film 2 of 7

Churchill’s Island

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 18, 2015

This essay appears in the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge (2006). 

Churchill’s Island is most remembered as the first film from the National Film Board of Canada to win an Academy Award (best documentary, 1941). But it is not so much its acceptance by the commercial mainstream as its departure from that mainstream’s discursive conventions and institutional presuppositions that makes the film historically significant and of some continuing interest. Churchill’s Island marks the visible beginning of a Canadian film alternative to industrial Hollywood, and an extension and elaboration of the documentary idea to new national circumstances and possibilities.

The Board’s founder and first commissioner, John Grierson, found in the early years that many of his energies were occupied by administrative and political duties. As a result, much of the responsibility for day to day producing and mentoring fell to Stuart Legg, a Grierson recruit from the days of the Empire Marketing Board. An editor and a thinker of great distinction, Legg was particularly noted for his subtle grasp of public, political, and as he would increasingly demonstrate, geopolitical issues. As head of production, he would explore these topics with great distinction through the Board’s flagship wartime series, Canada Carries On (of which Churchill’s Island was an early entry) and The World in Action.

The March of Time was an acknowledged influence on the Canadian series. For his part Legg was impressed by the quality of its reporting, its concision and its cinematic craft. However with the series under his supervision, Legg and his collaborators began immediately to move beyond the entertaining reportage so often characteristic of the existing newsreels. Propaganda had something to do with this. The Americans were still officially neutral with regard to the European conflict, and so the Board series had a great gap to fill in informing and motivating its domestic audiences.

Churchill’s Island is a vivid response to this challenge. The film, which recounts the details of Britain’s home defense against the Nazis, is completely compiled from the Board’s extensive stock library. Future Board stalwart Tom Daly was largely responsible for maintaining this library. His seemingly complete recall of its holdings would make him increasingly central to the compilation films that would make up a good portion of the Board’s early output. Daly has ascribed much of their motivational success to Legg’s principle of “waves,” which was that sequences were to rise to a climax and then diminish, before the next sequence came along and increased the intensity. The emotional results are still clear in Churchill’s Island, in which the high stakes, the national peril and the national opportunity, are quite palpable. At the distance of these many years the effect is poignant and even moving.

And yet even in this early number, released (June 1941) at a time a considerable uncertainty, it is clear that these waves were not only dramatic or emotional. Though there were motivational (and manipulative) imperatives, Legg also intended to move his films toward the depth and breadth of the best investigative journalism. In Churchill’s Island we can see this deepening process well underway. There is a conceptual, even dialectical element to the film that was emblematic of the innovations and elaborations that Legg and his newsreel collaborators would develop throughout the war period. In addition to emotional appeal there is a constant sketching of causal chains, a setting forth of the tactical and strategic elements of the conflict.

Legg introduces us to the main participants and the key processes, insuring not only sympathetic identification, but also understanding. The exposition discusses varying threats of invasion, the defensive responses thereto, and over all, the abiding courage and leavening influence of Britain’s everyday army. These three elements recur through what are essentially the film’s three acts. The first gives an account of the Blitz, during which Legg takes a characteristic retrospective turn, reviewing the causes and conditions of the German action to that point, insuring that the emotional audience member always remains historically oriented. Next we witness the RAF’s defense of Britain’s skies, and, from the Nazi perspective, the German blockade that was devised in response. During this second act there is a clear discussion of the tactics of the U-boats, and a frank admission of the great cost of their activities. There is also a clear message, quite common in this period (cf. London Can Take It, Foreign Correspondent, etc.), to the neutral Americans. With the rising toll of sinkings, the ever more bold encroachments toward North American soil, it is intimated that no one is safe, and no one can remain neutral.

Now, in line with Grierson’s instruction that these films be “truthful, but not defeatist,” the warnings give way to an expression of gratitude for help rendered, and confidence for the future. The U-boats are on the run, and even as the third act outlines and then just slightly glosses over the possibilities of and preparations against a possible land invasion, the film moves toward a stirring, even pugnacious climax. As the last wave crashes we hear narrator Lorne Greene’s mighty challenge to the Nazis to “come…if you dare!” This justifiably famous conclusion remains extraordinarily powerful.

Churchill’s Island was a great success. Along with the practically prophetic War Clouds in the Pacific (November 1941), it facilitated the remarkable access that Board newsreels would have not only to domestic audiences, but to screens in the US as well. Although that access would continue, the tone of the newsreels would be altered. Wartime propaganda under Legg would further shift from the emotional and the partisan, however justifiable these things may have been at the moment, to a more global, humanitarian approach. In this Legg’s sensibilities coincided with one of Grierson’s most important convictions. This was that wartime films were also a preparation for peacetime, and that an awareness and anticipation of the needs of peacetime were essential to their successful execution. In this we can see that the Board’s activities strongly prefigured the international role that Canada, and Canada’s documentary films, would assume in the decades after the war.

As Aristotle had suggested in another context (Poetics, chapter 4), it is only in action that character is revealed. It can be argued that during the war, as well as in the period of Pearsonian diplomacy that followed, Canadians stopped their customary agonizing about who they were and started pitching in, and so came to know and to be themselves, at least for awhile. If this is true then it was substantially through the Board’s auspices that this happened. In their wartime activity the filmmakers, and the public for whom they laboured, shared a sense of urgency and purpose. In so sharing they revealed to each other how anxious engagement in a goodly cause left Canadians with a fully constituted identity.

Here it is:

Tweet reviews:

#ChurchillsIsland is a very important, pretty-well textbook example of WWII propaganda, from the Allied side. “Propaganda” might put us off …

… but it operates all around, & always has. It’s not only in the lying-dog communications of the people/institutions we despise …

… but also, absolutely in the very weave of all that we ourselves do, & say, & believe.

#ChurchillsIsland. Propaganda can distort & deceive. Or, as here, it can be fervent in the communication of a deeply held & life-giving conviction …

… at the same time that it is thorough & scrupulous in representing the historical record, in all its nuance & complexity.