cannot credibly be counterfeited in the Studio.’
A concomitant of this approach, and of a situation where only the most neutral of events (traffic in a street, say) can be photographed without rehearsal, is that people are required virtually to enact themselves, to represent their own normality, before the camera. What manner of truth, then, can be claimed for the outcome of this: what manner of correspondence between the image and its source? A possible answer is that the image is to be seen as embodying the general meaning, rather than that of a moment-to-moment plotting, of what it represents: that people’s images are to be taken as true-to-type: as ‘representative’ — representative, perhaps, of their group, of their activities, of their conditions. But once we are committed to an understanding of film language as generalizing or typificatory, we must accept that the truth to which it aspires is the statistical.
This conception of film imagery found expression — and the word already hints at the paradox entailed — in the style of photography developed in its service: crisp, easily legible, but otherwise difficult to define other than by its negative characteristics: avoidance of camera-positions other than those of the passer-by or participant; avoidance of compositions which, being out of the ordinary, might hint at abnormality; avoidance, not so much of lighting not encountered in everyday life, but of lighting which might take on disturbing connotations when transferred to the screen: avoidance, in short, of expressionism.
… But, since photography cannot not signify, what was evoked by our litany of stylistic avoidances was a generalism, a lack of individualizing oddity, which seemed to refer back from the images into the things represented. It was as if every chair, every human face and every locomotive had been caught in the act of aspiring towards its ideal Platonic form: the form of its image in a GPO production.
[ … ]
… deftness in investing purely denotative shots with a transient, glancing and often polyvalent symbolism which is, as I hope will be apparent, McAllister’s most enduring characteristic as an editor. (I should emphasize that I am not here using the word ‘symbolism’ in the sense of a shared system of arbitrary signs — like mathematics or natural language.) At the same time, this skill in lending heightened significance to cinematic elements is not confined to the representational ‘content’ of imagery, as we shall see if we consider the handling of the aerial attack itself [in Men of the Lightship].
In addition to long shots and to low angles from the deck of the lightship, for which British aircraft were dressed up as Heinkels, the script calls for over-shoulder shots of the pilots; and here — whether from choice or necessity — German library footage was employed. The problem of how to represent the enemy’s sector of the experience without sacrificing either narrative cohesion or that credibility which underwrites the documentary imperative is one which many narrative documentaries faced, and which few succeeded in solving.
… In Men of the Lightship … the library material has been used in a way which leaves no doubt as to its character. We cannot know what McAllister had to choose from; but it is difficult to believe that he has not wilfully selected the most granular, high-contrast, ‘soot-and-whitewash’ shots available: shots whose oddity of composition and near-abstract patterning of light and shadow make them sometimes almost unreadable as images even as they are ‘realistically’ integrated into the action. What confronts us here is not so much an alternation between the British and German PoVs as the interaction of two contrasting filmic idioms: and the use of physically damaged film at the climactic moment of the skipper’s injury can be seen — though maybe this is stretching the point — as registering the impact of the two incompatible discourses.
The effect of Men of the Lightship on an ordinary audience enjoying an average program was electric.
(William Whitebait — New Statesman, 3 August, 1940)
A memorandum of March 1943 indicates that, in combined UK and US receipts, Men of the Lightship had by that time made more money at the box-office than any other GPO/Crown production except the feature length Target for Tonight.
“I don’t think he was very proud of it. I don’t think he cared about it. He was a very strange, purist man, and he hated commercialism in any way: and this one, he always said, was tainted by commercialism — and by propaganda.” Jack Lee.