Words for Battle (1941) is the first of Humphrey Jennings’ extraordinary string of wartime documentaries to fully extend the parameters, conventions and patriotic necessities of the form. A fugue of images, sounds and brief excerpts from the work of a range of mostly British writers, thinkers, historians and leaders extending from William Camden’s Britannia, or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland… (1586) to Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (1940), it condenses a panoply of images and words into a succinct “found” essay on the continuity and resilience of the British people, the history of the nation since the Elizabethan era, the cultural legacy of such titans of classic English literature as Browning, Milton and Kipling, and the interconnectedness of the city and countryside, the present and the past, the forces and traditions of industrialisation and agrarianism.

Words for Battle

The film is organised into seven brief, sometimes overlapping chapters structured around the pithy excerpts from its often stirringly patriotic source material. Although some of these choices are fairly obvious, such as the well-word passage from Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time” (now commonly known as “Jerusalem” but originally composed as the preface of his tribute to Milton), and the images sometimes banally illustrative of what we hear on the soundtrack, the overall impact is rousing, poetic and, at times, surprising. As Kevin Jackson argues, the film “serves to reanimate these familiar words by showing them, literally, in new lights” (1). For example, at one point the words of Milton overlay footage taken from German newsreels while Blake initially “scores” the evocative images of children being evacuated from the cities (the belching train their “chariot of fire”). Although Kipling’s blunt sentiments from Beginnings, “When the English began to hate…”, were composed in response to an earlier, now more ambiguous war against Germany, they gain force in combination with the spare, measured, and unhysterical images of a bombed-out London (a briefly glimpsed stretchered body, the train of a horse-drawn hearse, the uncanny sight of wall-less houses, the initial prosaic steps towards reconstruction).

Words for Battle is the first of Jennings’ wartime films to delve back into history, to temper the immediacy of the war with the memory of past conflicts and the sense of a concomitant continuity of experience and perspective across almost four centuries. Its initial observations of the varied geography of Britain (though this is a film that is more English than British in its concerns and emphasis) are ushered in by a map from Camden’s book, an anchor for the varied images to come and the films’ stab at a coherent, holistic and storied vision of the nation. Although this highly condensed and simplified picture of British resistance and resilience lacks the complexity and implicit social protest of Jennings’ monumental and ultimately unfinished account of the “coming of the machine”, Pandæmonium (2), it nevertheless, as much as is feasible within the frame of its intricately edited (by Jennings’ key collaborator, Stewart McAllister) eight minutes, traces a broad reflective history of British experience from the Elizabethan era onwards (Jennings’ book starts almost exactly a century later, and covers the 200 years of the Industrial Revolution). Both Words for Battle and Pandæmonium utilise the principle and practice of collage to build up their varied portraits of Britain during specific moments of social and national unrest and uncertainty. Pandæmonium presents an extraordinary array of testimonies and excerpts from existing, though sometimes moldering sources to build up an ambivalent and often highly critical portrait of the “coming of the machine” and the incessant path it beats towards modernity. In contrast, although Words for Battle does draw together material from seven different writers and speakers, including Kipling, Milton, Browning and the single ring-in from elsewhere, Abraham Lincoln, and assembles a stunning array of moving and fixed-frame images ranging from file footage, repurposed German propaganda material and other films made for the Crown Film Unit to the exquisitely framed, lit, almost pensive compositions that became Jennings’ trademark, it uses these disparate sources to forge a vivid feeling of continuity, national pride and the interconnectedness of things. Whereas Pandæmonium attempts to give a vivid, immediate sense of the shock of change wrought by modernity through its montage of passages from various written sources, Words for Battle deliberately blurs the boundaries between one set of materials and another. Although the transition between each snippet of voiceover, all exquisitely intoned by Laurence Olivier, is clearly marked by a transitional image of a statue, the pages of a book, a grave or a place-marker, these words are more remarkable for their continuity of feeling and even language than the disparity of the source material being evoked. Unfortunately Jennings’ original desire to include an excerpt from Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, an impassioned, outraged and immediate “report” on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, did not translate into the final version of the film. The inclusion of a passage from Shelley’s poem may have forged a closer link between these two works, and provided a more complex and even ambiguous portrait of Britain’s heritage in the heat of war.

Words for Battle

Words for Battle is also a companion piece to what is now regarded as Jennings’ most celebrated and arguably greatest work, Listen to Britain (1942). Both films attempt to provide a portrait of the varied practices and tastes of the British people while emphasising the interrelatedness of the various strands of regional and national life. But whereas Words for Battle largely draws upon canonised works of British culture by Browning, Kipling, Milton, Blake and Handel, Listen to Britain deliberately contrasts and joins together a performance of “Underneath the Arches” by Flanagan and Allen with a piano recital by Myra Hess.

Also, as Keith Beattie has argued, Words for Battle largely relies upon the dialectical movement between the city and the country, as well as the act of “looking up” and “looking down”, as key motifs to help structure the work (3). But the distinctions drawn between the city and country are not as simple as they may at first appear, and both realms combine to help stitch together a patchwork of the nation. This dialectic is also a key idea that informs the driving logic of Jennings’ Pandæmonium. Words for Battle also includes a number of images of figures looking up, as well as airborne footage that provides a counterweight to the depersonalised perspective of aerial bombardment. Beattie argues that Jennings pointedly uses this perspective to contrast with similar images of Hitler “looking down” in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935). The image of figures “looking up” was a dominant motif of wartime propaganda, signifying both a necessary vigilance and a countenance that looked towards postwar reconstruction.

Although Words for Battle has been increasingly lauded as a core constituent of the group of great wartime documentaries made by Jennings at the Crown Film Unit between 1941 and 1945, the best of which explore the dynamic relationships between sound and image, the shared space between more personal viewpoints and nationalistic visions, the varied cultural heritage of Britain (including the pointed observations on the suppression of the Welsh language found in 1943’s The Silent Village), it is not without its detractors. Raymond Durgnat railed against what he saw as the middle-class and middlebrow concerns and preoccupations of much of the British cinema of the 1940s, and what he called “the stock-in-trade of Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe” (4). Jennings was not spared from Durgnat’s spirited attack, and the “schoolroom rhetoric” (5) of Words for Battle was signaled out for withering criticism: “It flourishes patriotic verse from Shakespeare [who isn’t actually included], Browning, Kipling, and, of course, Blake’s Jerusalem, wrenched out of its true meaning into a vapidly patriotic one” (6). Although I can see some truth in Durgnat’s overly snide reading of Jennings’ brief film, it gives little sense of the idiosyncratic nature of its composition, its numerous startling or surprising images, or the ways it combines vision and sound. David Thomson has more correctly argued for the disruptive, surrealist vision of Jennings’ best work, its ability to “dislodge us from fixed systems and responses” (7).

Words for Battle is obviously a more conventional and contained work than Listen to Britain, The Silent Village and A Diary for Timothy (1945), but it does feature numerous surprising moments and images. A number of these are quite subtle in their tone and implications, such as the glistening, fragile, marginally slowed-down image of a sailor looking across the stern of a boat, but others make us aware of a shift of perspective, a variation in form. Lindsay Anderson has rightly singled out the final section of the film as a more urgent and direct call to arms (8). Such a shift is initially “registered” by the seamless transition between the speeches of Churchill and Lincoln, a movement away from the “strict” chronology and genealogy of the previous excerpts. This use of Lincoln, and the appeal to democracy, equality and unity implied by the Gettysburg Address, suggests a call to action, a marshaling of the “British nations” and the “new world” to defeat the forces of fascism. This reading is reinforced by the inclusion of footage of ANZAC troops and the appeal on the soundtrack to the Empire as the upholder of British values if England should itself “fall”. The “equal” heritage of colonisation and subjugation is, of course, nowhere to be found in this film, though it was certainly not beyond Jennings’ sensibility.

But the most remarkable shift in Words for Battle occurs elsewhere on the soundtrack, as we see and finally hear the overwhelming rumble of armoured vehicles as they make their way along the streets of London. This startling continuity of sound and image, ushered in by the rising noise of traffic and the chime of Big Ben, both unsettles the previous contrapuntal relationship between the two realms and reinforces the interrelatedness of all these elements. The images of bombed-out cities, the bucolic countryside, soldiers marching, ANZAC troops assembling, funeral hearses, children playing and gathering wood in the countryside, planes ascending into the air, and the sounds of famous writers, politicians, leaders, tanks and German-born English composer Handel’s Water Music are capped by the remarkable and candidly observational final images of groups of service men and women walking purposively through the streets of the unbowed city “with an astonishing and breathtaking dignity, a mortal splendor” (9).


  1. Kevin Jackson, Humphrey Jennings, Picador, London, 2004, p. 244.
  2. Humphrey Jennings, Pandæmonium: 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, ed. Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge, Papermac, London, 1995.
  3. Keith Beattie, Humphrey Jennings, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2010, pp. 57-61.
  4. Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies From Austerity to Affluence, Faber and Faber, London, 1970, p. 15.
  5. Durgnat, p. 122.
  6. Durgnat, p. 15.
  7. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 440.
  8. Lindsay Anderson, “Only Connect: Some Aspects of the Work of Humphrey Jennings”, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, ed. Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p. 156.
  9. Anderson, pp. 156-7.

Words for Battle (1941 Britain 8 mins)

Prod Co: Crown Film Unit Prod: Ian Dalrymple Dir, Scr: Humphrey Jennings Ed: Stewart McAllister Sound: Ken Cameron Voiceover: Laurence Olivier

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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