Men of the Lightship '61
wartime propaganda movie

Alfred Hitchcock holding a dead duck.


After the WW2 started, British Ministry of Information began absorbing various film production companies to tackle the propaganda angle of wartime activities. One of those was GPO Unit, soon renamed to Crown Film Unit.

MoI was regularly on the lookout for war stories which could be converted to propaganda movies. Crown Film Unit were particularly skilled with those, which earned the company many fans. Their specialty were the so-called "story documentaries" - short propaganda films which, instead of professional actors, hired people who actually did the same things that their characters do in the pictures.

It was an interesting angle. On one hand, it helped the audience feel more connected to events by directly getting to know the people in profession and feel that the work they're seeing is that much more 'real'. On the other hand, these people usually gave disastrous performances which degraded the experience for others.

One of the stories which drew Ministry's attention was that of East Dudgeon lightship (Lightship '61), a half-stationary lighthouse on water easing navigation for friends and foes alike, and its crew.

Crown Film Unit began making it with classical approach, that is real actors, but apparently producer Alberto Cavalcanti was so unsatisfied with the result that he asked the director to get real "officers and men of the royal navy and the trinity house lightship service", as the movie quickly teaches us.

It is a common rule that during war, lightships are to be spared, even if they are packed with members of arch-enemy. Similarly to medics, leaving them be is beneficial to both sides, so there is no point in wasting resources.

However, on 29 January 1940, the crew of Lightship '61, was attacked by two Heinkel Luftwaffe aircrafts, which resulted in their ship sinking and most of the unfortunate men dying.

Ministry of Information was on the lookout for barbaric German activity which they could depict in a propaganda picture to dehumanize the enemy and convince more people to join the fight against them. This event, which became popular in the media for a short while, was a postcard example, and so the ministry decided to run with it. Soon, Crown Film Unit had their hands full.

Media baron Sidney Bernstein was strongly involved in producing propaganda movies during World War 2, and this was one of his earlier projects. It scored well with the audience, who enjoyed real servicemen and were moved by the event.

Cold shower came when some time later the ministry tried to push it abroad. When they came in contact with RKO and Fox (two of the big five Golden Era Hollywood studios), their proposition was quickly rejected. Both studios held an opinion that the picture has zero appeal material for the average American.

Bernstein decided not to give up, opened his phonebook and called his friend and occasional co-worker Alfred Hitchcock, who was now living in the U.S.A. and enjoying a great start to his long and prosperous career across the Atlantic ocean. Hitch agreed.

For the film to be acceptable, hiring few men who would re-edit and re-dub it. Alfred supervised the whole thing and paid for everything from his own pocket. The final cost of the operation try-to-make-it-less-crappy was $4,428.

Just as Bernstein reached out to Hitchcock, now Hitchcock was sitting with phone book in his hands and scanning for potential contributors.

One person he came in contact with was Robert E. Sherwood, with whom he had frequently worked in hugely successful Rebecca (and who was even co-nominated for Oscar for that film). Sherwood did the rewrites.

Another recent accomplice contacted by Hitchcock was Robert Montgomery. Mostly known for his Robert Montgomery Presents series, he had played Mr. Smith in Hitch's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Montgomery took care of narration.

A lesser known name on the list was Hugh Gray, Alfred Hitchcock's first friend (and even by some accounts the only true friend he ever had). For a patriot and colleague, it probably was an easy decision. Gray took care of the script.

Three famous names did it for Fox, which accepted the re-worked version under slightly changed title (Men of the Lightship became Men of the Lightship '61), and so the American screens were now open for the picture. Given the quality of the improved version, it's a miracle that it happened.

Dialogues are stiff and the relaxed daily chatters that we hear in early minutes of the picture look extremely stiff. Not that they are poorly-written, but the actors completely obliterate them with the way they go on about their business in front of camera.

The idea of hiring the military backfires here. It does inject some authenticity, giving idea about their daily life routines, but it's all ruined because they all act as if some brutal dictator had just decided to come and see how ordinary servicemen in his army live day to day, and are trying to act normal while at the same time wondering if their heads are going to roll soon because they offend him somehow with their existences.

Everyone was stiff, stressed, feeling awkward while filming, and camera captured it all.

Local accents and jargon are plenty here, which is supposed to give extra credibility (after all, those are ordinary humans from various parts of Great Britain). But again, the acting makes it awkward at best.

Two low voices bring a comedic accent - clearly high-pitched voice owners were following orders to bring lower sound spectrum into the mix and forced what sounds like cartoon characters straight from old Disney animations.

For about half of the movie, its atmosphere is calm. Everything is as daily and ordinary as it could possibly be. Except that these people were in the middle of the biggest war in history. When the air gets thick, there are still some goofy moments.

Unintentional comedy comes when bombs start going down and close up to them being dropped off the Heinkels reveals that they sound like little birds tweeting. A true sound of terror.

In the meantime, pilots of the two aggressor airplanes seem to be competing in the category "worst aim in history". Endless machine-gunning of the ship results in just one wounded man, and when pilots decide that enough is enough and reach for the bombs, they fail to connect with the first eight and only hit the ship with the ninth.

What's more, they manage to hit it poorly enough that it takes a lot of time before the boat finally goes underwater, giving the crew enough time to evacuate. When the unfortunate men do and they can be finished with one machine-gun round, one aircraft drops three time to finish them off and manages to miss every single bullet!

What's interesting, the story was made to stick to how it really went as much as possible, so it describes in decent detail the dramatic incompetence of German pilots that struggle to take down a single big isolated target that doesn't shoot back, cost their army money only to still let all the men go.

Their effort was only successful because huge waves appeared when soldiers were near shore, which turned their escape boat upside down. They were too exhausted to battle it out and drowned.

With a bit of luck, during that 17-hour paddling for their lives, they could have had encountered one of allied ships, which would save all the crew as well. Here, they were unlucky as well.

To sum up the enemy, he is more pathetic and amateur than he is scary. What kind of propaganda message is it to say that your enemy is incompetent and laughable?

Film conclusion is disappointing. We are led to believe that nobody died so bravely as the people in question. Really? First, they were having a peaceful time, then they were attacked and did whatever they could not to die, which is what everyone would do.

Entire time, they were on the defense. Nothing they did was brave, and even if they would want to, they had no other option and had to rely on Germans leaving them alone.

With such an emotional subject, not everybody in the cinema was of course thinking logically and judging the performance of German pilots. Without that realization, what were these people left with?

The death of the entire crew is supposed to have some deep symbolic meaning, but in this case it shows the senseless brutality of war without raising the need to contribute to its end. For those people, the story is a downer.

Because it is a propaganda film, it needs to be judged by how it fulfills its mission first and foremost. It is stunning to see a government decision being made (to make the movie), plan being put to motion, cast and crew hired, and everything finished without first calibrating sensors, sitting down with pen and paper, working out the message and finding a good way to convey it.

If such process has really been applied at the beginning, its author must have been drunk, fresh off some traumatic experience, or just plain pressed for time, because the results are terrifyingly bad.

Hitchcock's French propaganda movies Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache have decent entertainment values which compensate for the terrible propaganda angle. Here, absolutely nothing does. Hitch didn't do much here, but his name is attached to the project, and he managed to take Montgomery and Sherwood down with him, even though for this calibre of work only amateurs should be considered.

Applying commercial judgement to this kind of film may not be right, but when facing such a fiasco all over the place, it needs to be rejected when you are a man like Alfred Hitchcock. After all, time is precious, and he could have used it to work on something that actually has a chance of raising morale and mobilising common folk to sign up for duty.

No wonder Fox wasn't interested in this picture at first, and big surprise that they were after Alfred's treatment. Ruthless tirade of a review, but you cannot possibly sink lower than Lightship '61 does on screen.