Churchill’s Island: The National Film Board’s First Oscar Winner
On February 26, 1942, National Film Board of Canada Commissioner John Grierson accepted the Academy Award for documentary short for the film Churchill’s Island. Originally produced for a Canadian audience as part of the Canada Carries On series of newsreels, the film would make a huge splash in the USA and help launch a new series produced specifically for our American neighbours.
Churchill’s Island was produced and directed for the NFB by Englishman Stuart Legg, working out of Fox Movietone studios in New York. It was scheduled as the June 1941 instalment of the monthly Canada Carries On series, which was designed to show Canada’s achievements in a wide variety of fields, including the war effort both at home and on the fighting fronts. The films in this series were shown in some 800 cinemas throughout Canada every month. (You can read more about Canada Carries On here.)
While many of the films in the series focused on the domestic war effort, some attempted to show a broader, more international view of the war. Legg was asked to produce a film that would highlight the Battle of Britain as well as how Britons were coping with the Nazi threat.
He assembled footage from a variety of sources: American film libraries, the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau archives, army training footage, newsreels and confiscated enemy footage (Allied forces would regularly confiscate Nazi propaganda films found on enemy ships and send them to Ottawa). Once the rough editing was done, he sent the film to the Associated Screen News (ASN) studios in Montreal, where the music and narration were recorded. Lorne Greene provided the booming “Voice of God” narration as he had done for all the films in the series. ASN processed the release prints and the film was released by Columbia Pictures throughout Canada on June 27, 1941. The film was a smash hit, and a French version was also released (by France Films) under the title La Forteresse de Churchill, playing to 60 theatres throughout Quebec and New Brunswick.
Feeling that this film would be of interest to an American audience, Grierson shopped it around in New York. Paramount showed some interest but did not buy it. Grierson found out that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was going to add a Documentary category for the first time ever, for films produced in 1941. He submitted Churchill’s Island to the Academy as well as Warclouds in the Pacific, another film from Canada Carries On which had been released in the US after the attack on Pearl Harbour. (Warclouds, which warned of an imminent Japanese attack, had hit Canadian theatres a week before Pearl Harbour. Consequently, Grierson had no trouble selling it to United Artists [UA], who distributed it throughout the USA to an appreciative audience eager to find out as much as they could about their new enemy, Japan.)
When the Academy Award nominations were announced in early 1942, the two films were included in a list of 11 documentaries. Grierson travelled to Hollywood to attend the awards ceremony and meet with Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford of United Artists. He proposed to them a new series of newsreels, to be called The World in Action, that would present a more global view of the war and be produced for an American and international audience. Chaplin and Pickford agreed to distribute the first dozen films in the series throughout the USA, Canada and Great Britain.
When Churchill’s Island was announced as the winner of the first-ever Oscar for a documentary, UA added it to the World in Action films they were to distribute. It was released in the USA on March 6, 1942, to phenomenal response. Variety called it “Socko war stuff, realistic and punchy….” The New York Post added, “This is an exceptionally fine documentary, one you should make a special effort to see.” “The war as it really is,” proclaimed The New Republic. Audiences were very impressed as well and flocked to see the film in large numbers. The Academy was very happy to have Grierson present at the awards. They felt his speech added a touch of class to the proceedings. As a result, a close relationship developed between Grierson and the attending directors, and many Academy members routinely sent him film prints they received from different sources for use in NFB films.
United Artists would eventually show some 30 films as part of their deal with the NFB, each playing in approximately 6,000 American theatres and a further 1,000 in Great Britain. With the end of the war in 1945, UA pulled the plug on distribution and the NFB ceased producing the series. (More on The World in Action can be found here.)
Churchill’s Island will always have its place in film history as the first documentary winner of an Academy Award (as well as the first NFB and Canadian Oscar winner). It became what it is thanks to terrific narration and incredible images of the resilience and defiance of the British people. Seventy years later, it still resonates with viewers. You can thank Stuart Legg and John Grierson for that. Enjoy.