One of cinema’s most alarming alternative histories, It Happened Here (1964) considers a version of events after the Second World War, following a British retreat from the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.
England is under Nazi occupation and governed by British ‘blackshirt’ fascists, who work against partisan activity. SS officers line the streets of Westminster and lead military parades across Regents Park. Portraits of Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler are proudly displayed in Whitehall, while soldiers pose happily for photographs around the Albert Memorial and St Paul’s.
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Set between 1944 and 1945, the plot focuses on Irish district nurse Pauline (Pauline Murray), who tries to follow ‘law and order’ after her swift evacuation to London from the south-west of England. Surviving execution, Pauline decides to join the Immediate Action Organisation as an emergency medical technician, but slowly begins to realise the depth of brutality and duplicity in Hitler’s England.
The debut film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, It Happened Here was eight years in the making. The idea first came to Brownlow in May 1956, when he was 17 years old and working as a trainee assistant editor at World Wide Pictures. Travelling to a Soho laboratory, Brownlow encountered a man arguing in German with a companion outside a delicatessen, considering the possibility that ‘It DID happen here’.
Taking inspiration from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Brownlow borrowed a 16mm camera and filmed two actors dressed as Nazis at the May Day rally of 1956 in Trafalgar Square, with 30,000 people in attendance.
Without public funding or a script, Brownlow took on the roles of writer, director, producer, editor and assistant photographer. He joined forces with 16-year-old historian Andrew Mollo as the film’s co-director and military advisor. They took further creative inspiration from A Paris, sous les bottes des Nazis, a collection of photographs taken of the French capital under Nazi occupation published in 1944 by the French liberation forces.
When Mollo criticised Brownlow’s initial footage for its historical inaccuracies, the latter’s quest for perfectionism saw him destroy this material (except footage of Trafalgar Square) only to restart the whole process of filming again. His cast would include ex-servicemen and ex-fascists alongside classically trained actors, including Sebastian Shaw as Pauline’s friend, Dr Fletcher.
“Dealing with the former German prisoners-of-war was straightforward; we told them what the scene involved and filmed them doing it,” says Brownlow. “Frank Bennett (as the IA political leader) seemed normal and pleasant until he started on his politics. Then he was like the character he played.
“The fascists attended the premiere at the London Film Festival. I didn’t hear a single comment from any of them – not even Frank – which suggests that they weren’t exactly thrilled.”
“They knew that the film was giving them a platform,” continues Brownlow, “to enable them to condemn themselves out of their own mouths.”
An estimated 900 volunteers freely offered their service as cast members. “There was a session with a prickly, middle-aged man who I cast as a fascist officer,” says Brownlow. “He and I had been quite friendly in normal life, but he turned out to be impossible to direct. A scene lasting a few minutes took most of the day to shoot, with retake after retake. Later, I asked him why he was so bloody-minded. [He responded:] ‘I refuse to take orders from someone as young as you.’”
As Brownlow and Mollo persevered with It Happened Here, they got a major break after meeting Stanley Kubrick, who generously allowed them to use 35mm reel-ends from his Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick later attempted (unsuccessfully) to secure the rights of It Happened Here from the film’s distributors, United Artists.
More help came from director Tony Richardson, whom Mollo knew from working at Woodfall Films. Richardson provided financial support on the condition that the team raised £3,000 to develop their 16mm amateur film to 35mm for the wide screen.
When the film was finished, however, one six-minute monologue given by a British fascist proved too controversial for United Artists, who cut the scene from the release version. Even so, It Happened Here caused a storm, with The Jewish Chronicle considering it anti-semitic, “a deplorable effort, and an insult to England”.
It wasn’t until Lindsay Doran’s appointment as president of UA in the 1990s that Brownlow would regain the full rights to the film. “After 50 years, UA hasn’t managed to make a cent out of a film for which they paid so little,” admits Brownlow. “No wonder they went under and had to join forces with MGM. Their cutting of the sequence was cowardly but understandable. They anticipated trouble and, despite their censorship, they got it.”
Brownlow also recalls the hypocrisy of the BBC, who “showed the censored version of It Happened Here but transmitted the whole of the Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and used similar arguments to ours to defend their decision”.
The controversy had lasting implications for Brownlow’s career as director, though he’s since made an indelible mark as a historian of silent cinema and TV documentary-maker, making a second feature, Winstanley, in 1975. In 2010, he became the first film preservationist to be awarded an honorary award by the Academy.
“Had I not made It Happened Here, and approached the job of directing the conventional way, I might be watching a more substantial retrospective of my work at the NFT,” he says. “To have the reputation in the industry – deserved or not – as an iconoclast, a crypto fascist and general irritant didn’t encourage producers.”