Creative Tensions: Desert Victory, the Army Film Unit and Anglo-American Rivalry, 1943–5

  • Anthony Aldgate

Abstract

Desert Victory was a considerable commercial and critical success. It was afforded a prestigious première at the Odeon, Leicester Square, on 5 March 1943, was put into three showcase venues for its West End run and was given a general release throughout Britain ten days later. It was first screened in New York on 31 March at the Twentieth Century Fox Building and by the end of April some 400 copies were in circulation across America. The film proved to be far and away the biggest box-office winner of all the ‘official’ British documentaries produced and released during the war, accruing receipts of £77 250 up to May 1944 alone as against total production costs of £5793.1 And it received massive acclaim from the critics in both Britain and the United States, culminating in the award of an ‘Oscar’ from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for ‘the most distinctive documentary achievement of 1943’.2 Moreover Desert Victory has withstood the test of time well. It is celebrated in most standard histories of the British cinema and is frequently included in retrospective seasons of British films on television and in cinemas. The Services Kinema Corporation holds it in sufficient esteem to retain it, still, in its Catalogue of Documentary and General Purpose Films.3

Keywords

Europe Assure Expense Crest Egypt 

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Notes and References

  1. 4.
    Annette Kuhn, ‘Desert Victory and the People’s War’, in Screen, 22 (1981) 2, p. 68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 5.
    See, for example, Ernest Betts, The Film Business (London, 1973) p. 187;Google Scholar
  3. Peter Rollins, ‘Document and drama in Desert Victory’, in Film and History, 4 (1974) 2, pp. 11–14;Google Scholar
  4. Elizabeth Sussex, The Rise and fall of British documentary (Berkeley, 1975) pp. 147, 160 & 174;Google Scholar
  5. Roger Manvell, Films and the Second World War (London, 1974), pp. 152–5;Google Scholar
  6. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A history of the non-fiction film (New York, 1976) pp. 147–8;Google Scholar
  7. Ian Grant, Cameramen at war (Cambridge, 1980) pp. 17–18. More recently, Desert Victory was included in a Leslie Halliwell season of world war two films shown on Channel 4 in Britain, entitled ‘The British at War’, and broadcast on 15 November 1984.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    James Lansdale Hodson, Home Front (London, 1944) p. 305. This is a published record of Hodson’s diary between 1942 and 1943. His subsequent volumes — The Sea and the Sand, And Yet I Like America (both London, 1945) — offer many lucid insights on the problems also experienced over Tunisian Victory, for which he was employed once again as writer, and upon his visit to America, where he was entertained by Frank Capra.Google Scholar
  9. 38.
    David Culbert puts part of the problem down to the ‘diehard opposition’ of officers and career men in the US army and concludes categorically that ‘as a general proposition, for American soldiers, audiovisual instruction existed mostly on paper until the autumn of 1943. Not only were films not ready, but distribution and effective utilisation remained acute problem areas until that time.’ Culbert, ‘Why We Fight: social engineering for a democratic society at war’, in K. R. M. Short, Film and radio propaganda in world war two (London, 1983) pp. 178 & 183.Google Scholar
  10. Also, for the background to the series, see Karsten Fledelius et al. (eds), Why We Fight — An American example of wartime orientation (Copenhagen, 1974)Google Scholar
  11. and T. Cripps and D. Culbert, ‘The Negro Soldier: film propaganda in black and white’, in American Quarterly, 31 (1979) 5, 616–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 40.
    R. D. MacCann, The People’s Films (New York, 1973). Since Prelude to War had not been shown publicly in 1942, some queried whether it was genuinely eligible for an Oscar that year. It was finally decided that its exhibition to US forces constituted a public showing of sorts.Google Scholar
  13. 41.
    Frank Capra, The Name above the Title (London, 1972) pp. 349–55.Google Scholar
  14. 44.
    Quoted in MacCann, The People’s Films (op. cit.) p. 140. The remark was made on the occasion of Sherwood’s appearance before a Congressional hearing. The OWI’s objection to the ‘glamour’ image of the war perpetrated by Hollywood is explored further by Alan M. Winkler, The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–5 (New Haven, 1978) pp. 59–60.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Philip M. Taylor 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Aldgate

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