Sometimes released under the title I Was a Fireman, Fires Were Started attempts to be a docu-drama in much the same way Louisiana Story does. It is an almost neorealistic film, fully scripted and entirely fictional, that deals with a real life subject as realistically as it possibly can. Writer/director Humphrey Jennings opted to focus on a brigade of firefighters, and wrote a story around the subject, then cast real life firefighters to play the characters in the film. I can’t really say whether or not that was a good decision, but the film as a whole is effective enough, even if it is rather overt propaganda.
The film details a 24-hour period in the lives of a group of firefighters caught in the WWII era of constant bombardment of Britain by Germany, known as the Blitz. It starts meekly enough, going for a pure documentary-style exploration of the men’s daily lives and rigmarole at the fire station, and introducing the men to us in an effort to get us to appreciate what may potentially happen to them. From there, a call comes in about a fire on an ammunition ship by the wharf, and we head into some actual firefighting, which lasts most of the rest of the picture. Frankly, as far as I could see, the film is far too concerned with telling a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, than actually making sure the story is one worth telling. I wouldn’t really say that it isn’t, but the only times the film even somewhat works are during the actual firefighting segments, which, as short as the film is, don’t come in until a half hour into the film. As sad and backward as it is to say, I kinda wish they’d just kept this down to the actual action segments, rather than trying to flesh it out into a full and proper feature; the film as it is just feels bloated and excessive, and the film is less than an hour and a half long. As for the technicals, even for the early 1940s, they could’ve been a mite better; especially the sound, which was very often muffled to such a degree that, through the occasional accent, one could barely make out what some people were saying. Some of it was the rough quality of the print I watched, but definitely not all of it. The visuals were only scantly better, but at least I could see what was happening the whole way through, which was more than I could say for the audio.
I can’t really say that this didn’t work, because it does a good job at what it tries to be, but for me… it just didn’t really work. The fact that it was fictional and an obvious fluff piece to promote the London firefighters alleviated a great portion of the drama and suspense; you know that things are going to work out positively in the end, even if you don’t quite know how. To be fair, the film does throw in a few clouds to fill in our silver lining ending, but that didn’t help the fact that the film was, ironically, far too documentarian in its approach. The almost complete lack of music, especially during the action sequences, until the end of the film, both helps and hinders the film in the same way, almost so that they cancel each other out: the music that is used ends up being too hokey, but it is again the fact that it is fictional that means the sequences with no music aren’t strong enough to hold themselves up without it. It’s a catch-22, or rather a lose-lose situation, which might be unfair for me to posit to the film. For what it’s worth, the film does do a very good job at being a propaganda piece, but it is that it is a propaganda piece that is also the film’s largest setback. That and the rough quality, and I don’t just mean the un-sanded edges of the print that I watched. I don’t really know why this is on the list, especially since there is other stuff to represent the era like The Battle of San Pietro, but I guess I won’t complain. It was short, so I didn’t have to kill a lot of time with it.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10