The reputation that the best-known Ealing Studios films have acquired over the years means that most film fans are familiar with the British studio’s name. Films such as Dead of Night (1945), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) are rightly regarded as classics of British cinema and their popularity has endured.However, these well known titles actually represent just a small sample of Ealing Studios’ output and delving deeper into the studio’s catalogue often reveals films of interest that have been overlooked by cultural commentators and film historians and forgotten by the public at large. One such film is Basil Dearden’s World War II era production They Came to a City (1944), which has just been restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute.
It would seem to be an absolute given that the citizens of any nation would resolve to come together to fight an external enemy that posed an extreme threat. However, the ’30s had been a troubled time for Britain and her people: the already poverty-stricken working classes had suffered further extreme hardship during the Great Depression, which had led to a rise in class consciousness; the King had abdicated; the government had pursued a policy of appeasement when dealing with Nazi Germany; and the first stirrings of calls for independence were beginning to be heard from within the country’s overseas empire.
When Britain finally entered into war with Germany in 1939, public morale was low. The newly formed Ministry of Information was tasked with issuing propaganda that was designed to pull the nation together and remind the general public – including those members of the working classes who still lived in slum housing and were trapped in extreme poverty with no discernible way of improving their lot in life due to the rigid structures of the British class system – that they all had their part to play in what would be a titanic and arduous fight.To this end, the British film industry also produced films that were intended to function as propaganda that sought to bring the people of Britain together and galvanise their resolve in the face of their fight against Nazi Germany. Films such as Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942) feature realistic stories that are set amidst the fighting of the war and their narratives feature a range of characters from different social classes who are seen to come together amicably in order to defend the nation that they share.
Produced in the UK towards the end of World War II, They Came to a City contains a propagandistic message that was aimed at the British public too but its approach is very different. Essentially an appeal for a more egalitarian future, the film’s narrative very much reflects local contemporaneous debates regarding inequality, social mobility and class.
Britain and the Allies’ involvement in World War II was ultimately couched in terms of defeating an evil regime; a just course of action that would save and better the lives of those who were suffering under the domination of the Nazis. As such, the question of how the lives of the British working classes might also be made better should the Allies be victorious also became an issue of debate. And it’s a fairly frank discussion of this very issue that we find placed at the centre of They Came to a City.
The film is based on the play of the same name that was written by J. B. Priestley and Priestley himself appears within a framing scenario that was added especially for the motion picture version. The film opens with a long shot of an industrial town taken from a hill. This is a really interesting early example of what would become known as the “That Long Shot of Our Town from That Hill” shot when the British New Wave adopted it as one of the regular stylistic conventions of its later social realist films. A military couple (Ralph Michael and Brenda Bruce) sit on the hill and they begin to argue about how things will be after the war. The woman opines “that people will insist on things being different” while the man counters that “they won’t”.
J. B. Priestley himself chances across the couple and enters into the argument. In terms of change, he suggests that “some will” want it while “some won’t”. To clarify his seemingly indeterminate position further, Priestley talks the couple through an imagined and fantastical social experiment in which nine people who represent a cross-section of British society are spirited away to a mysterious but ideal city that is situated in a mist-shrouded elsewhere. The events that Priestley describes duly become visualised onscreen as the film’s central narrative. The nine characters are introduced via a series of short vignettes that give us an impression of their social positions and their general demeanours.
A put-upon and underpaid waitress, Alice (Googie Withers), quits her job in frustration; a hard-hearted businessman, Cudworth (Norman Shelley), takes pleasure in beating a rival to a big money deal; posh and privileged but affable Philippa Loxfield (Frances Rowe) and her domineering and judgemental mother Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry-Lewis) set out for a leisurely evening walk after playing bridge; a boastful and self-centred member of the landed gentry, Sir George Gedney (A. E. Matthews), has nothing better to do than drink at the bar of his golf club; an elderly and overworked cleaner, Mrs Batley (Ada Reeve), finishes another back-breaking shift unnoticed by those that she serves; a henpecked but sympathetic banker, Malcolm Stritton (Raymond Huntley), and his mean-spirited, insecure and avaricious wife (Renee Gadd) are travelling by train to visit her wealthy uncle; a ship’s mechanic, Joe Dinmore (John Clements), is physically beaten when he tries to stand up to the captain who has harassed and financially exploited him and the rest of the ship’s hired crew.
Each character moves into a dark spot (most exit a door into what they perceive to be a particularly dark night while the Strittons’ train enters a tunnel and Mrs Batley steps into her cleaning supplies cupboard) which results in them being transported to a strange fog-shrouded woodland. The initial scenes set in the woodland project a gothic ambience that brings to mind the content of Universal Pictures’ horror films from the ’30s. Each character soon makes their way to a grand modernist stone archway that gives way to a series of stone steps that lead up to mighty ramparts. The impressive stonework seen here looks like an amalgamation of the architectures that are usually associated with gothic castles and ancient South American monuments.
As the characters meet, their different experiences of life are revealed via their at times strained conversations. For example, Sir George Gedney reveals himself to be completely ignorant of working class life when he asks a bemused Mrs Batley “tell me, do you play golf?” Mrs Batley comforts a hysterical Mrs Stritton by determining that they haven’t entered the afterlife because she “feels just the same … feet aching, rheumatic pains in me legs and all.” Mrs Stritton judges Alice to be an “awful woman” without even having spoken to her. Mrs Batley and Alice talk about the sexism and minor sexual assaults that they’ve suffered in day-to-day life. Joe and Alice talk about the frustration of their social placement when they describe how they’ve worked hard but made no headway in life.
Cudworth desperately wants to find a Post Office in order to send urgent business-related telegrams. He and Joe argue when the mechanic asks him why he’s in such a rush to make more money when, by his own boastful admission, he’s already got “plenty”. Lady Oxley and Sir George have a jolly time reminiscing about their mutual friends who are all members of the privileged landed gentry. But when the fog clears, the group is stunned into silence when it becomes apparent that the stone ramparts they stand on surround a magnificent city (which is never actually shown onscreen).
Offering an international dimension that presumably had the predicament of the citizens of the British Empire in mind, Joe introduces a note of caution when he laments that he’s “seen places before that looked good at first. You’d see them from a long way off after weeks at sea … when you got inside them … poor devils sitting about in rags with their ribs all showing through, kids crawling around the gutters with their faces running sores.” The group find an ornate time-coded door that will allow them access to the city for just 24 hours. As they wait for the door to open, their arguments intensify and further insights into the characters’ attitudes and lives are provided when they reveal what they hope to find or do in the city. When the door eventually opens, all nine characters enter.
Back in the real world the male soldier wants to know what the city looks like but his female companion counters that how the city is constructed is irrelevant to Priestley’s thesis. Priestley confirms that “we’re not town planning, now” before explaining that his characters would instead have “the opportunity of seeing a city entirely owned and run by the people who live in it. A place where men and women don’t work for machines and money but machines and money work for men and women. Where everybody has a reasonable chance but nobody has special privileges.” We’re used to British films from the ’60s and ’70s wearing their politics on their sleeves but there can’t be many productions from the ’40s that endorse socialism in such an open way.
Returning to the city’s door, all nine characters eventually emerge and discuss their personal take on how the city is run and the attitudes and social mores of its citizens. Again, this dialogue and the arguments at its centre reveals much about the characters’ worldviews, their experiences of life and their core inner values. As the door readies to close we learn who has decided to stay and who has decided to leave and their reasons for doing so. Their reasons are highly illuminating and mostly work as a damning criticism of elitism, inequality, and the British class system. But while we can guess what some characters will decide, there are some interesting surprises to be had here. Back in the real world, it’s clear that Priestley has convinced the male soldier that meaningful social change must be fought for and effected after the war has ended.
They Came to a City is a highly interesting film on a number of levels. The social realist films of the British New Wave and the social problem films that preceded them are generally understood to be the films that introduced a pointed dialogue about class divisions and inequality in Britain to the country’s cinema screens but They Came to a City precedes these cycles by a good few years. Furthermore, it is generally the British New Wave’s films from the late ’50s and early ’60s that are credited with introducing un-deferential working class characters who were “angry young men” that railed loudly about the class system. However, They Came to a City‘s working class hero, Joe Dinmore, is just as angry, noisy and un-deferential as any of the young men who appeared in the films of the New Wave. The public school educated actor, John Clements, might not have had the authentic working class roots or the real regional accent that would one day distinguish the likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay but he does do the working class proud here.
Most of the film’s technical aspects reflect those of British cinema from the ’40s. The black and white cinematography is crisp and the standard classical Hollywood approach to shooting and editing is pretty much adhered to most of the time. However, there are sections of the film where its mythic themes and slightly otherworldly mise-en-scène – along with Dearden’s desire to symbolically communicate the class rankings of the film’s characters via their positioning within the frame – does prompt some striking and pleasing camera angles and compositions.
The film’s acting is of a very good quality but is also of its time; it’s expressive and leans towards the melodramatic. All of the film’s nine key actors had previously appeared in the stage version of They Came to a City and this undoubtedly worked in the film’s favour since they all appear very comfortable in their roles and interact well with each other. Expressive and melodramatic would also be a good way to describe the film’s emphatic soundtrack score.
It’s obvious that They Came to a City was largely filmed on sets that were constructed in a studio. A slightly “stagey” feel is held over from the film’s origins as a stage play. But its grand, slightly otherworldly set designs remain wholly impressive. The quality of the BFI’s restoration is very good. There are a number of very small and fine scratches present during some sequences but the picture remains detailed, clear and sharp. The presentation’s sound quality is also very good. English language subtitles are present as an optional extra.
This intriguing and long-overlooked film will undoubtedly appeal to a number of demographics; those interested in British films of the period; Ealing Studios aficionados; those interested in political cinema and the representation of class onscreen; J. B. Priestley scholars; and anybody in the market for something a little bit out of the ordinary.
An interesting selection of extra features that serve to contextualise the film’s production and its themes and content supports the BFI’s presentation of They Came to a City. The film producer Michael Balcon‘s audio only National Film Theatre lecture from 1969 runs for 59 minutes. The lecture has Balcon discussing the ins and outs of his career and the British film industry and also features contributions from the actress Jessie Matthews, the film director Alexander Mackendrick and the writer T. E. B. Clarke.
The disc’s further extra features are all short films. We Live in Two Worlds (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1939, 14 min.) features an early treatise concerning international trade and communications by J. B. Priestley. Britain at Bay (Harry Watt, 1940) has Priestley narrating a propaganda film that was designed to encourage public unity and boost Britain’s wartime morale. A City Reborn (John Eldridge, 1945) is another morale boosting exercise that reveals how plans were underway to rebuild Britain’s badly bombed cities. Charley in New Town (John Halas and Joy Batchelor, 1948, 9 min.) is a humorous animation that explains the benefits of the newly elected Labour government’s “new towns scheme”. Your Very Good Health (John Halas and Joy Batchelor, 1948, 9 min.) is another animation, which trumpets the benefits of the landmark National Health Service that was just being introduced by the Labour government.
A 37 page illustrated booklet features new writing about They Came to a City, director Basil Dearden, producer Michael Relph, writer J. B. Priestley and the various short films that appear as extra features.