Target for Tonight
1941 war documentary

Alfred Hitchcock holding a dead duck.


The British were very active in their efforts to use cinema for propaganda during World War 2. Unfortunately, most of those pictures are primarily interesting for historians, but there were few exceptions. Target for Tonight is one of them.

On paper, it seems like so many other Ministry of Information affairs, like the recently-reviewed Men of the Lightship. Whereas the latter is worth watching only if one possesses a morbid curiosity though, Target for Tonight is an entirely different beast.

The project is largely Harry Watt's child. Determined to make it happen at all costs, he both wrote the script and directed. At the beginning, it was to be a much more humble piece of entertainment, but due to being stubborn and persistent, Harry managed to negotiate twice as much money as initially planned. The movie became twice as long as well.

His determination paid off, as the picture became a huge hit and one bright star in his mostly uneventful portfolio.

Watt didn't come up with his own unique story, but rather put one from whatever information he was able to gather. Early 1940s were first years when the British military became open to the idea of using cinema to aid its propaganda efforts, after years of rejecting the notion.

Even then, the move stemmed from necessity due to their shortage of soldiers and the need to increase propaganda efforts.

In particular, Ministry of Information was looking at ways to promote their strategic and tactical bombing efforts, which didn't get enough public attention. The director got access to few military bases, where he interviewed whomever he could, sparing noone no matter the rank.

After gathering a lot of interesting information, he created the final script. At first, he was trying to fulfill the expectations of his superiors, but he got a little carried away in the process and the end result didn't get accepted without objections.

The picture focuses on the activity of RAF Bomber Command. While it focuses on the crew of the F for Freddie aircraft, its main purpose is to show behind-the-curtains work of every person involved from top to bottom.

The beginning shows the film containing German locations being developed and brought to Bomber Command headquarters, where it is analyzed for potential raid targets. In Freihausen, one forest area with railways nearby is suspected to be a hidden oil storage facility, so it is sent for further examination which confirms it as a good target for strategy bombing.

Next, schedules are set, crews assembled, briefing is organized and brave pilots get on their way to cripple enemy's energy reserves.

Just like many others Crown Film Unit's productions, this also is a story documentary. Instead of professional actors, RAF men were used, each serving on the exact position in real life as he is in this picture. It is different in that this time military orchestra provided the score to it as well.

Not only actors are 'real' here. Two military bases (RAF High Wycombe and RAF Mildenhall) were used to shoot some scenes. In the studio, a control room set was raised and Wellington IC fuselage was brought in to record the events of F for Freddie crew during the raid.

The realism and amount of details given is really impressive. We learn the procedures, who makes what kinds of decisions, what was the day-to-day like for people in bomber bases.

Frankly, it's super-impressive even from today's perspective. If we're to gather a list of most realistic recent Hollywood films, each one delving deep into some profession, even the best ones would struggle to match the amount of details that are presented here.

When you add in the fact that this is a short-format 47-minute work and that it's a propaganda movie (which means low budget and short deadlines), Target for Tonight becomes a stunning achievement.

This doesn't automatically mean that everyone will enjoy it - some will get confused quickly and struggle to follow and understand specific procedures depicted (it's nothing fancy, but things go fast), others will simply get bored by the huge amount of information they couldn't care less about. But it is undeniable that this is impressive for cinema standards.

Realism is to be taken with a grain of salt though. Spilling the beans on how exactly does Bomb Command operate on a daily basis would be a free gift for the Germans. Therefore, some of the procedures had to be altered, and even the identity of RAF Mildenhall was hidden behind the non-existent 'Millerton Aerodrome' name.

Good thing is that the picture isn't obsessed with details only. It balances things out nicely by trying to show the human side of things too, mostly through casual conversations of the lowest-ranked - the pilots. When the meeting is over, they start talking to themselves about casual things. One is pranked, as his boots are being stolen by a cheeky friend.

There is of course a dose of awkwardness due to the actors not being real actors, but it's not annoying enough to put the film at a disadvantage.

Another unique thing about Target for Tonight is that two high-ranked British military men appeared in it. It is not a big sacrifice for the military to give few privates to the Ministry of Information for a short duration, but more important figure are far more beneficial when fully focused on military matters instead of propaganda work, even if the picture ends up a success.

Not to mention that giving up personnel names to the enemy is something spies work for and not the kind of information one goes public with. Here, we have exception.

One relatively famous face that appears is that of Charles "Pick" Pickard. When the movie is near its end, there is a scene where pilots enter the briefing room. One of them, easily distinguishable from the rest because he is smoking a pipe, is Pickard.

He caught newspaper headlines three years later, because he was one of the pilots who bombed an Amiens prison in Operation Jericho. That operation was a British raid done to give French Resistance members, who were imprisoned there, a chance to escape from the Nazis running the prison.

Bomber HQ achieved their objectives, but it didn't amount to much - many prisoners died crushed by the ceilings and torn apart by bombs, and most of those who managed to escape were re-captured soon anyway. What's more, multiple aircrafts were shot down, including Pickard's Mosquito. Both he and his pilot died.

Right after it happened, the operation was made known as big success and Pickard as a war hero, but historians dissecting the operation later paint him more as a casualty of an operation that should have never taken place.

Overall, military men did a very good job as actors. While there's no hope of either giving a real standing ovation-worthy performance, most did good enough to also not come in the way of the picture, so to speak, which is the best you can hope for from an amateur cast. Which means that the job has been done well.

They are a bit stiff, of course, but it sits well with the circumstances that they're in. After all, they are in war and one small technical mistake on their part may cost human lives. They need to be tense and focused.

Some flaws in their performances are in the bombing sequence which calls for more urgency and stress on their part, but they act as casual as if they were still at the base.

As for other flaws, few sequences are cheaply made and put together, camerawork could use some improvements too. Occasional sound choices are questionable, the best example being the German artillery fire - it sounds extremely weird and unnatural at times.

After watching the film, one might be impressed by these military units, but unfortunately the truth was singing to a different tune. To complement the daily bombings of Germans, the British came out with the idea of night raids, like the one depicted in Target for Tonight, so their enemies are under pressure 24/7.

There had not been any night raids before for a reason though - visibility is obviously poor then, which made it very hard to identify targets, manoeuver and drop bombs where it mattered.

Many argue that RAF bombing operations was money flushed down the toilet and not much more. Occasional successes were achieved, but most missions ended with near-hits at best.

This information can be like dirt in the eye when you take into consideration how organized and coordinated every person seems to be in this picture. This stands in sharp contrast with the reality of things - that despite having all these procedures, the people standing behind RAF bombing bases failed to successfully implement the most obvious and basic one - getting proper feedback after missions to analyze their performances and improve on them.

But that of course is not what a propaganda movie was supposed to be about, even if by design it poses as a documentary.

Compared to Men of the Lightship, there are no cringy attempts at comedy here. Another big difference is in the number of people involved. In Men, there was only a small lightship crew and the effort was in filming a ship on water and Heinkel aircrafts. Here a lot of people bustle about.

This eased things for them - after all, they were in service and had their duties. The responsibility was shared, because the picture is filled with men who appear for brief moments and we never see them again, or see them later in similarly brief appearances.

The final analogy, and one Alfred Hitchcock fans will be most eager to hear (after all, this review is written in relation to him), the director performed similar services to the ones he did with Men of the Lightship, that is, he was asked to re-edit it to prepare it for American market.

In that regard, it forms one of two wartime movie duos in his repertoire, the other one being Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache - two pictures made to shed positive light on the efforts of French Resistance. The latter duo is of course much more Hitchcockian than the former, where his involvement was marginal.

What was the precise extent of his involvement, though? Unfortunately, nobody can answer this question. There is very little information about the process of preparing the movie for American market and the fact is only mentioned in his one biography (Patrick Mcgilligan's A Life in Darkness and Light).

We know that he didn't cut off anything (length is the same) and that he did things relatively quickly - just two months after the British premiere, New Yorkers had the first chance to see it. The only thing known for sure is that some, or all voices have been redubbed. I have only been able to watch the original version, so can't compare between the two.

The film's British premiere was wonderful. Quickly, it reached the cult status. Many such films were shot before it, but thanks to big engagement of the military, great script and professional implementation, it touched the hearts of both critics and the general audience.

It made a lot of money too, which was extremely rare for war documentaries at the time. Back then, they were seen as investments which have to benefit people behind them in other, non-commercial ways only. It became the most successful British war documentary to date, and perhaps more than that.

American government surely must have been looking with jealousy at what their allies had produced, as they themselves were struggling with bringing this tricky genre to fruition. British cinema almost always struggled with inferiority complex, as American pictures were much better, but this was one of those times when they got an advantage.

Did it deserve all that fuss? After all, the earlier-mentioned Men of the Lightship was also very praised by the British, while in reality was an encyclopedia of flaws.

Academy Awards voters surely thought so, as in 1942 it received an Honorary Oscar for its vivid and dramatic presentation of the heroism of the RAF in the documentary film (certificate). and won in the 'Best Documentary' category in the New York's National Board of Review in 1941.

Cinemagoers certainly did as well. In a foreign American market alone, the picture was being screened in 12,000 cinemas and 50 million Americans bought tickets to see it.

It impresses with technical details, the way administrative sequences have been shot, soldiers acting decently, and making propaganda work side-by-side with entertainment.

People expecting great acting will still be disappointed and false portrayal of Bomber Commands as an effective, well-oiled machine might annoy people well-versed in WW2 history, but neither proper acting nor historical accuracy are the prime responsibilities of a propaganda picture.

And as one, Target for Tonight did exceptionally well.