‘You’re Welshmen, what’s wrong with singing our way to London?’
Social drama with political and racial undertones form the basis of this recently restored film from Ealing studios. Filmed during World War 2, this has a distinctly working class agenda set amidst the community spirit of a Welsh mining village. So local issues combine with international ones and industrial disaster draws upon communal fortitude to show us the spirit of the workforce during a time of desperation for many of the protagonists. This is a welcome reissue of a drama which very much relies on its location in terms of both situation and song.
South Wales, 1938. David Goliath (Paul Robeson) is as big and tough as his name suggests but, having recently arrived to the UK from the United States, the African American is seeking both work and accommodation. A chance encounter sneaking on a train leads him to the mining village of Bleandy, with a new companion who encourages him to sing for his supper, but to sing so poorly that ‘the more you hurt them the more they pay.’ However, David has an exceptional baritone voice and is heard from the windows of the miners’ male-voice choir practising as he inadvertently joins their rehearsal. The conductor Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) takes an instant liking to the man and his singing ability and offers David a place to stay in his house where he lives with his wife (Rachel Thomas) and their many children, including fellow miner Emlyn Parry (Simon Lack). David joins the community and helps pay his way by showing his abilities not just as a singer, but as a miner, as he ‘worked down the mine for five years back in the States.’ But the future for the village and its industry looks bleak. A serious accident at the mine results in destruction and death. And then there is the start of the war. The miners resolve to ensure their pit is reopened. They decide that they must walk to the capital to meet with the members of the coal board in order to save their village and families but also help the war effort in the way they know the best. The journey from Blaendy to London is 208 miles but the resolute miners declare, ‘We’ll march to London which is more than he ever will. To Hell with Hitler.’
This is a film that prides itself on showing the characters within this strong little community and the environment in which it is located. As such the shooting enhances the differences in scenery and attitude as well as emphasise empathy with the protagonist, for all its internal frustrations. Of course David is the outsider, he’s not from the village, he’s American and, of course he’s black. But the film (as in Ealing’s Pool of London, 1951) does not hide from the issues but examines them in a broader context, encapsulated perfectly in the line ‘Aren’t we all black down the pit?’ David becomes a full member of the village and volunteers to join the group who walk to London, declaring to Emlyn ‘Your father gave me food and shelter.’
Village life is filmed in a wonderfully realistic fashion contrasting with the extravagant bourgeois capital and the people they meet there. The location of the mine within the village and the characters discussing work issues at the coalface is shot in a very different manner which reflects the change of environment and temperament together with the mechanics of the mine, from the safety canary to the coal carrying trains waiting on the tracks. The scenes of mining disaster are shot in a fast-paced style, with speedy editing, so as to reflect the moments in a shocking socialist realist manner.
The film has been beautifully restored in sharp black and white and the DVD also features a series of extras that are well worth your attention: from documentaries about shooting on location, mining related newsreels and coal-mining choir tradition as well as a look at the work and importance of Paul Robeson, with the addition of songs from a live concert. Another classic Ealing film which, like many others released recently, really demonstrates the breadth and depth of the studio’s output.