Director: Humphrey Jennings
Jennings' first dramatised feature concerns the events of one afternoon and night during the blitz of London in 1943. It concentrates on a small team of the Auxiliary Fire Service and makes no claim that they are 'typical of the AFS or that this is a typical night (since one man loses his life, it must be an unusual night), yet the impulse to see them as so is irresistible.
The cast members were experienced fire fighters not actors but lennings was able to elicit from them a sense of the commonplace equally free from pretension and self-consciousness that few other filmmakers have been able to emulate
He and his editor Stewart McAllister have crafted a subtly modulated narrative tempo. From the relaxed rhythm of the afternoon to the tension of the evening the urgency of the call to action to the dogged task of fire fighting, the letdown of the morning after, when weariness is stronger than grief, to the consummately upbeat finale as the merchant ship, saved from the fire, begins its voyage to the sea.
It may say more about us than it does about Humphrey Jennings that Fires Were Started is rarely discussed unless the topic is 'documentary'. Perhaps because his producer was responsible to no fewer than four government agencies for the proiect, or because the actors improvised their dialogue, or because the 'neo-reaiism' tag was subsequently bestowed upon a transitory stage of Italian cinema which was patently more fictional. Whichever and how many of these factors may apply Jennings's achievement resists classification while it continues to inspire. It created a fashion and yet has remained impervious to fashion.