In August 1942, having received consent from the President of the Mineworkers’ Federation of Great Britain, Will Lawther, at their Conference in July, the British Crown Film Unit began scanning the country’s coalfields looking for a location to create a propaganda film based on the Lidice atrocity. Aspiring producer Humphrey Jennings wanted a community with both a physical resemblance to Lidice and a similar social and political history. He wanted to create a British Lidice. The result would be The Silent Village.
According to one of the film’s actors, Jennings asked the advice of Welsh miners’ leader and South Wales Miners’ Federation president Arthur Horner as to a suitable location. Jennings had the cooperation of Arthur Horner, who felt that the proposed film should be symbolic of the unity and solidarity felt by all mining communities with the people of Lidice. Jennings arrived at the town of Ystradgynlais, nestled in the upper reaches of the Swansea Valley. Immediately, he took an interest in the nearby, self-contained mining hamlet of Cwmgiedd.
Cwmgiedd was selected by the producers as the setting because of its striking similarity in scenes, industry, communal life, and typical characteristics to Lidice. Jennings discussed the project with the local mine workers and their families and found them to be receptive to his ideas. The small community was enthusiastic about the project. For the purposes of the production, Lidice was to become Cwmgiedd and Czecho-Slovakia became South Wales, and while the story is told mainly in English, the interspersed Welsh passages give it a touch of realism.
The manner in which the amateur actor-miners adapt themselves to their respective parts is truly remarkable, lending the film gravitas it would not necessarily have achieved with seasoned, professional actors. The end result has a claustrophobic intensity about it, especially as it is produced entirely in the village. Given that not a single professional performer took part, how fitting it was that the residents of Cwmgiedd were the first to see the film.
The picture opens with a service in the village chapel, with the congregation singing a favourite Welsh hymn, “Pen Calfaria,” with touching effect. We then see domestic scenes in the peaceful homes, in the village school, and in the grocer’s shop. The village inn, too, comes into the picture, with miners fresh from their toils in the pit discussing trade union affairs over a pint of beer. Then the real story begins with the appearance in the village streets of the German broadcasting van exhorting the people of Cwmgiedd to cooperate with the Reich in the rebirth of their country.
The people display no interest in the announcement and the underground movement develops, with members of the miners’ lodge committee appealing secretly to the men to “Go Slow” in the pits. Threats issued from the loudspeaker van have no effect, and the attack on Heydrich follows. All villagers over 15 are compelled to register, and refusal to betray the attackers results in the order for the shooting of all adult males and the handing over of women and children to the authorities. There is a touching scene as the men march boldly to their doom, singing lustily, “Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.” The climax sees Cwmgiedd being razed to the ground.
“This tiny mining village is shown as suffering the same fate as the murdered Czech village of Lidice. Loud-speaker cars and radio blare forth the harsh edicts of the protecting.
“Nazi invaders, who shoot villagers in brutal reprisals and finally raze the place to ruins. Hollywood does this often enough. But the dynamic force of this 35-minute picture lies in the brilliant human intimacy by which director Humphrey Jennings has presented the tiny Welsh-speaking community – its miners, chapel, school, shops, and humble homes.”
P. L. Mannock, Daily Herald 10th June 1943.
The key propaganda message of the picture is the solidarity of the working class and their faithfulness to the national cause. In that sense, it is a direct extrapolation from the Lidice Shall Live campaign, the film having been authorised by Will Lawther following the successful launch of the movement in Hanley only weeks before. As for the film itself, it was released to fit in with the first anniversary of the tragedy that befell Lidice and as a warning to the British people of what could happen if their emotional resolve were to slip.
The film is a triumph of production, as it was made possible only by the cooperation of the entire community. Jennings praised the services rendered by local miners’ leaders, notably Mr D. B. Evans, miners’ agent, and Mr Chris Evans, Vice-Chairman of the Seven Sisters Lodge.
The executive committee of the South Wales Miners’ Federation had already seen the film prior to the reels being flown over to Dr Beneš and Jan Masaryk in America in time for release there. With its re-enactment of the horror set within a community, The Silent Village would bring home “the distant realities of the brutal fascist occupation of Europe” to many Americans. Both Masaryk and Beneš expressed their appreciation of the people of Cwmgiedd and their efforts in raising awareness of the plight of the Czech people.
The residents of Cwmgiedd were first to see The Silent Village when, on Friday the 28th of May 1943, 400 men, women, and children of the village attended the premiere of the picture at the Astoria Cinema, Ystradgynlais. According to reports, as they viewed the result of their efforts on the screen, they were repeatedly moved to applause. The Silent Village officially opened on Friday the 11th of June at the Empire, Regal, and Leicester Square theatres in London, and then on Monday the 14th at Olympia, Cardiff, and then in Bristol and Liverpool. Shortly thereafter, the film went on general release.