Fires Were Started Review

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At the height of the Blitz, Barrett, a new recruit at an Auxiliary Fire Service station in London, has a day to learn the ropes before he's thrown into the front line to fight a blaze at a dockside warehouse.


His reputation enhanced by the lyrical realism of the 1942 short, Listen to Britain, Humphrey Jennings produced his first and only feature. In paying tribute to the disbanded Auxiliary Fire Service, which had performed heroics during the Blitz, he drew heavily on the docudramatic tradition established in films like Target for Tonight and In Which We Serve. But, Jennings sought to recreate reality by employing those who had experienced it first hand and his cast was made up of members of the newly established National Fire Service, who largely improvised their dialogue after discussion with the director.

Jennings began the project with the barest outling, which was something of a reckless tactic, considering that he had never previously attempted a drama with a linear narrative and definable, individual characters. However, he was always more at home in the editing room than on location and he imparted a poetic power to his footage that not only made it persuasive propaganda, but also ensured it has endured as a masterclass in audiovisual authenticity.  

By adopting a day-in-the-life structure, Jennings was able to educate viewers about how a station went about its business. Yet, the sequences showing the crew preparing their equipment in the calm before the storm also captures the mundanity of duty and how these everyday men and women cope with the constant pressure of laying their lives on the line for their country. Images of the basking dog and the blossoming tree only reinforce this impression of a country worth fighting for. Yet, Jennings avoids a physical depiction of the Nazi enemy and resists any overt hostility towards them. Indeed, he treats the blaze that threatens the munitions ship almost as if it were a natural disaster to emphasise that the AFS would have responded with courage and professionalism regardless of the conflagration's cause.  

 Consequently, this is an impeccably paced, precisely edited commendation of a classless community uniting in a selfless act of defiant resistance.

This is early documdrama at it's best. Informative, compelling and uplifting.