Tommy Trinder and James Mason star in stirring wartime propaganda drama The Bells Go Down that praises the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), the army of volunteers who kept the flames at bay in Britain’s cities during the Blitz.
With the pilots of The Battle of Britain receiving so many accolades during the recent anniversary celebrations, it’s only right that the less glamorous boys of the AFS are remembered. After all, they had to clear up the mess that resulted whenever the German bombers broke through the Spitfire defence.
Top music hall comedian Trinder plays Tommy Turk, a cockney chancer who’s fast losing friends and money down the dogs. In an effort to make his mother, played by Beatrice Varley, proud, he enrols with the local AFS division. It’s a motley crew, gathered from all walks of life including young James Mason, crook Sam (Mervyn Johns) and the team’s despised leader, District Officer McFarlane. Overcoming personal differences and the difficulties of their domestic lives, they risk life and limb to save London’s East End from the devastating effects of the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids, graphically reproduced with blazing special effects described by Variety as ‘thrillingly effective’.
Director Dearden (The League of Gentlemen, The Smallest Show on Earth) is brave enough to show the terrible sacrifices made by the amateur fire-fighters, but as you’d expect from an Ealing production, his film possesses a fighting spirit that never dwindles. Adapted from Stephen Black’s novel by Roger MacDougall (author of The Man in the White Suit), the script ensures a lively pace and sympathetic characters, while Trinder injects much humour and a strong cast avoids the debilitating sentimentality that flaws so much of Hollywood’s equivalent output.
Certainly the staged drama cannot compete with the blistering force of Humphrey Jennings’s quasi-documentary, Fires Were Started (released in the same month), but The Bells Go Down shows the cinema of propaganda at its best, and acts as a testament to the courage of the unsung heroes in Britain’s war effort.
UK / 1943
Director: Basil Dearden
Writer: Roger MacDougall (from a novel by Stephen Black)
Cast: Tommy Trinder, James Mason, Philip Friend, Mervyn Johns, Finlay Currie, Beatrice Varley, William Hartnell, Philippa Hiatt, Meriel Forbes, Norman Pierce, Muriel George, Julian Vedey, Richard George, H Victor Weske, Leslie Harcourt