The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Released in 1943 in a shortened version titled Fires Were Started, I Was a Fireman is a documentary reconstruction; actual firemen play firemen like themselves battling and quelling an enormous fire, the result of German aerial bombing of London during the Blitz. At Y substation, Precinct 14, men arrive from home and civilian jobs; the film will span 24 hours, dawn to dawn, siren alert to all-clear. These homefront warriors prepare for battle and do nighttime battle modestly, uncomplainingly, untouched by the bombast of a Hitler—or a Churchill. The film stays with the men, except for contextualizing snippets showing staff who are also in the system. No Luftwaffe plane is ever shown.
Detailed as to individual characters and firefighting preparations and procedure, this film by Humphrey Jennings shows British citizens united in labor and by a common cause: the war effort. Blending dramatic enactment and stock footage, the firefighting scenes are the most brilliant and thrilling of their kind.
But the film is also poignantly ironical. It opens on a frieze of ancient soldiers. Script introduces a backward glance—winter/spring 1940-1941. A new member of the squad, Barrett, who works in advertising, must be brought into the fold. Banter amongst the men, for the most part genial, occasionally lights on (and as quickly exits) an edgier note pertaining to class division. War brings these men together in both senses, but war reconciles their differences only in its own moment. Robert Browning: “. . . the good minute goes.” Success: the warship moves out at dawn. Its immediate destination is combat; its ultimate destination, the past, leaving Britain to her future. How much at home will remain resolved after the war?
I Was a Fireman is a compounded epic, expressing at once the aspirations and the anxieties of a people.
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