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Reflections on the Second World War: Before Hindsight

Before Hindsight is the title of a 1977 British documentary film written and directed by Jonathan Lewis and presented by, among others, James Cameron, Leslie Mitchell and Jonathan Dimbleby. The main thrust of the film was that the newsreels in British cinemas in the second half of the 1930s often concealed, from the public, the truth about what was happening in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and civil war torn Spain.

Those of my vintage and older will remember the newsreels as being an integral part of an evening’s entertainment. The programme began with a B movie (often in black and white), followed by the adverts (many of them local), then the news, trailers and, finally, the main feature. In my home town of Barri, the news was shared between the Tivoli in Holton Road and the Plaza in Cadoxton and was transported between the two by bike, often causing havoc with the schedules of the two cinemas.

The newsreels were first shown before the First World War but the rapid post Second World War of television meant that they disappeared from our cinema screens in the 1970s. For many years, I believed that what I saw on the screen was the truth. Before Hindsight tells us that this was not always the case and explains why.

Most of the newsreels were owned, either wholly or partly, by the major studios. Fox (Movietone) and Paramount were two examples. The studios were in the entertainment business, and attracted customers by giving them a good night out not by disturbing them with stories of global crisis.

In the 1930s, many newsreels portrayed events which we now know to be warning signs of  war in a sympathetic light; Mussolini initiating world peace (Movietone 1931) and, two years later, also from Movietone, Hitler re-building a peaceful Germany. Ward Price, a journalist on The Daily Mail (part owners of Movietone), was seen conducting an enthusiastic interview with Goebbels. Some disturbing footage, Hitler’s new army and Mussolini’s 20th. anniversary celebrations, German troops re-occupying the Rhineland for example, were shown without comment but accompanied by stirring music

Many newsreel cameraman put their lives at risk to obtain good footage from trouble spots around the world like Ethiopia being invaded by Italy and the Spanish Civil War. There were no guarantees that these images would find their way on to cinema screens. The boycott of Jewish businesses in Berlin in April 1933 was the last occasion that persecution of Jews was shown in British cinemas in the 1930s. But film of this further persecution did exist. Both Movietone and Pathe shot scenes of the infamous German book burning and Gaumont British had footage of an interview in which Lord Rothschild condemned the Nazi treatment of their Jewish citizens which was never shown. There were even examples of cameraman shooting film of the aftermath of atrocities committed by Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War being attributed to government troops when the voice-over was added back in Britain.

Initially, the control of newsreels was justified under the ‘cinema is entertainment pledge’ but, as war approached, they were in Britain at least, used as a tool of appeasement. Movietone’s review of 1938 shown Chamberlain and Mussolini enjoying a night at the opera together during the Premier’s ‘happy visit to Rome.’ Lloyd Geerge, George Bernard Shaw and others were filmed praising Hitler and his achievements. (Though to be fair to GBS he soon changed his mind.)

There was no censorship as long as you toed the government line. No such restrictions existed in the USA where March of Time newsreels showed Jews being separated from their families, mentioned concentration camps and denouncements and criticised Hitler for threatening the peace of the world. When these same newsreels arrived on our shores, the censor got busy with his scissors and removed any footage that might offend the dictators.

Chamberlain’s return from signing the Munich agreement was presented as a triumph by the newsreels but the same companies were quick to reflect the government’s change in attitude six months later when Chamberlain attacked Hitler for occupying the rump of Czechoslovakia, in contravention of the documents signed in Munich.

The great bogeyman of the 1930s was the Communist not the Fascist and most of the newsreel owners had anti-Communist rather than pro-Fascist sympathies. Little persuasion was needed for them to censor their output.

All this is vividly illustrated in Before Hindsight. Chillingly, at the end of the film, Jonathan Dimbleby points out that, as the newsreel era drew to a close in the early 1970s, there were still examples of half-truths on our cinema screens, relating to Northern Ireland and .especially, South Africa where criticism of that country’s apartheid policies were thought to threaten British business interests.

Roger Martin, the hero of my novel The Blue Pencil, is first alerted to events in Spain watching a cinema newsreel. Their importance in the pre-television era should not be underestimated. They were used by the government to promote appeasement . but Prime Minister Chamberlain used far more insidious ways to control the written press. But more about that in the weeks and months to come.


Sadly, Before Hindsight is not readily available to view. I watched it at the British Film Institute archive. Afterwards, I wrote to them and suggested it be transferred to the BFI online archive but, to my knowledge, this hasn’t been done. If you wish to view it, get in touch with the BFI (


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