This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 4916).


Amateur film shot by British Army Kinema Unit operator Sergeant Roy Lister records scenes of local life in Colombo, Gordon Gardens, fire fighters tackling an oil conflagration in the docks [either Colombo or Trincomalee, and caused by a spark from an engine crossing the bridge], the exteriors of two cinemas (Elfinstone Picture Palace showing "Ambika Pathi", New Olympic Theatre showing "Fantasia"), scenes in Kandy including the Temple of the Tooth and associated elephant ceremony, concluding with tropical sunset.


Summary: cause of conflagration provided by widow of cameraman (18 December 2009)



A Day in Ceylon is an 8mm colour amateur film shot during the World War II by Sergeant Roy Lister of the Army Kinema Unit, a team that was responsible for screening entertainment and instructional films to soldiers.

Following the victories by Japan in south-east Asia in early 1942, Ceylon had an important part to play in the War. Providing a vantage point to both coasts of India, Churchill considered the island as a ‘key point we have to hold’ (Jackson, 2006, 307). The island became an armed camp and its strategic importance led to the civilian government being subordinated to military command. Sir Geoffrey Layton served as Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon. The civilian government, led by the governor Sir Andrew Caldecot, was supportive during the War, and directed the island’s resources and manpower towards the campaign. Following the fall of Malaya, Ceylon provided 60% of the Allies’ natural rubber supplies (Louis, 2001, 34). Ceylonese military recruits rose from 3,500 in 1939 to 26,000 in 1945, and by this point 83,000 civilians were being employed on Allied bases (Jackson, 2006, 316; de Silva, 1987, 215).

The threat to Ceylon was made manifest on 5 April 1942, when Japanese bombers and fighters reached the island, concentrating their attack on Colombo Harbour. Owing to a timely dispersal of the British fleet, losses to shipping were light. In the harbour, two boats were sunk and one merchant ship was engulfed in fire, but this was quickly extinguished (Kirby, 1958, 119).

After April 1942, the Japanese threat did not re-materialise, and Ceylon instead assumed a role as the ‘behind-enemy-lines capital of the east’ (Jackson, 2006, 313). The island was the home base for the Eastern Fleet, several RAF squadrons, and a garrison force, and was in addition a stop-off point for soldiers involved in the Burmese campaign. From April 1944 it was also home to South East Asia Command, the body in overall charge of Allied operations in south-east Asia.

The large Allied military presence in Ceylon had social and economic effects. Rodney Ferdinands recalls that the previously quiet town of Kandy was transformed: ‘If the British troops woke up Kandy, the Americans took it by the throat and shook it’ (Jackson, 2006, 320). There was almost full employment on the island, as well as a huge demand for local products (Jackson, 2006, 312, 321). There was also rapid inflation, which was not matched by an increase in wages or salaries for the local population (de Silva, 1987, 215-16). 



Although an amateur film, A Day in Ceylon has a sense of structure. Notably, Sergeant Roy Lister uses title cards to punctuate his day in the life of the island. The film has many of the qualities of a travelogue: there is a focus upon the exotic and the picturesque. Lister captures the spectacle of the elephant ceremony, featuring decorated people and animals. The film opens with shots of trees in blossom and closes with images of a stunning sunset. There is also a sense of movement. At one point Lister films from a rickshaw as he is borne through the streets. He also captures the dynamism of the local people. As well as shooting several street and market scenes, he films Ceylonese boys playing in a canal. A further quality shared with the travelogue genre is an extensive use of long shots and panned shots, which are employed to document the townscapes and landscapes of Ceylon.

As well as focusing on some of the traditional aspects of Ceylonese life, Lister also captures something of the colonial influence on the island. Alongside the footage of market traders he depicts the heavier industry of the Colombo docks. The busy street scenes are interspersed with portraits of large municipal buildings and the homes of officials. Among these is the suitably palatial ‘Queen’s House’, now known as the President’s House, but then the residency of the governor of Ceylon. Until 1980 the gardens surrounding this property served as a public park. Lister films locals enjoying these formal surroundings, and he focuses upon the park’s large statue of Queen Victoria, which was dismantled in 2006.

One interesting aspect of this film is the way in which it depicts the impact of the War on Ceylonese life. There is surprisingly little footage of Allied troops, either at work or at leisure, but the film does illustrate the buoyant wartime economy, which can be witnessed by the trading activity in the markets. The film also shows the increased social tempo of city life: large crowds can be seen queuing outside a cinema to see Disney’s Fantasia (1940). There is in addition footage that captures the overt intrusion of War. Checkpoints are depicted and there is an extended sequence that shows a fire at the docks of either Colombo or Trincomalee, albeit that this is not the fire occasioned by the Japanese attack.

For Lister the fire is an event to be sequenced among the other spectacles that he has witnessed. It is not allowed to dominate the film and is merely given the intertitle ‘fire at the docks’. It might be due to the cameraman’s own sensibilities, but there is a sense throughout this film of life continuing, despite the wartime conditions. This is underlined when the traditional elephant ceremony follows on from the fire. However, it receives its most peculiar manifestation in the film’s final title card. Despite the damage wrought at the docks, the film’s sunset denouement is heralded with the words ‘the end of a perfect day’.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Kirby, S. Woodburn, et al, The War Against Japan: Vol II India’s Most Dangerous Hour (London: HMSO, 1958).

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), pp. 1-46.

de Silva, Chandra Richard, Sri Lanka: A History (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1987).




Technical Data

Running Time:
14 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
Std 8mm
170 ft ca

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Lister, R E (Sergeant)