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London blitz

Just weeks after German bombers began their nightly raids on London in September 1940, Warner Brothers released to American theaters a quietly powerful 10-minute documentary, London Can Take It! Narrated by Quentin Reynolds, an American war correspondent for Collier’s Weekly, the film focuses on ordinary Londoners’ everyday stoicism under fire.

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London blitz

Over Reynolds’s low-key, unemotional voice appear images of men, women, and children going about their daily lives, walking to work past mountains of debris, nonchalantly sweeping the glass out of broken shop windows, manning fire hoses and air-raid posts at night amid the flash of antiaircraft fire and the thunder of falling bombs. “These are not Hollywood sound effects,” Reynolds drawls in a hushed monotone. “This is the music they play every night in London. The symphony of war.”

Toward the end of the film, the king and queen—pointedly unremarked on in the narration—are seen visiting bombed-out neighborhoods. Families calmly salvage their possessions from destroyed homes, double-decker buses thread their way through rubble-piled streets, and civil defense workers pull a live cat from a heap of wreckage. “I am a neutral reporter,” Reynolds says. “I have watched the people of London live and die ever since death in its most ghastly garb began to come here as a nightly visitor five weeks ago.… I can assure you there is no panic, no fear, no despair…among the people of Churchill’s island…. London can take it.” The closing image is of the statue of Richard the Lionheart, on horseback, sword raised, before the bomb-pocked façade of the Houses of Parliament.

Within a couple of months the film had been shown in 12,000 theaters to an audience estimated at 60 million. “All America imagined that this was an unbiased, personal report made by one of their own people,” one of the film’s directors, Harry Watt, later recalled. In fact Watt and his codirector, Humphrey Jennings, were employees of the Crown Film Unit of the British Ministry of Information (MOI), whose job was to deliver propaganda in aid of the war effort. Nowhere on the American release of London Can Take It! is there any mention of the film’s producers; Reynolds’s is the only name that appears on the opening credits. But in reality, his role was limited to providing an American accent to go with newsreel footage assembled by the film’s real authors, and his voice-over was recorded in the bar of London’s posh Savoy Hotel—from which Reynolds rarely ventured forth during the day, and from whose basement air-raid shelter he never ventured forth at night.

London Can Take It! was not only brilliantly effective propaganda at a time when American aid to Britain was vitally needed and American isolationism was still running strong: it made money to boot.

Watch the two propaganda films below.

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