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Film review: They Came to a City

26 October 2018

Stephen Brown sees a wartime film restored

courtesy bfi

A still from They Came to a City, a rare Ealing film now restored and reissued by the BFI

A still from They Came to a City, a rare Ealing film now restored and reissued by the BFI

EALING STUDIOS’ drama (Cert. U) has been given a 2K restoration and released on a DVD/Blu-ray dual format. Made in 1944, it is a stirring invitation to dream of a new landscape, one more closely resembling paradise than the current wartime circumstances may have allowed; or contemplate a hellish alternative.

There are several extras on the disc featuring the likes of Dylan Thomas and Alberto Cavalcanti. These aimed at inspiring audiences in their efforts to defeat Hitler’s armies. The main feature, however, isn’t typical propaganda of this kind. It’s not Germany that requires vanquishing, but our own self-imposed limitations on envisaging a fresh world order.

The music accompanying the opening titles is from Scriabin’s Third Symphony, “The Divine Poem”, a work that bids listeners’ imaginations reach out beyond the prosaic. The first scene has the kind of hillside long shot over an industrial town which would come to be associated with the social realism of later British films. A uniformed young couple argue whether after the war the world will be any different from before, whereupon J. B. Priestley (on whose play the film is based) happens upon them. “Let’s suppose”, he suggests, “we took a little cross-section of our people . . . and let’s imagine these people suddenly found themselves out of their ordinary surroundings.”

This is the cue for transporting nine people to an architecturally exotic city where they contemplate the future. While the baronet (A. E. Matthews) believes that such a location could only be Walthamstow, a merchant seaman, Joe Dinmore (John Clements), is reminded of Peru. The rest are simply bewildered by what some regard as supernatural kidnap.

Alice (Googie Withers) has quit her job as a waitress out of frustration; Malcolm (Raymond Huntley) is a sympathetic character, a banker married to someone (Renee Gadd) who clearly is not. Norman Shelley plays the ruthless businessman Cudworth. Mrs Batley (Ada Reeve) is an overworked charlady, in contrast to a privileged Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Philippa Loxfield (Frances Rowe). Collectively, they are given a vision of how such a city would be run.

As they return to the entrance, they consider what they have witnessed of a different, more egalitarian society. We suspect that not everyone is impressed by this, and that only some characters will experience a change of heart. A few surprises are in store.

There is no mistaking, however, what the scholar John Baxendale describes as Priestley’s vision of “the perfection of urban civilisation”. Working people’s fight isn’t just to defeat an alien oppressor: it is a domestic one, too. Rather than the harking back to bucolic idealisation, as in A Canterbury Tale or Went the Day Well?, this film seeks to build a different kind of place in England’s green and pleasant land. And, like William Blake, the film foresees this New Jerusalem in spiritual as well as political terms.

The clue lies in the art director Michael Relph’s construction of the city’s narrow gate rather than one that is wide and leads to perdition. The subtext is that such a place must resemble the City of God.

Available from the BFI Shop (phone 020 7815 1350) or via www.bfi.org.uk/shop.

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