I’m not really a big fan of overtly political works since they can force an idea upon the viewer. Other times a film or television series that is based on politics but isn’t political is something that I could get behind. So I had a bit of difficulty when it came to They Came to A City (a rarely seen classic of British cinema); a political film which I enjoyed. That may sound contradictory (it is) but I think it may be due to the ideas the film proposes. They Came to A City follows nine different people from Britain as they are transported to a strange place. The characters form a sort of cross-section of the British class system as they make their way to a city of the likes they have never seen. As they enter they find that the city is different to who views it. Some see a utopia and others see a hell-scape that rocks them to the core.
At the time of its release, the Government wanted film-makers to create films that inspire people to do their duty or keep a generally positive and patriotic spirit. Most of the time they used a more realistic narrative to convey the message however some started to use fantasy like They Came To a City. The whole idea of showing what Britain could be like after the war lends itself to the fantasy genre since at the time no one had any idea where Britain would be on the world stage. Priestley wrote this to pose the idea that people should work together to create a better future for everyone not just for the upper classes. I like how the film is optimistic about people in how they can band together to help make a more cohesive society. The characters get to see the city and the audience only hear about their experience be it good or bad. From this, we have to think how the city would work and how the people would live. The film allows us to have hope that we can achieve something beyond the walls of the class system.
Obviously, the film is political given that this came out when Britain was at war; but it’s not in the way you would expect. As the political compass of the time was more to the right, or to be a tad more accurate, nationalistic. This film would be seen as difficult since the main idea that is presented is that people should work together to improve society, as such, the script leans to the left as some of the characters learn how society can be better. While we never see the city or show how it works, it is heavily implied that the ideal city is more socialist in nature and that class shouldn’t be a burden to anyone. It’s not only the script that gives this impression, the way some of the conversations are shot help push this point. When the characters are talking there are times where there is a little bit of distance between them. It’s mainly used to show the differing views of the characters since a lot of the films’ scripts is mainly debating about what the characters think of the city. It plays up the Us Vs Them trope that could be seen in a lot of war films at the time but is twisted in a way that hopefully strikes up a thoughtful conversation on how we fucntion within society.
They Came to a City is peculiar in its presentation since it hardly changes from the central location of the plaza. This would possibly be boring but in practice this allows the script to have breathing room. The main importance is the script and what is being said; if the film had to add some form of action or different locations (like say the city itself) then the ideas would possibly be lost through needless fluff – although they did intend to show the city and its people. This may have been impossible since each character views the city differently; a physical set would have been difficult but the director, Basil Dearden, was aiming to shoot a more impressionistic view via lighting, cut-outs and such. This may have worked but thankfully the studio shielded away from showing a Utopia; instead, the audience has to make their own version based on how the characters describe it.
The set itself helps create an otherworldly atmosphere that the film revels in. Designed by Michael Relph, and echoing the original stage production; the set is strikingly basic with smooth, right-angled ramparts and a plaza that is positioned like a chess board which the characters move around to a game of Priestley’s devising. The whole unearthly vibe from the place allows the audience to plant their ideas to how the city could look without the need for any effects or differing sets. The set also shows how the characters are thinking without having any dialogue. For example, when the characters leave the city and the plaza the clouds within the backdrop change depending on their experience; the darker clouds show that the characters hated the city and wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Whilst the brighter clouds show that something positive has happened even though a character has left.
The fact that the film is black and white meant that a lot of the lighting had to be compromised when you consider that the original production relied on lighting; this meant that a lot of effort had been placed in the editing to make sure that such an effect, among others, was subtlely effective. Although; given the age of the film and how it is shown it does make the set look a tad dated. The set itself still stands up but the backdrop and matte paintings seem fake and out of place. I think this may be due to the nature of the script and how it was ultimately shot. TCTAC is dialogue heavy and hardly changes the location much meaning that particular elements age faster than others; like the backdrop for instance.
Peculiarly; if you treat the film more like a recorded stage production the look becomes more timeless. Let me explain; TCTAC is not presented as a straightforward narrative but more as a “What if..” thought experiment. The characters are placed in a situation that they have no control over and are told to react as they see fit. It’s a play that Priestley is writing and directing. This stage-like quality allows the audience to place themselves into the conversation, politically speaking. The characters are mouthpieces for their respective backgrounds and often echo what that particular class may have thought or felt. We see that people can change their mind and begin to see why they should help others and not just think about themselves.
This leads to my only major sticking point with the film; the characters themselves. For the most part, the cast performs well and are believable in their roles but it comes across that Priestly was pushing his political stance with some of the characters, in particular, Joe Dinmore. Joe comes across as a piece of political propaganda since he mainly talks about socialism and how the upper classes are taking advantage of the lower classes. I would be fine with that if it didn’t happen every time he opened his mouth. He is meant to be the ‘hero’ but I could not warm to him. I understand what he is saying, hell, I agree with most of it, but it is spouted at such a pace that I would’ve liked to see him go after a while. The rest of the cast is better but still seem slightly two dimensional. The only character that I actively liked was Mrs. Batley (Ada Reeve). Her character is mainly the moral compass of the group as she often notes how the rest seem to feel at the time. She looks at the situation she is in with grace and is the first to explore the new when it is presented. She is likeable from the moment she is on the screen and has to be the most human of the group. This is why when she makes her decision to why she may stay you can see her reasoning and you can agree without issue. I think that the main reason that most of the characters are unlikeable is that the film is too political for its own good. We don’t see people instead we see mouthpieces for political viewpoints; that, when coupled with the ideas that the film has, makes this a tough group to like.
I like this film, but I think I like it because of the ideas and the political stance it takes. It’s not a film that you could look at and praise to the high heavens nor is it a film you can watch without thinking. Whilst the plot and characters are not a highlight of British cinema it more than makes up for it in its simple set and intelligent dialogue. Have an open mind with this one and you may find its idealism is something you want to strive for in your own life.