The Screen of Change

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Peter Hopkinson – Screen of Change

PETER HOPKINSON (1920 – 2007) Film-maker who documented the battles of the Second World War

Peter Hopkinson was the image of the romantic film director. A Second World War combat cameraman, and documentary director and writer, he had worked in the great days of British cinema at Denham Studios. I was his film editor in the 1950s and was struck by how courageous and tough he was. When something went seriously wrong and Hopkinson was accused by the management of the company we both worked for, he simply sat silently shouldering the blame, keeping it away from the rest of us.

He was born in Harrow, Middlesex in 1920 and remembered seeing Metropolis at the Harrow Coliseum, a cinema that was far more a temple of worship to him than the church on the hill. When talkies came in, a cousin gave him a silent 35mm projector, which filled his bedroom. He spent all his pocket money on films. He became too devoted; exams were looming and instead of spending his last day revising, he rushed to the West End to see The Tunnel with Richard Dix. He failed the exam and his father restricted his film-going.

Stunned by the impact of Things to Come (1936), the 16-year-old Hopkinson wrote to Alexander Korda – no vacancies. He tried Ealing, and got a job as clapper boy on George Formby comedies. When Ealing laid him off, his father demanded that he got a safe job in a bank. “I bet you five shillings,” said the defiant Peter, “that within a week I will get another job at another studio.”

And he did – at Denham, home of Korda. A high point of his life was working with the great American director King Vidor on The Citadel (1938), A.J. Cronin’s story of an idealistic young doctor from a Welsh mining village and his struggle against the corrupt medical profession in London. Vidor, friendly and democratic, told him all about early Hollywood. “I was in the clouds,” wrote Hopkinson in his 1969 book Split Focus, “and I lived that film just as intensely, I’m certain, as did its director.” But after The Citadel, everything was an anti-climax, although he did travel briefly on a flying carpet for The Thief of Bagdad (1940). In 1939, he was called up and had to bid farewell both to Denham and to his ambitions.

During the phony war, he showed his fellow soldiers Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin only to discover that they far preferred westerns. When Hitler invaded Russia, Hopkinson volunteered for service overseas and was accepted, but at the last minute heard of his selection as a cameraman. It was December 1941 and he was 21.

He was sent to Persia to make a film about getting supplies through to Russia. “This was the subject nearest my heart; the aid the Allies were sending to save the country which, in my innocence, reading and film-going had convinced me was the hope of the world.” In Baghdad, the prime minister Rashid Ali had allied Iraq with the Germans, and the city had been invaded by the British. It took the army weeks to produce equipment and on Hopkinson’s first expedition, the precious camera fell 30 feet onto concrete. He and a Royal Engineers master-sergeant repaired it. David Macdonald, his commanding officer, wanted more camera movement in his footage, so he was given his own locomotive and had the time of his life traveling along one of the world’s most exciting railways. His first film reached London safely; it was edited by Roy Boulting and was shown throughout the world as Via Persia.

The Western Desert, it has been said, was a place fit only for war. Hopkinson had no sooner arrived than he came under fire from the Afrika Korps and hastily dug in. “Nothing surprised me more than the realisation that, having done so, I actually fell asleep for more than an hour in the midst of this inferno.”

Montgomery was the first general, in Hopkinson’s opinion, to give the camera as great a priority as the cannon. Realising that desert filming involved whatever brief and violent bursts the cameraman could grab, Hopkinson began a series of carefully prepared shots of life at the front, building up to a battle. Alas, the actual battle took place at night, but David Macdonald was delighted with the material, since he planned a feature film, Desert Victory (1943).

No one who saw that film will ever forget the massive artillery barrage before El Alamein – 900 guns firing at night along a 30-mile front. Hopkinson was just one of the Army Film Unit contributors. He had set his camera up in daylight to film the virtually unbroken line of flashing guns – “the greatest concentration of shellfire that the British army had set down in the war” – although he said that, by a wretched mischance, his camera shutter had missed every flash and he had inadvertently submitted 100ft of blank film.

I remember Hopkinson describing a tank battle: “It’s like an action at sea. The opponents operate across sand like fleets on water – the separation makes it impossible to get decent pictures.” So the army cameramen had to improvise. British soldiers wore German uniforms and sprawled against captured tanks. The most famous still picture of the desert campaign – the storming of an enemy position through smoke – was, Hopkinson told me, staged behind the cookhouse at Rear Headquarters, Ninth Australian Division, five miles behind the front line.

Hopkinson spent the next two years in Italy, landing with Montgomery in the Messina Straits in the first great Allied invasion of Europe. “I lived in a large drain near Cassino and in a princely villa on the outskirts of Naples. I filmed a Jewish wedding in a concentration camp. I saw one of my fellow cameramen killed. I came to love Italy and in the middle of it all I became an officer if not a gentleman.”

In charge of the cameramen was Alan Whicker, and much of Hopkinson’s footage appeared in the 2004 television documentary Whicker’s War. He took part in raids with Yugoslav partisans and in the liberation of Greece, “where we had to crawl through crowds of deliriously happy people, showering us with scent, fruit, flowers, rose petals and kisses”. The subsequent civil war came as a profound shock – with the British shooting the very men Hopkinson had thought would produce the better post-war world.

Still idealistic, he joined the United Nations’ Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and shot a film about Russia’s triumph over the destruction of war. In Minsk, he filmed the orphans, 30,000 of whom depended on UNRRA for food. I

In Odessa, he traversed the steps made famous by Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin. But UNRRA had dissolved and the material was acquired by the monthly screen magazine The March of Time run by Time Inc. This exciting and controversial series had no compunction about using reconstruction to bring the dynamism of Hollywood to the newsreel. Even John Grierson said, “It does what the other news records have failed to do.”

Whatever reservations Hopkinson had – and some of his material had been shabbily treated – they were swept away by a cable assigning him to India. When he arrived, both Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon asked if they could see his film about Russia, and it had to be shipped in via Twentieth Century-Fox. He met Gandhi, saw the results of massacre, and witnessed the greatest migration in human history. “I had seen migrations before, but never on such an Asian scale of misery as this.”

Hopkinson reached China just before the Communists took power. The March of Time was desperate for footage. He found himself filming the artillery duels, refugee columns and misery he had experienced in Europe and India. Delighted at his coverage, the Americans provided his film, Battle for Bread (1950), with bold credits for everyone but him. Hopkinson sometimes felt frustrated by the uses to which his footage was put. He wanted to part company from an organisation in which he felt little more than a hired mercenary. But they assigned him to further colourful parts of the world in the midst of historic changes.

Back in England, he tried to join the Crown Film Unit, but the Labour government had little use for documentaries and the unit was in a state of collapse. So he continued with March of Time, which flew him to New York, rolled out the red carpet and gave him a special release all of his own. While involved in a film about Formosa and preparing to cover the war in Korea, Hopkinson heard that The March of Time had come to end. A television version collapsed soon afterwards and Hopkinson found himself back in London, unemployed.

He had no desire to return to pulling focus on some ephemeral piece of make-believe and was determined to stay with factual film. The original progenitor of The March of Time, Louis de Rochemont, hired Hopkinson for a new series, Our Times. He wanted to know what people thought of America, and in response to the exiling of Charlie Chaplin, Hopkinson scripted a man saying “Your treatment of Chaplin is an absolute scandal.” This caused apoplexy from de Rochemont. In the end, the series was shelved and de Rochemont went over to Cinerama. Hopkinson’s contract had five months to run, so he, too, became involved, not entirely willingly. But he had a reprieve in the shape of a film about Suez, made as the old order was in retreat and Nasser had taken over as Prime Minister. Hopkinson won an award from the Overseas Press Club for “Best Reporting from Abroad on Foreign Affairs”.

In 1955, he became immersed in television; NBC’s Project 20 planned a special programme on Austria. The Allied occupying forces were at last departing and Hopkinson, a lover of music, wove his documentary around the re-opening of Vienna’s Opera House with Beethoven’s Fidelio. The opera itself took a frenzied but controlled 10 hours of filming, with Hopkinson as director/ cameraman. To his great satisfaction, every move he had planned fell into place. “Walking back to the hotel that night I had a sense of complete fulfillment . . . I was a film-maker.”

He approached his films with total integrity.

This meant building a film from within, before a foot was ever shot. This was much more difficult, much harder work than just shooting a talking head or spraying a happening with a movie camera. It meant you had to attempt to become more expert – and more humble at the same time – than the experts themselves.

He tackled tremendous themes. It is hard to believe now, but in the mid-Fifties, the construction of homes, hospitals, schools and power stations was about to transform Iraq when a group of army officers murdered the prime minister and the epic project, together with the film, were swept into oblivion.

Hopkinson joined World Wide Pictures and among the films he directed was Bandwagon, which I edited for him, and which won the Premier Award at the British Industrial Film Festival 1959.

African Awakening united Hopkinson with a man he admired tremendously, Wole Soyinka. It won Unesco’s Kalinga Prize of 1962 – one of the judges was Carol Reed. In 1963, he was given a free hand by the Central Office of Information to make Profile of Britain, but this enlightened sponsorship was deceptive; it proved a massive struggle to get enough money for vital sequences.

None the less he stayed in documentaries, working with astonishing energy well past retirement age, until Channel 4 commissioned him to return to Russia in 1989 to film the Orphans of Minsk 43 years after his original film. It was a profoundly emotional experience. For the BBC Centenary Season of Cinema in 1995, he wrote and directed an archival programme called Power Behind the Image, taking the audience from the Lumiere train to video diaries. It was an admirable end to a remarkable career – a career he describes in The Screen of Change, his second book, published by UKA PRESS.

Kevin Brownlow