This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 122).


A survey of the strategic situation of the British Empire in the Far East in the face of "an outside" threat (obviously Japan).

The film, like the pattern of strength it seeks to portray, is based on Singapore ("one of the ramparts of that freedom for which the British Empire stands"), with film of the 1938 opening of base facilities. With Aden, Singapore guarantees control of the Indian Ocean, enabling India (with no worries about her own defence) and South Africa to send troops to the war in Africa (Egypt and Kenya); this control is extended eastwards by the Australian Navy (based on Darwin) and other outposts, like Fiji, and Hong Kong, which has strong defences after 5 years as neighbour to a war and having been the 'Gibraltar in the East' before Singapore. The jungle etc. of the Malayan peninsula portrayed as securing the land approaches, the RAF guards the air (C-in-C Far East, Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham). The brief illustrations of all these places and themes often include shots of "native" troops. A confident portrait of readiness for "whatever destiny may have in store."


Remarks: obviously a sitting target for ironic hindsight, the film in fact portrays quite usefully the complacency which was so major a part of the background to the disaster.



Formed in 1929, the newsreel company British Movietone News was co-owned by its American parent company 20th Century-Fox and by the British newspaper proprietor Lord Rothmere (Low, 2005, 10). This film is one of 25 longer films that the company made for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War (Sanger, 2002, 169). These films were edited by Raymond Perrin and their commentary was provided by Leslie Mitchell, who, in addition to his work for Movietone, is noted for being the first voice heard on both BBC television and ITV. Their ‘supervisor’ was Gerald Sanger, whom Rothmere had selected to run Movietone News. Langer has stated that these films were translated into several languages and distributed widely, but he nevertheless calls them ‘side-lines’ and argues that they took ‘second place to our chief concern’, the bi-weekly newsreel (Sanger, 2002, 169).

Alert in the East is centred upon Singapore, and begins with the opening of the port’s King George VI dry dock in 1938. Capable of housing the largest vessels, this naval base was hailed as ‘The Gibraltar of the East . . . the gateway to the Orient . . . the bastion of British might’ (the Sydney Morning Herald, cited in Turnbull, 1988, 158). Although constructed in response to the build-up of Japanese naval power in the inter-war years, it was left vulnerable to attack.

During 1941 many British military personnel in the Far East thought that the Japanese had little interest in Singapore; instead, it was felt that their pre-occupation would be the battle against China. On 1 October 1941, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief of land and air forces, reported that ‘the last thing Japan wants at this juncture is a campaign to the South’ (Turnbull, 1988, 163). British military policy in Singapore was complacent (Churchill believed that the Japanese would not dare to face the might of British naval reinforcements, which it was argued could be mobilised from Europe in time to deal with any crisis) and expedient (with resources stretched, the British decided to prioritise military supplies for Russia, rather than Singapore) (Stockwell, 2001, 474; Turnbull, 1988, 164). Singapore’s wartime economy also affected this situation. The local government, under instruction from Whitehall, gave priority to the production of war supplies, rather than to defence. The Japanese threat was downplayed and local authorities were reluctant to take any action ‘which might shake civilian morale and public confidence’ (Turnbull, 1988, 163).

The first Japanese air attack on Singapore took place on 8 December 1941, corresponding with strikes against Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong and the Philippines.  Within 70 days Britain had surrendered the port, an action that Churchill termed ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’ (Louis, 2001, 26). The Japanese had realised that the British air force in Malaya was under strength and that therefore Singapore was vulnerable to attack from the north. In addition the British had not expected the Japanese to advance via the dense jungle lands of Malaya. The Japanese had also correctly surmised that British propaganda about security in the Far East was ‘deluding only her own people’ (Turnbull, 1988, 165).

As well as being a military disaster, the capitulation of Singapore also affected British standing among the Empire countries. Sir Frederic Eggleston, the Australian Minister in Chunking in May 1942, argued that the British Empire in the Far East had ‘depended on prestige’, adding that ‘This prestige has been completely shattered’ (Jeffrey, 2001, 319). 



Alert in the East is indicative not only of the dangers of British complacency about the security of Singapore but also about the dangers of unfounded propaganda.  It is an interesting example of a film that makes claims about events that prove to be unfounded, or fictitious. The meaning of the film’s title soon becomes clear: the viewer is being informed that Britain is alert in the East, it is not talking of analert in the east. The first word of the commentary is ‘stronghold’ and we are quickly shown the ‘first class naval and air base at Seletar’.

The opening of the base is presented as being of international importance. We witness the pomp of the formal ceremony and are shown guests from Malaya and the US Navy. Singapore is described as being ‘one of the ramparts of that freedom for which the British Empire stands’. Correspondingly, the film emphasises international collaboration among the workers in the port. It pays ‘tribute’ to Malay sailors, focussing on their adept handling of boats, and declares that they are ‘born seamen as well as loyal friends of the British Empire’.

The film has two interwoven strands. On the one hand it praises the wartime support of Empire countries, while on the other it argues that it is British power in the Indian Ocean that has secured safety for their lands. Britain is able to rely on the support of India’s ‘magnificent fighting men’ because the sub-continent is ‘undistracted by the worries of self-defence’. Similarly, Australia, Fiji and Hong Kong are all shown to have benefited from the security that Singapore provides. In addition it is argued that British dominance of the Indian Ocean has led to the success of other military campaigns. The bases at Singapore and Aden have ensured the safe passage of Antipodean soldiers, who provided vital support in battles in the Middle East. Throughout the film the mutual protection of Britain and her Empire is stressed. We also witness something of the ‘freedom’ for which the British Empire stands. For example, we learn that ‘guided by British law and order, Fijians are encouraged to progress along the lines of their own customs and culture’.

The film is circular in construction, beginning and ending with Malaya and Singapore. The Malayan jungle is described as providing natural protection for the port: ‘it’s about the thickest in the world, and progress through it would be impossible except by hacking out a path’. The Japanese threat is downplayed to the extent that the country is not even mentioned by name. It is only towards the end that we hear vague mention of a threat, ‘which may arise in the Far East’. Meanwhile, ‘Singapore is well equipped and prepared to deal with anything’. The danger of placing such faith in Singapore is evident in the film’s last line, which talks of the ‘spirit of preparedness and valour which inspires the whole Empire’.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Jeffery, Keith, ‘The Second World War’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 306-28.

Louis, Wm. Roger, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1-46.

Low, Rachael, History of British Film Volume 6 (London: Routledge, 2005).

Sanger, Gerald, ‘We Lived in the Presence of History: The Story of British Movietone News in the War Years’, in Yesterday’s News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (London: BUFVC, 2002), 164-69.

Stockwell, A.J., ‘Imperialism and Nationalism in South-East Asia’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 465-89.

Turnbull, C.M., A History of Singapore 1819-1988, 2nd edn (Singapore: OUP, 1989).




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
886 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Ministry of Information
Mitchell, Leslie
film editor
Perrin, Raymond
Production company
British Movietone News
Sanger, Gerald