'This is the story of simple working people - their hardships, their humours, but above all their heroism.' The epigraph which introduced the 1939 screen version of The Stars Look Down - the words are possibly those of A.J. Cronin, the novelist, rather than of Carol Reed, the film's director - signalled a remarkable turn-around in attitudes to the miners, as well as prefiguring what was to be the leading idiom of British wartime cinema. The success of the film itself (fear of censorship had held it back for three or four years) encouraged a spate of 'grimly honest' realist dramas. As Graham Greene remarked of one of them, the colliery winding gear, silhouetted against the sky, the pit disaster and the warning siren became as cinematically familiar as the Eiffel Tower or the Houses of Parliament. A.J. Cronin, the best-selling novelist whose fictions probably did as much as the Beveridge Report - and certainly more than the Thirties poets - to secure Labour's landslide victory in the 1945 election, had served one of his medical apprenticeships in the Rhondda valley; amputating the leg of a miner trapped in a rock fall had been his initiation in this work and it seems that the disaster in the Scupper Flats, which is the climax of The Stars Look Down, though set in Co. Durham rather than South Wales, was based on a real life rescue operation in which, as the local doctor, he was called on to take part. The Stars Look Down, showing the ways in which human greed put the miner's life at risk, helped to turn nationalisation from a Fabian dream into something approaching a popular cause.
LRB 22 June 1995 | PDF Download