How to make a home made feature film about the Nazi invasion of Britain (and only take eight years doing it)

‘How It Happened Here’ by Kevin Brownlow (cover)

How It Happened Here is a memoir by Kevin Brownlow, about the making of the extraordinary ‘what if’ film, It Happened Here.

If you are not familiar with It Happened Here, then I encourage you to become so. The premise of the movie is that Germany defeated Britain early on in World War Two, and we enter the movie two years into occupation, when a resurgence of anti-Nazi partisan activity causes one woman, Pauline, to leave her rural home and move to London. Once there she discovers that she is not permitted to carry on her work as a nurse unless she joins Immediate Action, the domestic version of the Nazi Party. So she joins IA. Not because she is pro-Nazi, or even particularly ‘right wing’; but simply as a pragmatic, resigned act of passivity… Except such passive acts naturally lead only to active acts of collaboration.

The film began in 1956 as the amateur project of Brownlow when he was an eighteen year old film buff, with designs on becoming a ‘proper’ film director. He had a basic idea for his film – the ‘what if’ speculative fiction angle of German Occupation – and managed to rustle up various volunteers to perform both in front of and behind the camera. The camera, along with everything else in the production (certainly to start with) was begged or borrowed, if not ever actually stolen. Well, not stolen by Brownlow, though the first camera lent to him was stolen from him.

Soon Brownlow met the sixteen year old Andrew Mollo, as an enthusiastic an amateur in the field of military history as Brownlow was in the field of moving pictures. Together they managed to forge a film which drew on historical accuracy, featured astonishingly effective action sequences, and was brutally convincing in portraying how ‘decent’ people can allow themselves to be drawn into committing indecent acts – or at least tacitly condoning them. And it only took them until 1964.

And this is Brownlow’s own account of the making of the film. Tradition dictates the use of the phrase “warts and all”, but that would suggest this is a more lip-lickingly sensational book than it is. Instead, we have Brownlow frankly admitting to mistake after mistake, and yet clearly with each mistake compounding upon the previous, he finds himself learning more and more, both about his craft and his subject matter. He freely admits that his earliest conception of the film was thoroughly naïve in the way the political aspects – of Nazi ideology, of collaboration – were treated; so when one compares the descriptions of the genesis of the film with the finished project, one can clearly see how those eight years helped bring a maturity to its message, to the way the themes are handled, to the way it is shot and acted and edited.

The book was originally published in 1968, but this year it was reprinted by UKA Press.

The film is available on DVD from Film First (UK edition) and also Milestone Films (US); you can obtain VHS copies from the BFI (in PAL format).

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6 responses to “How to make a home made feature film about the Nazi invasion of Britain (and only take eight years doing it)

  1. Yeah, great movie. I must get hold of Brownlow’s book, if only for his take on using real actual British Nazis in one sequence to explain what they were about. Intentionally or not, it’s one of the most startling aspects of a startling film which is uncomfortable watching today and probably even more uncomfortable to people watching it in the 1960s brought up on a diet of square-jawed British wartime heroics. Of course Britons wouldn’t have been like those cowardly foreigners who collaborated with the German occupiers, would they … ?
    Kim Newman and I had this plan to do a series of six novels of occupied Britain, a family saga spanning the 1940s to a Soviet-style collapse of German Nazism at the end of the 20th century, the main influences being It Happened Here and Heimat (the setting would be Somerset). We even wrote the first volume, but no publisher wanted it. Ho hum.
    There’s actually quite a large amount of Nazi occupation of Britain stories, from Noel Coward’s underrated ‘Peace in Our Time’ (play) to Robert Harris’s ludicrous ‘Fatherland’. Len Deighton’s ‘SS-GB’ is worth looking out for. Norman Longmate’s semi-fictionalised ‘If Britain Had Fallen’ is crammed with fascinating detail and draws heavily on what actually happened during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Kim and I and a couple of friends went to Jersey a few years ago and in the underground hospital museum there’s a room full of photos of collaborators with captions on what they did. A surprisingly large number of them appear to have fled to Bristol after the war.

  2. I’m rather fond of Fatherland, though Harris doesn’t half string out what is a pretty a thin plot. Paid by the word I guess 😉 The HBO film of it, with Rutger Hauer, has a decent stab at creating a 60s Nazi Germany (talking of HBO films, just rewatched Citizen X, the one about the hunt for Soviet serial killer Chikatilo).

    SS-GB I’ve not read in years, though I recall I rather enjoyed it.

    The whole spec fiction thing’s long interested me – when I was 13 I started work on a comic strip about a Nazis-won-WW2-post-apocalyptic-dystopia set in a near-future Britain, but I never managed to get further than the first few pages and the designs and story arcs. That was inspired, indirectly, by IHH, come to think of it – I was into military history, and there was a brief mention of the film in the potted biog of Mollo on the dust jacket of one of his books.

    But that epic of yours and Newman’s sounds fascinating – I’m sure if you hawk it around again you’d get a taker. You have to give it a go!

    As for the Brownlow book, there’s a bit where he describes trying to rinse some cash out of the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund, only to be told that since Went The Day Well? had been made years previous, and covered a similar topic, this couldn’t possibly be experimental enough! Rather amusing that now the BFI is quids in, selling the video…

    There’s some good stuff where he talks about the National Socialist fruitcakes who ended up in the film – one of them borrowed Mollo’s big swastika flag for a party, and invited him and Brownlow… But throughout the book it’s clear that even though the pair of them might have been a little naïve to start with, even from the beginning they both challenged the wingnuts (putting Mosley on the spot on the question of his anti-semitism at a Fascist meeting; asking the flag-borrower how anyone could justify the death camps, etc). All riveting stuff.

  3. I disliked Fatherland for the un-credible ending, and was even more irritated by all “the literary wankers from London” ((C), Terry Pratchett) going on in the papers as though a story about the Germans winning was some amazing new idea, whereas if they knew anything at all about Britain’s real literary heritage they’d know that stories about being beaten by the Germans had been around for over 100 years.
    The Newman/Byrne ‘Matter of Britain’ collaboration is on hold indefinitely. If you’re a total glutton for punishment, we put a load of background material and sample chapters (along with some other alternate history stuff) here: http://www.angelfire.com/ak2/newmanbyrne/
    I’ve got a spare copy of the Longmate book; it’s a bit tatty but you sound like a good home. Mail me off the link at my website if you’re interested.

  4. Oops – Askimet was a little too trigger-happy, and as I so rarely get spam comments I haven’t checked the filter in ages 😮

    Just been reading through the timeline, some nice ideas in there, I can’t believe publishers aren’t lapping it up tbh…

    As for Fatherland, well, I felt it was a good read, but really it’s not much more than a well-hyped, slightly-less-grubby page-turner, in the vein of, say, Clive Egleton’s Garnett trilogy about a Soviet-occupied Britain.

    But I completely agree with the LWFL – I’ve been reading Christopher Andrew’s Secret Service, and he goes into great detail about how early C20 publishers were racking out the German invasion what-ifs and specfic, and how this helped create the climate in which it was possible to establish permanent, professional intelligence-gathering and security organisations, which previously had been scorned as ‘un-British’.

    Anyhoo… Thank you for the kind offer of the Longmate book, I’d be delighted to take you up on that, I shall email you in a bit. Would you care for a loan of the Brownlow tome?

  5. There is an interesting article on the film at Rooksmoor’s Tablets of Lead.

  6. BristleKRS, thanks for name checking me. I will do the same in return.

    Yes, having watched a documentary about ‘Sliding Doors’ last night I was surprised by how many people think that their ‘what if?’ is suddenly a new idea as they did with ‘Fatherland’. Unlike Eugene, I prefer the ending of the movie than the one in the book. It seemed incredible that the Nazi regime would let the hero drive right across Germany/Poland, whereas a sudden attempt to see the US president though a thriller conceit, seemed a lot more possible. I think Harris is rather addicted to the cross-country chase as you can see in ‘Enigma’ too.

    Given that the men behind ‘Went the Day Well?’ were teenagers when they started the project I think we can excuse their naivety. The fact they actually got to make the film is a great story in itself and especially in that it was on such an important topic, they could have ended up with a simple thriller, but they went for something, which as you note even forty years on is challenging. To some degree their naivety allowed them to challenge the British facists in a way more experienced film-makers would have avoided. The series in the 1990s on Mosley was very foolish to end with the outbreak of the Second World War and to some extent ended up glamourising Mosley. If they had shown him in his more impotent and sordid years, it would have been a great service. We need to tarnish Mosley’s remaining glamour far more actively.

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