Fires Were Started, a piece of WWII British propaganda that put an appreciative light on what its firefighters and switchboard operators endured in the bombings, reminded me of another piece of British propaganda from the 1920s, the insufferable Great White Silence, which was only 90 minutes long but took me almost a week to get through on account of it was so fucking boring. That movie isn’t half as interesting or focused or enjoyable as this one, but it chronicles, with its story of the first arctic expedition, a similar story of simple human valor. It’s about a group of men who, in the interest of their country, risk their lives and sport, without austerity or pretension, more courage than any cowboy or cop hero of the ‘30s and ‘40s. These arctic explorers had te simple but transcendent attribute of caring about something more than they cared about their own safety and there’s something inherently beautiful or at least gripping about that kind of person (Great White Silence is boring as hell but the third act, where we really see the extent of that courage, is riveting). In this case, we’re seeing a dramatized portrait of what English firefighters were dealing with in 1940 and ’41, while being bombed by the Nazis, and the dressings and settings are all different from what we saw in Great White Silence, the filmmaking is more versatile and engaging, the valor’s just the same. The Brits have balls.
Gender-neutral balls. The presence of women – fearless, tireless, and monastically-focused switchboard operators – distinguishes Fires Were Started from its quiet white predecessor. And, for all of our boys’ heroism fighting the tenement fire that swells into a murderous inferno, it’s the women who prove the most dogged, precise, efficient workers. Hardly flashing at the rattle of nearby bombings, springing quickly to their feet and getting back to work when a bomb does finally take down a wall and knock them bleeding from their seats, there’s something almost comedic about their dedication. It’s the stirring kind of emotional chuckle you let out when the hero shows their winning smirk or drops a clever line in a moment of crisis, reminding you how much you like them.
It’s an interesting piece of propaganda in that its cast is comprised, ostensibly, of actual firefighters and operators. In 2011, when Acts of Valor was released starring actual Navy Seals replicating actual maneuvers and operations from the field, I thought it was the first of its kind, and was kinda cynical about the idea of a recruitment video being disguised as a thriller, but movies from these war years are proving a good lesson in the longstanding savviness of propaganda, of the state’s capacity for seduction. Fires Were Started, however, has less in common with movies like Acts of Valor, or the Hollywood slate of fiction pieces like Sergeant York and Mortal Storm and Yankee Doodle Dandee, and more in common with Great White Silence in that it feels more like a tribute, a tip of the hat, than a recruitment tool. I’m sure it’s meant to function as both, of course, but still. Watching this, taking a moment to appreciate what these guys achieved, gave me the same warm feeling I got recently when my roommate showed me a documentary called Batman and Bill, which draws attention to how Bob Kane stole the limelight from Batman’s co-creator, Bill Finger, who invented Batman’s most interesting characteristics, his most interesting villains, but up until 2016’s Batman v. Superman never got any screen credit.
Fires takes place over the course of 24 hours and begins with our boys horsing around at the station, having beers and shooting pool and playing piano, until the bombs start dropping at sundown. They react with the coolheadedness, the borderline-nonchalance, that our heroes only pretend to embody in Mrs. Miniver, a terrific dramatization of those bombings (with a charming little minimalistic side-story about a civilian’s involvement in Operation Dynamo). The firefighters are summoned to a rooftop blaze on Trinidad Street while bombs continue to drop. The fire spreads and spreads. They use public phones for swift and efficient contact with the switchboard operators, who send more men and resources so that they can battle the fire ‘til dawn. Flames eat down through the building, collapsing ceilings and winnowing down the staircase. One guy gives his life to rescue a friend. Thousands of gallons of water are dispensed, there’s houting and near-panic, chaos. Lots of chaos.
Finally, come dawn, they’ve got the fire under control. A food truck shows up and the exhausted, sweaty, soot-covered dues go for their tea. They stand around cracking jokes. Another day on the job.
Toward the end, upon returning to their station, we hear in the distance a siren alerting us to incoming bombs. More fires. Another seven- or eight-hour struggle.
And to the citizens just waking up, turning on their radios, this heroic all-night battle is relegated to a one-sentence news item.
“Fires were started, but kept from spreading.”
And so it seems that the movie’s goal is to illustrate the hardship and heroism behind those fleeting little news reports – and also to realize the fact that this shit was day and night. It’s staggering, that teams of men did this for a living at such a volatile time in history, when so much was asked of them.
It’s a loving tribute, a little campy and maybe tongue-in-cheek at times, but it’s celebrating legit heroes, and giving us a window into a strangely awful period of history, from which we aren’t even a century removed, where people were called upon to endure an ungodly amount of strain and horror and sacrifice. And, like Mrs. Miniver, it portrays that calling as a cause worth answering, worth serving.
And yet, I’m getting mixed feelings about modern versions of this sort of thing. The ones that star Mark Whalberg. There’s a few of these dramatizations of real-life catastrophes, who knows how embellished they are, starring A-list casts and ennobling the valor of those who belong to these rough in-the-field professions. Soldier, cop, firefighter. They’re noble callings indeed, if the right person is summoned into their ranks, but to disguise that hagiographic recruitment as entertainment is…sketchy.
But probably one of the most absurd heights of nostalgia is to look back and say propaganda was much more honest back in the day. So what the fuck. Lemme just say that I liked it and move on.