Christmas on Film: ‘Christmas Under Fire’ (1941)

This seasonal wartime propaganda short was produced for the American market and has since become a minor classic of the genre, also being nominated for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar in 1942. Written and narrated by the London-based US journalist Quentin Reynolds (1902–1965) (whose distinctively intimate voice can also be heard on the previous year’s now-iconic London Can Take It!, also aimed at American cinemagoers), this film tells the story of Britain during the Christmas of 1940, when the country was quite literally under fire.

Wearing its propaganda colours firmly on its sleeve right from the off (the opening shot tells us this is a ‘Ministry of Information film’), this film knows exactly which buttons to press in order to get an emotional and visceral reaction from the average American viewer. As a result, there are vivid images of the way the war has had an impact on what Reynolds sees as the timeless peace of British life – so there are shots of shelterers in the London Underground, children playing at soldiers, troops watching out for enemy planes or manning guns in British cities and countryside, and bombed-out shopkeepers in what remains of their premises, declaring ‘business as usual’.

But, despite the fact that “England is fighting for her life”, we see that life still goes on – and that includes Christmas, despite the fact that families all over Britain are separated as a result of the war. We see lots of images of cute kids doing festive things, innocent-looking choristers warbling Christmas carols, and the delight of a little girl whose father has returned home on leave for Christmas. There are small Christmas trees being cut, tiny enough to fit into air raid shelters, and blitzed-out West End theatre dancers rehearsing for a pantomime in what looks like a church hall. As Reynolds comments: “everyone is determined to make [Christmas] as cheerful as possible”.

Not for the first time during the war, this film was one made in an attempt to convince America that Britain could indeed Take It, and would make a strong and consistent ally should America decide to move away from an isolationist outlook and join the war. However, the whole point of Christmas Under Fire was soon superceded by events at Pearl Harbor that same year – and by Christmas 1941, the Blitz in London was over. Despite its obvious propaganda purpose (indeed, one wonders what percentage of its scenes were staged), this film remains a fascinating and very particular view of a wartime Christmas.

For more from the BFI National Archive, visit their website or their excellent YouTube channel.

For more seasonal posts on Another Kind Of Mind, see here.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Christmas Corner | Another Kind Of Mind
  2. Pingback: Vintage Christmas Puddings: A Fourth Helping | Another Kind Of Mind

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