Sunday, 22 July 2018

Still could… It Happened Here (1964) on BFI Blu-ray and DVD

“If we can get them all together working to one end, we’ll soon get the country back on its feet again… “

When I was five, in addition to remembering watching England win the World Cup, I was also convinced that The War was still going on, probably in North Africa. This was the result of misunderstanding the nature of programmes such as All Our Yesterdays, but even in 1966 the Second World War hadn’t really stopped…

Ten years before this an 18-year old schoolboy named Kevin Brownlow conceived of a counter-factual feature film that would examine the premise of the War not only lost but victory achieved on these shores. Joined by 16-year old Andrew Mollo the two would spend eight years in bringing their story to the screen and the story of how they did so is an epic in itself. Underfunded, the project ran on the pure energy of their enthusiasm and produced a film that was controversial then and remains so now simply through the act of allowing some actual fascists the chance to voice their views.

The film featured a host of amateurs and in Brownlow and Mollo’s driven pursuit of authenticity they filmed a group of British Blackshirts discussing their ideology with other members of the cast. They decided to let them speak for themselves and didn’t have an opposing voice on the grounds that the ideas were so patently ridiculous they fell immediately under the weight of their own delusions; the directors also didn’t want to dignify fascist fantasy with a counter argument for the unarguable. As it is, the raised eyebrows from the others says everything about their opinions on Jews, euthanasia and the Bolshevik threat to Aryan purity…

Stylish promotional cards from the original run
This sequence was edited out of the general release on the request of big money distributors United Artists despite objections from film makers and critics alike, but you can’t just bury fascism you need to know what it is and why it works… Thankfully this superb BFI restoration includes the section, taken from Kevin’s own 16mm dupe negative and a 35mm positive.

It Happened Here is a remarkable film in so many ways and like all good cinema it reflects the time it was made as much as the time is was representing as the contemporary reaction shows. Now, as the far right surges forward against a background of Western economic and democratic decline, is the perfect time to view it again. Brownlow and Mollo wanted to explain the nature of fascism and to dig beyond the narrative of consensual opinion that had reduced it to a two-dimensional metaphor for ultimate defeat; there was no guarantee of victory in 1940 nor, increasingly in 2018.

The story is set in 1945 and in a world in which Germany proceeded with Operation Sealion and invaded Britain, defeating all military and civilian resistance. By 1944, with America now involved in the war, the remnants of the Allied forces re-arm the British resistance and puts the security of the occupied country once more under threat.

Pauline Murray in her IA uniform
There are opening sequences featuring some excellent cutting from editor Brownlow which shows his appreciation for Eisenstein and Gance as he sets up the sense of violent defeat amongst the British. The main character is an Irish nurse Pauline – played by Pauline Murray a gifted amateur Brownlow had seen in another low-budget film – who is perfectly suited as our window into this confused world of fear and subservience.

There are some highly impressive shots of German troops hitting the tourist high-spots of London and marching through familiar spaces. Some of the film was shot in 16mm by Brownlow and the difference in grain with the 35mm adds to the feel of documentary: these are the films the Man in the High Castle would prefer we saw… There’s also an authentic look to the uniforms, locations and equipment thanks to Mollo’s sourcing actual war surplus kit and the presence of un-renovated areas in a London still scared by bombing.

Pauline’s husband was killed by the Nazis, but she wants to avoid the war and just carry on with life. It’s a compromise all the civilians must face, and the disturbing facts is that as with France and indeed the Channel Islands, most people prefer compliance to revolt: what happens here is the same as in Germany, we fall into line… The only way she can be a nurse is to join the Immediate Action Organisation which delivers health care with an iron fist all in the name of order and discipline.

This drives a wedge between her and her still free-thinking old friends… she has to decide which side she’s really on and take a stance.

"Hurrah for the Blackshirts..."
It’s a tremendous package from the BFI including a 36-page booklet with essays from Dr Josephine Botting, historian EWW Foster and Mr Brownlow himself. There’s also a newly-recorded hour-long interview with Kevin Brownlow with Vic Pratt, an interview with production assistant Johanna Roeber together with behind the scenes footage from 1956-1966. The “newsreel” featured in the film is also featured – terrifying enough on its own.

As one of the characters in the film observes: The appalling thing about fascism is that you’ve got to use fascist methods to get rid of it… we’ve all got a bit of it inside of us…and it doesn’t take much to bring it out. Think of that the next time the Daily Mail or Telegraph headline on “traitors” or the politicians talk about the Will of the People in absolute terms.

It Happened Here is a vital film and tribute to the cinematic ability and drive of the most remarkable film historians this country has produced, and it is an essential purchase – a good way to celebrate the man’s 80th Birthday. He has the enthusiasm of a man a quarter of that age – clearly doing what you love keeps you young!

It Happened Here is released in Blu-ray and DVD dual format on 23rd July and can be purchasedfrom the BFI Shop. The film is also being screened on 23rd July at the BFI with a Q&A with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Details on the BFI website.

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