In this post, project fellow Hollie Price looks at how the Ministry used Christmas to project British resolve abroad and soften American opinion to the war.

In 1940, during a particularly harsh winter and in the midst of ongoing air raids, the Ministry’s Films Division began planning a number of Christmas film projects. One of them, Christmas under Fire, was to be directed by Harry Watt. The aim was to continue the theme of the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit’s hugely successful documentary London Can Take It (1940), an account of everyday life’s endurance in wartime London. At the time the US remained neutral in the war so the film was made specifically for American audiences, to show them that Christmas celebrations were carrying on in Britain despite the Blitz, thus proving a spirit of national cohesion and persuading US audiences of the strength of the Allied war effort.

In November 1940, the GPO Film Unit began preparations. In order that it could be previewed in December and dispatched to the US not long after Christmas (it was released in January 1941), Christmas under Fire was completed in a hurry without financial authorisation.[1] In Harry Watt’s autobiography, he describes: ‘They [the Ministry] said what was needed was something to make the American public uncomfortable while they celebrated Christmas’.[2] According to Watt, he and Quentin Reynolds – the London correspondent of Collier’s Weekly who had provided the commentary for London Can Take It – had ‘decided, very much tongue in cheek, to make a weepy’.[3]

In an anonymous proposal (quite possibly written by Watt), the ‘Christmas Film’ is described as ‘ideal film material for the super-sentimentalists in the United States […] a film timed to be released right after Christmas, showing Britain carrying on the tradition in its dugouts and outposts is an obvious tear-jerker’.[4] The proposal details the ‘curious juxtaposition’ between ‘people settling down into their enforced trogloditic [sic] existence’ in underground air raid shelters while also ‘thinking about Christmas’ and ‘how they are going to celebrate the festival of peace and goodwill toward men while death and hate threaten from above’.[5]

Reynolds’ proposed commentary aimed to illuminate the differences between the festivities in wartime Britain and those enjoyed in peacetime America in 1940. His early draft put English children and their experiences of war and Christmas centre-stage:

During the first months of the war and during the first weeks of the blitzkrieg there was a general conspiracy in England to keep children in ignorance of what was going on … It wasn’t long before the children of England knew what the country was at war … Today the children are junior partners in this great partnership of thirty-five million people who are fighting to save a civilisation.[6]

Reynolds presented Christmas as a way of paying back the children for their role in the collective endeavours of wartime:

The whole nation has decided to repay these gallant little junior partners by making their own holiday – Christmas – the same holiday it has always been. Bombs will fall on Christmas Eve; the No Man’s Land will be as active as ever, but the parents of England have decided that to their children, it will be the same old fashioned Christmas they have always known.[7]

The GPO Film Unit used the idea of the children’s ‘old fashioned Christmas’ to plot the visual narrative of an early sequence in the film, which shows a group of young evacuees collecting holly and mistletoe on a wooded slope in the countryside.[8] The sequence begins with a static shot of a peaceful village scene, before showing children collecting holly in a tree, and running down a hill laden with bundles of branches.  Just as the voiceover describes ‘so far as possible this will be an old fashioned Christmas in England, at least for the children’, the camera tracks back to show the children running down the wooded slope towards the village. This long shot dwells on the children’s collective work, capturing Reynolds’ description of the children’s contributions to the war. It also presents the idyllic rural scene as a picture-postcard view of the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ characterised by pastoral imagery and associations with Englishness and tradition.

Reynolds’ commentary was redrafted a number of times with the input of John Betjeman (based at the Ministry), Wolfgang Wilhelm (a German émigré scriptwriter employed for his services on the film) and Harry Watt.[9] In the final film, the ‘curious juxtaposition’ of wartime and Christmas came to play a greater role in both the commentary and the film’s visual style. On one draft addressed to Watt from Reynolds, noted in pencil are the lines: ‘And so it will be a Xmas of contrasts. Holly and barbed wire. Guns and presents’.[10]

The ‘Xmas of contrasts’ is illustrated by several dramatic images of the everyday landscape in wartime, including jarring juxtapositions of Christmas decorations and objects associated with the war effort. A line of barbed wire caught in a holly bush is silhouetted against a pale sky, and tinsel is draped over a row of iron railings – with a warden’s helmet hanging from one end. These dramatic, surrealist images bear comparison to those popularised by contemporary photographers like Bill Brandt through publications like Picture Post. Rather than simply conveying a picture-postcard English Christmas, they establish an uncomfortable, eerie vision of festivities and the strange endurance of everyday life during the Blitz, with a visually arresting, observational style.

A note on a later, redrafted script suggested that this visual depiction of Christmas in wartime was a way of stressing the endurance of everyday routines, and specifically family life, during the Blitz: the ‘key note [of the film] is the Reunion of the Family to celebrate Xmas (‘contrasting the cold blackout of the exterior with the warmth and light of the interior scenes’).[11] The ‘Reunion of the Family’ scenes come at the end of a sequence in the film which was specifically meant to link the experience of Christmas during the war with images from the Nativity. Several shots show shepherds herding their sheep, accompanied by Reynold’s voiceover: ‘Today in England even the shepherds are in some kind of uniform. And they are still watching and guiding’. 

The draft treatment for the film emphasised that ‘careful shooting (composition, lighting, etc) … should give a strong Christmas feeling and a fairly mystical quality to the final sequence’.[12] Furthermore, it ‘should be quietly suggestive of all that goes to make up the Christmas mythology in our minds … the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, the Star in the East, the Shepherds that watch by night’.[13] It was planned that the film’s final sequence should continue this sense of ‘Christmas mythology’ – through shots of the chapel choir of King’s College, Cambridge singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and of the carol accompanying  a sequence set in the air raid shelter at South Kensington Underground station.

Earlier versions of the commentary had even made comparisons between the stable in the Nativity, and contemporary bomb shelters, going as far as to suggest that the stables in Bethlehem were built ‘so that invaders, thieves could be fought off more easily’.[14] Drawing comparisons with the idea that ‘this year England will celebrate Christmas underground, in shelters, in caves’, Reynolds argues that  ‘the first stable at Bethlehem was probably half underground – something like the shelters of England today, where men women and children live the better to be protected from the invader’.[15]

Although these comparisons did not make the final cut of the commentary, the footage of families on the platform in the underground sequence was planned to ‘suggest the Holy family and the manger’.[16] The final sequence seeks to capture a sense of enduring ‘Christmas mythology’ by creating a close association between the Christmas carol and the spirit of those sheltering in the station, using footage of the tree-adorned platform crowded with people. As a train pulls out of the station and families tuck themselves in amongst their belongings, the ‘strong Christmas feeling’ is conveyed through the lyrical combination of the carol with shots capturing families in their shared, everyday and yet strange wartime surroundings.

The striking visual narrative of Christmas under Fire was developed through the collaborative input of the GPO Film Unit and the scriptwriters employed by the Ministry. The film’s images of Christmas negotiated Watt’s self-proclaimed sentimental approach but simultaneously presented a restrained, poetic picture of the festive season in Britain in 1940 ,with an eye for its ‘curious juxtapositions’, idiosyncrasies, and comparisons with seasonal themes of peace and goodwill. At the time of its preview screenings, Christian Barman (the Publicity Officer at the London Transport Board) wrote to Kenneth Clark with ardent praise, suggesting the film’s value as propaganda for the Allied war effort. 

I hate superlatives, but I could swear that never in my life have I seen a short film that can be compared with it for imagination and sensitiveness and the sheer deftness of its technique. The finale is truly astounding […] With people who can do propaganda as good as this, there is no need to worry any more.[17]

Christmas under Fire is available to watch on the BFI YouTube channel and on the BFI collection of GPO Film Unit films If War Should Come.

[1] Kew, The National Archives (TNA) INF 6/329 Christmas under Fire – Production notes, 1951.

[2] Watt, Harry Don’t Look at the Camera (London, Paul Elek Books Ltd: 1974). p.145

[3] Ibid.

[4] TNA INF 5/75 Christmas Film – Xmas Film note.

[5] Ibid.

[6] TNA INF 5/75 Christmas Film – Notes for Xmas Commentary (Quentin Reynolds).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. INF 5/75 Treatment and notes for commentary.

[9] TNA INF 5/75 Letter from Watt to Betjeman 1940, INF 6.329 Christmas under Fire – Production notes, 1951.

[10] TNA INF 5/75 Christmas Film – Redrafted commentary.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] TNA INF 5/75 Christmas Film – Letter from Christian Barman to Kenneth Clark, 3 January 1941.