Early & Silent Film

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Tell England, UK 1931

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2015

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This film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Ernest Raymond, subtitled A Study in a Generation. The novel follows two young men who join up in World War I and become involved in the Gallipoli campaign. This was the attack on the Dardanelles in Turkey by the Alliance of Britain and France, in 1915 and involving troops from both European powers’ colonial territories – Australasia, India and North and West Africa. There were also civilian workers from Egypt and Malta supporting the troops. Gallipoli looms large in the British memory. I suspect partly that this is because it was generally regarded as a failure or a disaster. In that sense it parallels other infamous military campaigns such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916 or earlier the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. There are also strong memories in Australasia. Anzac Day is April 25th, the date of the landing in which Australasian troops were heavily involved. There the campaign was felt to epitomise the superior and careless attitudes of the British High Command to troops from down under. Intriguingly Raymond’s novel was also the inspiration for an Australian film, Gallipoli. In this version two young Australians join up and become involved in the campaign. This year has seen the release of The Water Diviner, directed by and starring Russell Crowe. Most of the film is set after the war. What I found striking about the film is the amount of attention given to Turks. This seems to follow on from the setting as Crowe searches for the graves of his sons. The villains, if there are any in the film, are the Greeks who invade Turkey. At the same time the British military are portrayed as officious and much less helpful than a Turkish officer. Tell England was screened at the British Silent Film Festival 2015. It was preceded by a presentation looking at some of the other films that dealt with the campaign. These included newsreel coverage and what were effectively information films. One of these, Fight for the Dardanelles (1915), included animated sequences. There were also films that showed the Australian troops involved, and even Indian troops, I am not aware of any feature films that deal with ‘colonial’ Indian or the African troops. Nor I have ever seen a Turkish treatment of the campaign. The British films tended to report and valorise the campaign, rather than dwell on its failure. A slightly critical note was struck in Heroes of Gallipoli (1915) from Australia in which there were critical comments about the training and treatment of Australasian troops. The presentation also included an extended sequence from Tell England, the initial landings, which is possibly the most impressive sequence in the film. map1 The feature itself was produced by British Instructional Films. The project started in 1928 but was not completed until two yeas later. It was shot as a silent with the sound dubbed on later and it still retains some intertitles. This was, of course, the period of transition to sound and the film was screened at Leicester as part of a programme of early British sound films. Rachel Low (Filmmaking in 1930s Britain) has written about the problems of the transition. She quotes a passage by Peter Birt, who worked on Tell England, in the magazine Close-Up;

“Two [recorded sound] tracks, taken separately, may be dissolved one into the other: fades may be made; sounds can be distorted by running them through the projector faster or slower than the speed at which they were taken. (This was how we obtained the background for the trench raid and the low-frequencies for the blowing up on ‘Clara’, in Tell England).” [‘Clara’ was a Turkish trench mortar that occupied a long sequence later in the film].

Low adds the following:

“He also said that Tell England had a track for the explosions made from a collection of suitable recordings plus ‘background from another projector and voices from the floor’.

The film used the Tobis-Klangfeld sound-on-film system: the major European brand at the time. Like other early sound films the technicians were having in experiment and innovate. This and the somewhat primitive state of the technology mean the soundtrack on the film is variable, both in tone and volume. Given the limitations of the time it works very effectively. The script is credited to Anthony Asquith with the additional dialogue for sound by A. P. Herbert. Geoffrey Barks is credited as co-director. It seems that he was responsible for much of the location film which was actually based in Malta. Low explains,

“It was directed by Asquith with much of the location work on Malta being handled by Geoffrey Barkas, who had also made silent films for BOF and had a flair for big crowd scenes on location.”

There was a personal dynamic at work on the film and the novel. Raymond lost friends in the Gallipoli campaign, as did Asquith. And Barkas had actually fought in battles on the Dardanelles. Both the novel and the film tend more to valorisation than to critical treatment of the campaign. Though both also dramatise the sense of loss that the ‘Great War’ occasioned. The cinematography is credited to three cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell, James E. Rogers, but it is not clear who shot which parts of the film. Parker and Rodwell had both worked on The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Island (1927); And Rodwell worked on Asquith’s earlier films Underground and Shooting Stars (both 1928). Whoever filmed which sequences it is very well done. There is though a clear difference between sequences shot in the BIF studios at Welwyn Garden City and the location work. The film was edited by Mary Field. One assumes that Asquith was closely involved as there are, especially in the landing sequence, passages of montage, which one also sees in his other films. Once again there is a sense of the influence of the Soviet filmmakers. Indeed one striking shot as the forces land on the beach presents a low angle shot of a ship’s prow, reminiscent of the closing shot of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The Art Direction was by Arthur Woods; He progressed to direction and turned out quite number of features in the 1930s. Peter Birch is jointly credited with sound alongside Victor Peers. The film would seem to follow the novel relatively closely, though a major change is the downplaying of a religious figure, a parson who advises the two protagonists. These are Rupert Ray (Carl Harbord) and Edgar Doe (Dennis Hoey). The film introduces them in the same way as the book, as teenagers at home and at their public school. This is fairly conventional: with boating, a diving competition and a relay race. The latter has notable tracks along the swimming pool. Another important character is Doe’s mother (Fay Compton) who appears several times and who will come to represent the sense of loss in the film. This is a privileged and untypical [except in the movies] existence. A tolling bell ushers in the war and we see the anxious mother losing her son. However, as is conventional for the period, these volunteers are gung-ho about the conflict. The induction into the army is also conventional and here the war is presented as an opportunity rather than the coming disaster. It is here that we get the first reference to ‘Tell England’ s a quotation is made to the famous message at Thermopylae, ‘go tell Sparta’. In fact, Rupert has studied modern courses at school whilst Edgar studied the classics, and he translates the Greek for his friend. The sequences make effective use of tracks and dollies. The duo then finds they are destined for the Gallipoli campaign. We also hear about the use of Australian and New Zealand troops at a staff-planning meeting. As we arrive at the landing sequence we see Australian troops who sing ‘Australia will be there’. 1931-film-tell-england-screening-at-mcc-20121101   The landings on the Dardanelles by the troops of the Alliance are really impressive and runs for about fifteen minutes. There are extensive shots of the troops approaching the beaches in their crafts, of the actual landing and them the first fighting with the Turks. Some of the footage looked liked it was taken from contemporary newsreels. The editing adds to the feel of dynamic conflict. The variety of shots includes the fleet barrages, ship bridges, [one is clearly a studio set], seamen and stokers on the ships, the waiting troops, disembarking and then struggling through the water and onto the beach. Once ashore there is the barbed wire, the machine guns and some hand-to-hand fighting. It was justly commented that, –

“the beach landings sequence is one of the finest action sequences of early British cinema.”

There is an effective interplay of large-scale operations, specific detail and the actual responses of the men involved. At one point a waiting soldiers comments;

“We’re off – thank god!”

There is also an effective inter-cutting of synchronised and non-synchronised sound. Whilst the film’s viewpoint is predominately from that of the invaders, there are also point-of-view shots from the Turkish lines. In another Soviet influence, there are some dramatic low angle shots of fighting on the skylines. The film covers the several simultaneous landings made by the alliance. It also depicts the initial Turkish surprise and then the fierce counter-attack. The end result is trench warfare, which in many ways mirrors that on the Western front of the war. This part of the film is pretty similar to other treatments of this type of warfare of the period. Comparison has been made to Journey’s End (1930). The film now changes from the large-scale presentation to the smaller and more personal side. So we basically follow Rupert and Edgar as they cope, or try to cope, with the situation. There is the increasing tension and increasing desperation as the conditions in dugouts are accentuated by frequent bombardments. The focus for much of this is the Turkish trench mortar ‘Clara’. It is the attempts to take this gun out of action, which dominate the latter stages of the film. Inevitably one of the friends dies and there is the final parting. Followed by the sad receipt of the news back home. These sequences also make effective use of camera and sound. Clearly the scenes use both studio sets and location film. But there are still the range of camera shots, including tracks, dollies, low and high angles and dramatic positions, with more skyline shots. There are also intense close-ups at moments of drama and stress. And the sound continues to intercut both synchronised and non-synchronised dialogue and noise. At one point the assembled officers sing ‘Annie Laurie’, which provides a moment of pathos. There are at least two more references to the motif of ‘Tell England’. The film ends with the evacuation of 1916 and one of the graves stones of those who remained:

“Tell England, you who pass, we died for her and we have no regret’.

So the film ends with the validation of the war if not this campaign. But it also emphasises the sense of loss that was so strong in many of the films of this period. The film is a very fine war drama. It does have certain limitations, which are common in the period. Low comments: “Photography and editing oaf the battle sequence was magnificent, but the strangled patrician characterisation and dialogue and the true-blue patriotism seemed out of date.” British film did not achieve the production values of the Hollywood studios. And the reliance on stage actors meant that they often failed to give a recognisable depiction of class issues. However, the film is a demonstration of excellent ensemble work. BIF produced some very well done film dramas in the late 1920 and early 1930s. And Asquith, whose silent films were visually impressive, also bought flair to the new technique of sound. But this also shows how, like other directors, his work relied on the craft skills of his production team. His film work in the later 1930s is not of the same standard. It would be good if the film could be seen in 35mm around the UK. There was one little flaw in the screening at Leicester. As an early sound film the ratio was distinct, 1.20:1. However, the Phoenix did not appear to have the projection plates for that ratio and there was some cropping at the top and bottom of the frame. One reason for more screenings – in the correct ratio.

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