They Came To A City (1944) (Blu-ray film review).

April 23, 2018 | By | Reply More

Based off a JB Priestly play, ‘They Came To A City’, they used the same cast in the film version. Technically, this film is borderline SF in terms of eight people are taken from their reality and dropped into a cloudy or foggy open-air tower where they don’t know what is going on. With modern day perspective, the premise looked a tad SF and took my interest enough to look at it, especially as it comes from the hand of a writer of JB Priestley’s calibre, hardly known for SF after all.

The format of the story could be reset for today as the introductions cover class, age, career and aspirations. The old lady, Mrs. Batley (actress Ada Reeve) is convinced that they aren’t dead, the others don’t know what to make of things other than the odd petty squabble. Once you’ve settled into the format elements, a city is seen from the tower but inaccessible. A door at the top of the tower seems impenetrable and is almost like a monolith moment. When the door finally opens, the all slowly trickle through although it is the old lady who takes the lead.

It was probably budget that presents us seeing the city itself and only about what they found when they return to the tower. From some of their descriptions, it appears to be a utopian city. Some were told how to go home, conscious that the door will shut when the sun goes down.

You can see the acting and direction by Basil Dearden is mostly straight on to the cast, especially in the tower, who take their positions from the play than making significant changes for film. Considering the time period, even Ealing Studios had to crank them out to fill the cinema halls.

When you consider the devastation of many British cities during the war, I suspect the film was done to show that things would improve and that the world after the war would be what we would make of it. Priestly, who has a part in the film as the narrator, endows the film with optimism and that utopia is of our own creation than dreams in the sky.

Treat this film as a period SF drama piece on low budget. I doubt if there was a term for Science Fiction at the time but there are elements of it within the presentation. If it had been given one of those early ‘Star Trek’ whispery music tones, it would have been darn right spookier which shows how music can heighten suspense. It might be tame by current standards but is definitely an unusual find.

As usual, the BFI includes a stream of other films to both fill the disk and make them available. There is also an accompanying booklet about them.

Contrary to the booklet, the Sir Michael Balcon NFI Lecture is pitched with main film behind it so gives a 77 minute film backdrop with a 59 minute film interview. At least you don’t have a static screen although nothing is said about the film so don’t pay to much attention to it. This was recorded in 1969 as Balcon explains how he got into the film industry as a producer how you get an American star the film, you’d get American distribution and money, but not necessarily a successful picture. Pay attention because he also discovered Alfred Hitchcock amongst other things. Have a look at Balcon’s films and if you’re a film buff, then you will certainly have seen a lot of his productions.

Balcon started in the silent movies and then into the talkies, although they were caught with their pants down as it took over in the UK. Balcon certainly knew the business so don’t expect a dry interview as he notes the films from memory. There are guest interviews with actress Jessie Matthews, director Alexander ‘Sandy’ Mackendrick and scriptwriter TEB Clarke. Oh and again, it helps if you know British films. There are the occasional sound drop-offs but this is more to remove inaudible gaps. A lot of Balcon’s important films, including the comedies, came from the Ealing Studios and gave a lot of new people their first breaks. I didn’t know the film, ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955) was a plot that was literally dreamed up by William Rose. Balcon’s final observation that the British film industry had to rely on American money to support it has never changed since his involvement is still true today. A recommended listen.

‘’We Live In Two Worlds’ (1937) runs at 14 minute is a talk by JB Priestly who distinguishes between the politically boundary world and the new communications world. Hardly surprising, the upcoming Nazi build-up compared to the farming life in Austria as telephone poles are placed and roads and flights across and no frontiers across Europe. Priestly’s point is the world is changing drastically. I doubt if anyone at that time realised what was going to come next.

‘Britan At Bay (1941) is a 7 minute Ministry Of Information film by JB Priestly looks at footage of the Nazi conquest of Europe and Great Britain preparing for war. Priestly’s gravitas lends strength to this short film.

‘A City Reborn’ (1945) is somewhat longer Ministry Of Information film at 22 minutes starring Bill Owen and a look at Coventry getting back to normal and rebuilding with prefabricated houses after the war. In fact, that is the emphasis of it covering the fears of such houses rather than doing a PR job of how good they could be which wouldn’t have sold so well to us stubborn British. This was also written by Dylan Thomas which was a surprise considering he was better known as a poet.

‘Charley In New Town’ (1948) at nearly 9 minutes is the first of Halas & Bachelor cartoons for the Central Office Of Information in full colour. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film but it shows how towns have developed and the green belts where nothing was supposed to be built and the event of new towns. With a touch of humour, H&B ensured people took in what was shown about town development. I always thought it a shame these kinds of films faded away because they do help explain to the popular government decisions.

‘Your Very Good Health’ (1948) is another Halas & Bachelor colour cartoon running at 9 minutes using their Charley character as an everyman. This time they are focusing on the new National Health Service and how it would benefit everyone. The old fee panel system was more like an insurance based care system, sort of how health care is give to pets today, but only half the population could afford. The NHS would change that.

As much as I like the other material, the real find here is the Halas & Bachelor cartoons as the Central Office Of Information ones haven’t always been available. Collectively, this is an important slice of the past of British history which, if you have an interest in how World War Two changed things on the home front is a marvellous learning curve.

GF Willmetts

April 2018

(region B blu-ray: British Film Institute. 1 blu-ray 78 minute film with extras. ASIN: BFIB1310. Price: £19.99 (UK))

cast: John Clemens, Googie Withers, Raymond Huntley, Renee Gadd, AE Matthews, Norman Shelby, Mabel Terry Lewis, Francis Rowe, JB Priestly, Ralph Michael and Brenda Bruce1

check out websites: http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk and http://shop.bfi.org.uk/catalogsearch/result/?cat=0&q=they+came+to+a+city

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Category: Films, Scifi

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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