Millions Like Us: The Women who shaped World War 2 cinema

Millions Like Us (1943) part of the propaganda effort to get women into work, and part written by women

Millions Like Us (1943) part of the propaganda effort to get women into work, and part written by women

 

So what exactly DID the women of 1940s Britain do while the men were away? The answer for some of them at least, is write films – which is exactly where the inspiration for the film Their Finest comes from, telling the story of Catrin Pugh, played by Gemma Arterton, a scriptwriter making her way in a man’s profession ( admittedly in 1940 everything that wasn’t homemaking was a man’s profession) by making propaganda films for the Ministry of Information.

Their Finest producer Stephen Woolley immersed himself in the filmmaking of World War Two in order to make his latest film, and he confesses it became a bit of “an obsession – I went a bit nuts watching everything made between 1939 and 1945.” But he found out so much about the female filmmaking of the period it’s ended up as a series at the BFI Southbank, which runs right up until May 31:  Girls Like Us: British Women and World War Two Cinema.

“It’s twenty two films and twenty two short films,” he explains of the season, which dovetail nicely with screenings of the recently released and much-praised Their Finest

No one should be surprised Woolley is championing such films – his superb track record as a producer shows a man who has always been interested in female-driven projects, even when it wasn’t fashionable.

“Since my first film in 1983 I’ve always been interested in a woman’s perspective,” he says. “ You may not remember Shag in 1989, but more recently I made Made in Dagenham and Carol. The industry has been run by men for so many years and even from a commercial perspective, I get very frustrated that half the world hasn’t been served.

“I’m interested in films that not only show the female situation, as opposed to a male’s, but stories told by women should be celebrated. I am so thrilled that so many women are responding to the film Their Finest. And it’s a film made and written by women – so it’s a character-driven movie, it’s an entirely different perspective from say, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. 

The Gentle Sex ( 1943) about seven girls who go off to "do their bit" for King and country

The Gentle Sex ( 1943) about seven girls who go off to "do their bit" for King and country

"It wasn’t a jingoistic humour – they’re about Britain and they were patriotic, but at that point, they had no notion about who was going to win the war. They were about hope and community and people coming together – and that was very much aimed at women." Stephen Woolley, Curator of Girls Like Us

Audiences who see the season at the BFI will get to see women shine in front of, and behind the camera, in some of the great British gems of WWII cinema such as Millions Like Us (Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, 1943), Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) and In Which We Serve (Noël Coward, David Lean, 1942), as well as unique wartime propaganda shorts.

World War II Britain gave fertile inspiration to emergent women writers, producers and stars, and resulted in some astonishing propaganda movies that merged stark reality with fiction and fantasy, many with a female bias.

What you also get, claims Woolley, is humour – “They are so comedic,” he says. “Humour was a vital part of the propaganda effort. The Ministry of Information kept on getting told, ‘ the public won’t respond to these messages unless they are entertaining.’ Most of the films were made in the studios in and around London, and the attitude was ‘we won’t be defeated, we’ll laugh about this.’ That’s why so many of the films flip between tragedy and humour so quickly – every time there was a disaster, you’d find humour in there. But it wasn’t a jingoistic humour – they’re about Britain and they were patriotic, but at that point, they had no notion about who was going to win the war.

‘They were about hope and community and people coming together – and that was very much aimed at women. If you look at films like Millions Like Us and The Gentle Sex – they were aimed at getting women to work in factories and on the land and join the services – they needed to reverse the pattern that women were supposed to stay home. Then you had film like Went the Day Well and you have women taking up weapons to shoot Nazis.”

Celia Johnson starring in In Which We Serve ( 1942) 

Celia Johnson starring in In Which We Serve ( 1942) 

Unsurprisingly, with so many men directly at war, and ‘women’s dialogue’ or ‘the nausea’ to be written, more and more aspiring female writers found a job, including Diana Morgan, a feisty Welsh writer who forms the basis for Catrin Pugh in Their Finest. Morgan was an exceptional scriptwriter and ended up working on the modern soap predecessor of the 1960s, Emergency Ward 10, but countless other female scriptwriters came out of making these films uncredited.

“They passed the scripts round so much, there’d be up to six different writers working on it,” Woolley explains. “ They would literally be on set, changing dialogue as it was filmed, so no one knows really who wrote what. For example, in Graham Greene’s The Third Man we know a woman was hired to write all the women’s dialogue in it, but for all we know she was actually writing some of the key scenes.”

“This was a time that empowered women. These films said, ‘women can do all of this, they can run a business, they can work in factories, they can drive trucks, that’s how we can win the war and men are going to have to deal with it.’ Suddenly women were put in control." Stephen Woolley

Wartime also made a star out of many British actresses, including Celia Johnson, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Rock, but Woolley points out that “women still had to be very careful. Anyone who was stroppy wouldn’t get anywhere, they had to put up with a lot of ‘banter.’”

Still, the producer believes that by 1945 much of the propaganda, female-aimed filmmaking had  another side-effect – a less class-orientated society that voted in Clement Attlee’s Labour government.

“So much of that change was down to women,” Woolley believes. “ This was a time that empowered women. These films said, ‘women can do all of this, they can run a business, they can work in factories, they can drive trucks, that’s how we can win the war and men are going to have to deal with it.’ Suddenly women were put in control, and it certainly put forward the case for a more equal society, even if we’re still striving even now for equal pay. None of them could unlearn what they had done. That’s the power of films such as Millions Like Us – a woman who goes to work in a factory in the Midlands and she gets a new home and a new world. These films were government-led and they consciously made for women to see the benefits of working and perhaps being in the company of other women at work instead of being at home with children.”

The Gentle Sex' ( 1943) '

The Gentle Sex' ( 1943) '

 

Although war didn’t produce women behind the camera as directors, the women of Britain had real power during this period.

“There were 30 million cinema goers in Britain a week and most of them were women,” Woolley points out. ‘The films were geared for them – and there’s a big difference between them and things likeThe Dambusters and Colditz after the war was won. The films of wartime had to find some way of giving people comfort and that was through the shared experience of sacrifice.

“We went off Hollywood a bit during the war,” he adds.”Because America didn’t join for a while. People wanted films about them and about how the war related to the and we didn’t trust Hollywood.

“So we paved the way for a lot of future British filmmaking in the 1950s and 60s. It’s a shame no female director emerges from that period, but we should take heart that so many writers and a few producers did too. There was no doubt about it, wartime truly pushed female filmmaking a little more up that hill.”

For more details go to www.bfi.org.uk 

Girls Like Us: British Women and World War Two Cinema continues at BFI until May 31.