When Ealing is described as producing a strong combination of drama and documentary work during their Second World War propaganda films (continuing the tradition set by the GPO Film Unit), titles like The Next of Kin (1942), San Demetrio London (1943), and For Those in Peril (1944) tend to crop up. These are solid, entertaining films that get their message across in no uncertain terms, but at least have the decency to clothe those messages in compelling narratives and with compelling performances. The Big Blockade, by contrast, feels like an early experiment that gets more things wrong than right.
The warning signs are there from the opening scene, when the narrator speaks directly to camera in a hectoring authoritarian tone about the importance of learning more about the big blockade organised by the Ministry of Economic Warfare (objective? ‘Choke the life out of German trade and industry’) The lecturing style continues, albeit over a more visually interesting montages of ships, tanks, railways lines, before jumping to images of an RAF bomber squadron taking off to bomb Hannover. And at this stage, the film takes its strangest turn, because the brief glimpses we get of the crew of the ‘T for Tommy’ bomber reveals they are well-known actors like Michael Rennie and John Mills. But then they’re gone, as the film flashes back to 1939 and the start of a series of dramatic and comic vignettes around the organisation and effects of the blockade on Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia.
This could be read as an early attempt at what, several years later, Ealing would perfect in a portmanteau film like Dead of Night (1945), but what it actually feels like is a variety show, where a series of British actors (and the occasional actress: Thora Hird has a brief part as a German barmaid) trundle onto stage, do a turn, and then get off again as quick as they can. In the space of 73 minutes, there are ‘turns’ by Will Hay, Bernard Lee, Marius Goring, Robert Morley (as a splendidly ranting authoritarian and Italy-bashing Nazi chief), Leslie Banks, Michael Redgrave and other recognisable names from British film. There is no plot to speak of, beyond hailing the achievements of the Ministry, challenging German propaganda, and making claims about how the blockade will soon bring Germany to its knees.
Angus Macphail’s script does return to certain characters: Schneider (Frank Cellier), from a Hannover sausage factory, whose beliefs in the German way of life are casually mocked, first by the British Mr Taylor (Banks) and later a Russian officer (Redgrave); Taylor, who works for the Ministry, crops up several times to reiterate the message that the blockade is good, but has no real narrative purpose beyond that; the management of a Hannover factory who end up celebrating its destruction so they have an excuse to avoid being sent to Dachau. And the crew of ‘T for Tommy’ return in the final ten minutes, successfully destroying a Hannover powerhouse and returning home. But although Macphail tries hard, there is no coherent narrative here, no recognisable characters to follow: the film is simply a series of unconnected events pulled together by its narrator.
Stylistically, the film is also a mixture of disparate elements: war reportage from Douglas Slocombe, clips of German propaganda, Wilkie Cooper’s largely flat studio-based photography (although it occasionally finds visual life, as in the Morley sequences where he is lording it over representatives of occupied countries), newsreel footage and several model sequences of plane dogfights, strafing runs on boats, and bomber raids by the RAF on the Hannover factories.
What is most amusing, and unsaid, is that much of what the film mocks in Germany, it celebrates in relation to Britain: when the German air raid official is bureaucratic and strict, it is amusing; but when British clerks and naval officers use bureaucracy to keep German ships in port, it is cunning and satirical. Equally, when Germany has a master plan, it must be stopped; when the Ministry comes up with a master plan for British victory, its big blockade is hailed as the obvious step to victory. But then that is the essence of propaganda: always tell a bigger and better story than the other side.
Ultimately, The Big Blockade throws a lot of story at the screen, but it is better understood as a misfire that Ealing would learn from in order to produce better – and more enjoyable – story-documentaries.
[UPDATED April 2014: The Big Blockade is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 2, from Network]Next time, we stick with airplanes as we head Out of the Clouds (1955)...