January 2nd, 2013
Simon Heffer is a man in love with his subject. This personal documentary sets the standard by which future documentaries ought be made and stands head and shoulders above many lesser films of recent years.
It is a personal journey through the war films of his youth which dramatised the events of the Second World War and made stars of the actors involved reminding us of the heroism of those they portrayed.
It is no small measure of their importance that the roles were often played by men who were war heroes themselves.
The sincerity of the presenter, the quality of the documentary and the seriousness with which the subject was tackled were evident from the start and I was hooked from the opening scene in which Simon Heffer’s introduction was interleaved with clips from the films under discussion. I have listed them below in order of appearance:-
- Angels One Five (1952)
- The Cruel Sea (1953)
- The Colditz Story (1955)
- The Dambusters (1955)
- Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)
- Dunkirk (1958)
- Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
- Privates Progress (1956)
- The League of Gentleman (1960)
He doesn’t mention Reach for the Sky but I think that ought to be in there too. (Kenneth Moore). However, it is clear from an article published in the Telegraph in July 2010 that this is a long standing interest of Simon Heffer’s and he does indeed mention Reach for the Sky in the linked article there.
I have attempted to analyse the reasons that make this documentary outstanding but before I do let us look at a poor example:-
Many modern documentaries, most notably the formerly excellent Horizon from the BBC, suffer from a number of defects that a reading of history and some consideration for the audience would have avoided. The more evident of these are the following:-
- Poorly written and researched scripts
- Poorly narrated scripts, poor choice of narrator
- Frequent and distracting cutaways to gratuitous and superfluous graphics that add nothing
- Literalism – the visual illustration of every phrase by a shot of the object under discussion
- Patronising the audience and insulting their intelligence
- Astonishingly low bit rate such that the content may be gleaned by watching only the last ten minutes
Fortunately Days of Glory suffers from none of the above and illustrates all too clearly what we as the viewing audience have lost in recent years as a series of presumably young, enthusiastic and careless editors have been let loose at the BBC and elsewhere. I cannot otherwise account for the disaster that has befallen modern documentary film making.
The wonderful things about Days of Glory are as follows:-
- A presenter in love with his subject
- Quiet background music not competing with the speaker or silence. It makes a pleasant change to hear the presenter talking to camera with no distractions
- Relevant short clips of the subject under discussion
- Experts in their field and people from the period. The inclusion of Peter Hennessy is a master stroke. He adds authority and gravitas to the film
- Presenter shown in front of relevant backgrounds, or in domestic surroundings without cliched desk and lamp
- Static camera work, no tracks, curved or otherwise, only movements being the occasional slow zoom
- Balance. At 22 minutes in he shows Germany 10 years on from the war in far better shape than most of Britain at the time, he is not crowing about British wartime achievements. He mentions Suez as a British failure
- Appropriate fonts of the period for titles
The director is not known to me but between them Simon Heffer and Hans Petch have done a wonderful job. As an exercise in nostalgia for those of a certain age it succeeds brilliantly but it is more than that. It is a paradigm, a model of how to make a documentary.