The Bootleg Files: Know Your Ally – Britain

BOOTLEG FILES 740: “Know Your Ally – Britain” (1944 U.S. War Department documentary).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The absence of a copyright allows anyone to make dupes.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It’s been on DVDs featuring wartime documentaries.

In 1944, the U.S. War Department (the forerunner of today’s Department of Defense) produced “Know Your Ally – Britain,” a 45-minute documentary to be shown to American servicemembers. From today’s perspective, it might seem peculiar that this type of a film would be made relatively late in the war.

However, there were remarkable tensions between the armed forces of the two nations, especially in regard to the presence of American servicemembers stationed in Britain. Many Britons found the Americans to be boorish guests – comic Tommy Trinder facetious complained they were “oversexed, overpaid and over here” – while many Americans soldiers found the British cold and were confused by their culture. In order to alleviate the ill-will between the allies, this film was designed to indoctrinate the Americans into why the British were so different despite sharing the same language.

But the resulting “Know Your Ally – Britain” comes across as a puerile exercise. While it might have been made with the best of intentions, it turned out to be among the most awkward of the War Department’s films.

The film opens with stock footage of a U.S. football team making a touchdown during a big game amid cheers from the spectators in the stadium. The narration by an uncredited Walter Huston reminds the viewer that team won because of their ability to work together, adding: “We’re playing another kind of a game now, only this one isn’t for fun. It’s for keeps.”

The film insists on personifying the British people as “John Britain” and defining the country as a densely-populated “sardine can” where privacy is a rare commodity and crime rates are low. After an extremely brief summary of the roll-up to World War II and its first two years, the viewer learns “John Britain” is alone in fighting the Nazis in Western Europe but was able to withstand the devastation of the Blitzkrieg.

“Know Your Ally – Britain” then tries to explain aspects of British culture that most Americans were unable to comprehend: the stately nature of a cricket match, the seemingly incomprehensible colloquialisms on British radio comedy, the motor protocol of driving on the left, and the ornate pomp and circumstances of government ceremonies. There is also a brief acknowledgment of the nation’s decision to retain its royalty – a strange point, it seems, considering the Americans fought the get rid of royal rule in the 18th century.

Yet the film has a cockamamie explanation for the perceived eccentricities of British culture. “Britain is like your Grandma’s house,” Huston’s narration insists. “She’s been around a long time and keeps a lot of old things she doesn’t wish to part with.” Huh?

“Know Your Ally – Britain” tiptoes gingerly around the far-flung British empire and the populations under colonial rule. The film uses quotes from South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts speaking about the possibility of independence for India but stops short of guaranteeing the end of colonial rule. The film also insists that the pre-war Lend Lease policies to keep the U.K. powered before the U.S. entry into the conflict was an economically sound investment on this side of the Atlantic.

Throughout the production, an American actor in a Nazi uniform offers an English-language broadcast (in a bogus German accent) that is supposed to symbolize Axis attempts to disrupt the UK-US alliance – the absurdity of the character is clearly designed to suggest the bonds between the country cannot be broken by dumb propaganda. The film ends with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressing the U.S. Congress to praise the combined efforts of the two nations in the fight for liberty.

“Know Your Ally – Britain” was supposed to be the first in a series of War Department films to help U.S. servicemembers appreciate their comrades and foes. However, no further “Know Your Ally” films were made, while “Know Your Enemy – Japan” was the only entry in the series’ highlighting of Axis nations.

Not unlike other wartime documentaries created by the federal government, “Know Your Ally – Britain” was released without credits. It is known that Frank Capra was the supervising producer and Robert Stevenson was the director, with Dimitri Tiomkin supervising the music score. The versatile Paul Frees filled in for many of the voices heard on the soundtrack – and his take on Jan Smuts sounded very much like Orson Welles (although there is no evidence Welles was involved in this work).

Because the War Department never registered copyrights on its wartime films, “Know Your Ally – Britain” has always been in the public domain. Copies of varying quality have turned up over the year on public domain video labels and online video sites. Students of World War II might find some curio interest in this film, but otherwise it is hardly essential viewing for most audiences.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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