Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 18, June 2001



Henry Breitrose

Behold Their Quarter'd Fires




Brian Winston

_Fires Were Started_

London: British Film Institute, 1999

ISBN 0-85170-773-4

79 pp.


Humphrey Jennings was arguably the most talented of the first generation of British documentary filmmakers, and Brian Winston's book, written as part of the British Film Institute's 'BFI Classics' series, is an affectionate appreciation of Jennings's _Fires Were Started_. Winston describes quite accurately describes the film as Jennings's 'masterpiece' (1), and his book is a celebration of its qualities that stops just this side of hagiography.


Humphrey Jennings was a man of many parts: a student of the critic William Empson, a surrealist painter, an imagist poet, an essayist, a broadcaster, a critic, and a man deeply interested in the condition of England. Influences are easier to spot than prove, but it is tempting to speculate on the relationship between Empson's ideas and Jennings's work. Empson's _Seven Types of Ambiguity_ was a gravamen of the New Criticism, which focused on the close reading of the text itself as a methodology for exploring the aesthetic structure of literature. Empson studied with I. A. Richards, who with C. K. Ogden wrote _The Meaning of Meaning_ (1918), which shifted the enterprise of literary criticism from impressionistic idealism and musings on the lives of the poets to a rigorously text-centered (and fatally de-contextualized) empiricism.


This intersection of empiricism and art seems to connect both Empson and Jennings: Empson in his insistence on close reading and critical taxonomy (vide _Some Versions of the Pastoral_), and Jennings in his exquisitely closely-observed documentaries, and his poetry. On screen and the page, Jennings evolved a poetry of the real. Imagism rejected generalities and cosmic evocations and derived its artistic power from the accretion of specific images. In Jennings's films the images were reconstructions of empirical observation. His poetry could be more direct:


I see a thousand strange sights in the streets of London

I see the clock on Bow Church burning in daytime

I see a one-legged man crossing the fire on crutches

I see three negroes and a woman with white face-powder

reading music at half-past three in the morning

I see an ambulance girl with her arms full of roses

I see the burnt drums of the Philharmonic

I see the green leaves of Lincolnshire carried through

London on the wrecked body of an aircraft . . .

(from the poem 'I See London', 1941)


In 1937, Jennings founded Mass Observation with Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge. It seemed less a social research organization and more a movement dedicated to the empirical description and documentation of various aspects of life in Britain. While Jennings's involvement with Mass Observation was brief, it demonstrates his commitment to the inductive logic method of documentary: finding the general by accreting the specific, constructing a whole from the sum of its parts, asserting the universal by the summation of the individual.


Jennings's method of making sense of the world, one piece at a time, animates _Fires Were Started_, and gives the film its authenticity, even now, almost 60 years after it was made. Winston recognizes this, and his book attempts, successfully in my view, to understand how such a time-bound genre as documentary can have more than historical significance for today's viewer.


By the time it was finished, _Fires Were Started_ was a film that explained the operation of an agency that was no longer in existence, The Auxiliary Fire Service. The AFS operated in the earliest days of the blitz as part of an amateur civilian defense system, riven by territoriality, small-mindedness, and slavish adherence to bureaucratic rules. None of this appears on the screen. This system was replaced by a proper National Fire Service. Jennings briefly acknowledges this in an introductory title, which tells one less than meets the eye, but precisely which fire service serves as the ostensible subject of the film is unimportant. What distinguishes the film is a set of richly detailed evocations of heroisms, large and small. Jennings, and his partner in making sense of the world with images, editor Stuart McAllister, create a depiction of an idealized wartime Britain in which economic circumstance, social class, accent, and, to a remarkable extent, even gender, are made subsidiary to the task of ensuring the survival of the nation.


John Grierson, the great impresario of British documentary, brought Humphrey Jennings to the GPO Film Unit and the Documentary Movement, but unlike Grierson, whose over-arching Clydeside ideological agenda compelled him to advocacy as a first principle of documentary, Jennings's posture was that of an observer. Grierson found financial support from the establishment's left hand to support the making of films dedicated to ameliorating the social effects caused by the establishment's right hand, Jennings had other interests. It was Grierson, the self-styled enemy of art in the documentary, who hired Jennings, much as he did other artists of that generation, such as Benjamin Britten, William Coldstream, and Wystan Hugh Auden. Britten, Coldstream and Auden abandoned documentary and the collaborative art of film for their own autonomous arts, but Jennings wholly embraced documentary and made it all of a piece with his other passions.


_Fires Were Started_ is a documentary by the standards of its own time, but Brian Winston points out that it seems less of a documentary in our time. Indeed, by the postmodern standards of his previous book, _Claiming the Real_, [1] _Fires Were Started_ is hardly a documentary at all. By some trendy current standards, nothing is a documentary. Everything is but an imaginative, i.e. fictive, discourse. But Winston has a keen eye for evidence and is not loathe to revise his views. Documentary has evolved since the days of Grierson, and while Winston claims that today's audiences regard the various permutations of fly-on-the-wall 'Direct Cinema' as paradigmatically documentary, he accepts that the visible evidence of _Fires Were Started_ is difficult to deny. Writing about Grierson's famously elusive definition of documentary as the 'creative treatment of actuality', Winston wrote:


'Surely, no 'actuality' (that is, evidence and witness) can remain after all this brilliant interventionist 'creative treatment' (that is, artistic and dramatic structuring) has gone on. Grierson's enterprise was too self-contradictory to sustain any claims on the real, and renders the term 'documentary' meaningless.' (59)


Pretty strong stuff. But is the use of observational filming, stock footage, and witnesses attributes that define documentary, or are they merely useful superficial tropes with which to give the spectator the illusion that underneath it all there lurks a credible epistemic system? Woody Allen was on to this problem in 1983. His film _Zelig_ is a clever satire on the evidence-and-witness formula. The witnesses -- writers Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, singer and 20s Parisian icon Bricktop, clinical psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, and historian John Morton Blum -- talk to the camera about the remarkable Leonard Zelig, the 'human chameleon' who became a celebrity in 1920's due to his ability to look and act like anyone around him. He was defined solely by his context. We see Zelig in 'B-roll', identifiable newsreel footage, interacting with Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, Adolf Hitler, and others. Of course, Woody Allen's Zelig, who literally was all things to all men, was a fiction, but a useful fiction, and made clear, to those with eyes to see, the essential truth claim of documentary, which is that its truth fundamentally depends on the truthfulness of the filmmaker, rather than on structural tropes or technical means.


In all fairness to Winston, who lived with Jennings's film for some months, he drastically revised his previous dicta, and while the truth claims of _Fires Were Started_ differ radically from the observational fly-on-the-wall or reflexive fly-in-the-soup direct cinema paradigms, it certainly is a documentary. As Grierson rather modestly put it in the original coinage, when describing Robert Flaherty's _Moana_, 'it has a certain documentary quality'. [2] The documentary quality, I believe, derives from the correspondence between the subject matter on the screen and what we know from history, but even more importantly, from the ways in which Jennings uses images and sounds to create a credible model of the world on the screen.


The problem that Winston had to overcome is that _Fires Were Started_ is about as far as a film can get from today's dominant paradigm and still be a documentary. It was scripted and re-enacted. As Peter Stansky and William Abrahams have pointed out, [3] the cast consisted of non-actors, who were playing themselves, albeit with fictional names and in some cases, imagined histories. Auxiliary fireman William Sansom, whose name was changed (he became Barrett in the film) was correctly described as an advertising copywriter in the film. Sansom had previously written some short stories and would eventually become a well-known writer, but Winston errs in asserting that his occupation was misrepresented in the film.


In his previous writing, Winston would have had us believe that there is no distinction between fact and fiction in film, and that because all films are constructed, they are fictions. He makes much of the possibilities of digital manipulation, and the fact that image editing programs like Photoshop render obsolete the belief that the camera doesn't lie. It doesn't matter, because whether or not the camera lies, the filmmaker can. But it was ever thus. Colin Young noted some years ago that the camera tends to lie, and the audience tends to believe. Even a film consisting of one continuous take, unedited, is constructed in the sense that a decisions were made as to where to point the lens, when to turn the camera on, and when to turn it off. Inescapably, human intentionality, imagination, and intervention mediate the representation. They stand between subject and spectator.


Winston's previous insistence that documentary is an impossible all-or-nothing enterprise caused Trevor Ponech and Carl Plantinga, neither of whom have much difficulty discriminating between the dancer and the dance, to point out that the synthetic properties of film are irrelevant to its status as fact. [4] The conditions of documentary are set by the pro-filmic material, i.e. what the filmmaker takes to be the subject, and the filmmaker. Grierson, who hired artists by the carload, all the while derogating artistry in documentary, might have agreed. [5] I think that he would have greatly enjoyed Brian Winston's appreciation of _Fires Were Started_.


Stanford University

California, USA





1. Brian Winston, _Claiming the Real_ (London: British Film Institute, 1995).


2. John Grierson, Review of _Moana_ (unsigned), _New York Sun_, 8 February 1926.


3. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, _London's Burning: Life, Death, and Art in the Second World War_ (London: Constable, 1994).


4. Carl R. Plantinga, _Rhetoric and Representation in Non-Fiction Film_ (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Trevor Ponech, _What is Non-Fiction Cinema: On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication_ (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).


5. In 1926, Grierson, ideological in theory but deeply pragmatic in practice, wrote: 'It frequently happens that a theory (be it every so blue-eyed and blonde) can be neatly stabbed in the heart by the fact of the matter; and the critic must forever be fearful of the rod of correction wielded by practical men and practical circumstances.' 'The Seven Obstacles to Progress', _Motion Picture News_, 11 December 1926, p. 2225.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Henry Breitrose, 'Behold Their Quarter'd Fires', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 18, June 2001 <>.



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