WWII Britain Revisited in 120 Short Films, Now Free on the Web

How do you fight propaganda? With propaganda, or so held the British wartime school of thought. “Over 120 films were produced as ‘cultural propaganda’ to counteract anything the Nazis might throw out and to refute the idea that ours was a country stuck in the past. These films were designed to showcase Britain to the rest of the world, at a time when Britain itself was under attack.” These words come from the about page of the British Council Film Collection, a newly opened internet archive of over 120 such pieces of cultural propaganda, free for the viewing. Above, you’ll find 1941’s City Bound, as direct an illustration of the legendary stiff upper lip as you’ll find in this digital vault. The reel trumpets, in its sober manner, the unblinking efficiency of London Transport as it ferries workers into the city center each morning and disgorges them back into the suburbs each night, even amid the falling bombs of the Blitz. And if you find these sternly proud shots of commuter trains and buses rolling bang on time from their stations a bit artificial, remember that the Council still had to produce the film itself under the very real threat from above.

These productions “provide us with a unique insight,” says the Council today, “not necessarily into how Britain actually was, but more into how Britain once wanted to be perceived by the rest of the world.” Anyone interested in national branding, vintage boosterism, and subjective history can have a field day indulging their fascinations in these meta-qualities, but many of these short documentaries offer legitimately worthwhile first-order information as well. Consider the above, Architects of England. Yes, it came into being to showcase the splendid ingenuity of English building from Stonehenge monumental to industrial modernist, but for a spirited twelve-minute grounding in British architectural traditions, you could do worse. If you remain unconvinced of the value of any of this, bear in mind that you can easily download anything in the British Council Film Collection. If you need the makings of, say, an ironic music video, look no further.

Related content:

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’: The Story of the Iconic World War II Poster

Great Movie Directors During Wartime: Hitchcock, Capra, Huston & Their WWII Films

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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  • David A. Brown says:

    My name is David Brown, I live in Australia and, I’m writing you hoping that you may be able to help me to name a particular British WW2 film.
    I remember as a child watching these classic films with my father, who served in the Royal Navy during the war. In particular I remember a scene in a film (black & white if I recall correctly) where there are a number of females in military dress located around a very large map of Europe upon which, are a number of objects representing army forces of both german and allied forces. These women are moving these objects with long garden hoe like instruments, according to reports they receive through their heads sets.
    Meanwhile located on a mezzanine floor above and surrounding this map, are a number of Army, Navy & Airforce commanders who are viewing the map and conferring with each other, devising the best strategy to fight the war.
    If my memory serves me at some point in this scene, a telephone call is received by one of these commanders, from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
    I found similar scenes, though they are not the one I remember, in “The Battle Britain” featuring Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Sir Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer etc.
    Hoping you may be able to assist.
    Many thanks in advance in anticipation of any assistance you may be able to offer.
    Warm wishes
    David Brown

  • Terry Walsh says:

    There are similar scenes in ‘The Dambusters’ (1955 – go to: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046889/)

  • Margaret Mayfield says:

    I think that scene might be in the movie The Gentle Sex which came out in 1943. It’s about seven British girls who decide to do their bit to help out during WWII. There’s the off chance it could be from the film A Matter of Life and Death (1946) which starred David Niven , but I think it’s the first one. I loved both of these movies!

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