The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE BELLS GO DOWN | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE BELLS GO DOWN

The Bells Go Down review
The lives of members of London's Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Basil Dearden

Starring: Philip Friend, Tommy Trinder, James Mason, Mervyn Johns, William Hartnell

The Bells Go Down bluray

During WWII, filmmakers working in both Hollywood and the British film industry were expected to contribute to the war effort by implementing propaganda into their work. In Hollywood, directors like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock did so by simply making the Nazis and Japanese the villains of the sort of thrillers they would have made regardless of whether America was at war. Rather than focussing on the enemy, Britain's wartime filmmakers tended towards a more reserved form of jingoism centred on celebrating the character of the British public and its resolve in the face of unprecedented adversary. Where the American wartime thrillers usually gave us a lone hero, Britain's home front dramas put communitiy spirit front and centre. "We're strongest together" was the message of these movies. It's no wonder Britain so readily embraced socialism at the end of the war.

The community of Basil Dearden's 1943 film The Bells Go Down is a corner of London's East End, where we find cockney pub owners, Irish cops, Jewish store owners and Italian grocers. All walks of life come together when Britain declares war on Germany and preparations begin for an inevitable attack on London.

The Bells Go Down review

In what plays like a precursor to the sort of workplace comedies and dramas that would become popular in Hollywood movies and TV shows of the '70s and '80s, Dearden's film is centred on the men and women of London's Auxiliary Fire Service. With bombs set to drop on London, the volunteers of the AFS must be quickly trained in order to be able to support London's Fire Brigade when needed.

They're as ragtag a bunch as those found in Police Academy and its '80s clones. Tommy (Tommy Trinder) is a cockney lad with an eye for the ladies and the racetrack. The middle class Bob (Philip Friend) has put off his wedding to Nan (Philippa Hiatt) to do his bit. Petty criminal Sam (Mervyn Johns) balances his AFS duties with stealing kegs of Guinness and evading Irish bobby O'Brien (Richard George). Brooks (future Dr Who William Hartnell) is a Spanish Civil War veteran who warns his naive colleagues of what to expect from a fascist enemy. These men fall under the command of professional firefighter Ted (James Mason), who isn't too happy about being lumbered with these rank amateurs, especially when Tommy begins making moves on his girlfriend Susie (Meriel Forbes).

The Bells Go Down review

The Bells Go Down is dramatically hamstrung by its progandistic remit to portray its heroes as a chipper bunch whose spirit can't be broken. As a result all the characters come off as one-dimensional in their commitment to their service. None of the men are allowed to express any anxiety, well at least not regarding the actual war: Ted is more perturbed by the idea of losing his girl to another man than losing his loved ones to a Luftwaffe bomb. Despite finding themselves in a London rapidly resembling a Hellish inferno, the men continue making jokes and hitting on their female colleagues. The integration of actual Blitz footage only serves to make its upbeat tone all the more dubious.

The comedy mostly comes via Trinder, one of those gratingly unfunny music hall comics so beloved by British audiences of the era. The proto-Carry On humour only serves to date the film and much of it comes off as a little classist. Reflecting their character dynamic, you get the impression that Mason was none too happy with lowering himself to work alongside Trinder, as he looks miserable throughout - talk about a mismatch!

The Bells Go Down review

Dearden would go on to establish himself as one of Britain's finest and most versatile filmmakers in the post-war years, and there are some hints of what's to come to be found amid the rubble of misjudged comedy here. A set-piece in which Tommy's greyhound chases a fire truck through London traffic is rendered with all the excitement of the car chases from Dearden's future police thrillers. There are moments of pathos that genuinely pay respectful tribute to the Blitz spirit, like when Suzie fakes hearing a voice emanating from the ruins of a levelled pub in order for the wardens to search for survivors, or Bob manning the hose on another house while his own home goes up in flames. But to get to such moments you have to endure a lot of bad comedy and a whole lot of footage of buildings being hosed down.

The Bells Go Down is on UK VOD, DVD and bluray from June 24th.