This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: CBE 206).


The world in the 3rd year of war - a mixture of caution ("Today our world faces its greatest danger") and determination ("Preparing for the attack which must come").

Film stresses the global nature of the war, and the Commonwealth's importance, both geographically and as participants. Opening sequence shows Axis leaders and troops, followed by shots of Commonwealth agriculture etc. (as Axis goals) - also Axis 'Civilisation' (film of Abyssinian war) contrasted to Commonwealth schemes of education, eventual self-government etc. Remainder of 1st reel is a tour of Commonwealth Home Fronts showing troop training, agriculture and industry in South Africa, Australia, Canada, India; also mention of Jamaican Spitfire fund, Canadian Commonwealth Air Training scheme and neutrality of Eire. Reel 2 speaks of various battle areas with suitable film - Russian front, RAF bombing, Atlantic, China: also film of troops training in Australia, India and Great Britain.


Remarks: in spite of its author, there is nothing very distinguished about the commentary.



The Strand Film Company issued The Battle for Freedom in September 1942. Strand  had first entered into commercial documentary production in 1935, employing several people who had been involved with the GPO Film Unit, including the head of the company, Donald Taylor; the original director of production, Paul Rotha; and Basil Wright, who produced this film. During the War, Strand was the largest and one of the most productive documentary companies making films under contract for the Ministry of Information (Ackerman, 1995, xi). Some of their films would have been viewed in Britain under the ‘five-minute’ and ‘fifteen-minute’ film schemes, whereby a portion of each cinema programme was devoted to MoI material (Swann, 1989, 154). Swann notes that these films were ‘not generally well received by audiences’ (Swann, 1989, 166). Meanwhile, under a separate scheme, 115 mobile film display units were utilised to show MoI films around Britain (Swann, 1989, 155). William Farr has suggested that these displays reached approximately 2,250,000 regular viewers during 1942-43 (Swann, 1989, 189). Provisions were also made for the distribution of these films overseas (Swann, 1989, 160).

The Battle for Freedom has a distinguished list of contributors. Although Basil Wright was originally commissioned to write the commentary, the final version was completed by Dylan Thomas, who worked on at least ten Strand/MoI documentaries during the War (‘Battle for Freedom’; Berry, 1984, 185); it is directed and edited by Alan Osbiston, who later won an Academy Award for his work on The Guns of Navarone (1961); and it is narrated by the BBC war correspondent Kent Stevenson, who was killed while reporting on a raid over Germany in June 1944 (‘Broadcasting House Memorial’).

The film is concerned with the threat of the Axis powers in the War and with the response of the Empire and Dominion countries. Originally conceived in 1941, and first titled ‘Heartbeat of an Empire’, the focus of this film changed along with altered circumstances in the War (‘Battle for Freedom’). In the latter half of 1942 the Axis forces were at their furthest reach. German and Italian troops controlled most of Europe and were advancing in Russia, meanwhile Japan had occupied all of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and most of Burma. 

Most of the British Dominions had been quick to provide support during the War, with only Ireland adopting a neutral stance (Jeffery, 2001, 307-09). In the Empire countries there was a more varied response. It is has been calculated that in Africa as a whole, some 374,000 men were recruited into the armed forces during the War (Jeffery, 2001, 311-12), while some countries, such as Nigeria, introduced voluntary funding schemes. India, on the other hand, ‘was the centre of the most serious resistance to the British war effort found anywhere in the Empire’ (Jackson, 2006, 381). Here members of the Indian National Congress resigned from government rather than support the War effort. They also rejected the offer made by Sir Stafford Cripps in March 1942, which promised Dominion status for India in return for co-operation during the War, instead embarking upon the open rebellion of the ‘Quit India’ movement. Nevertheless, there was also support for the War within India. Indians volunteered at the rate of 50,000 a month, and the Indian army grew quickly from about 200,000 men in 1939 to 900,000 by the end of 1941 (Jackson, 2006, 358).

The Second World War diversely affected the status of the British Empire. Keith Jeffery notes that it was only during this conflict that ‘the Empire approach[ed] the otherwise mythical status of a formidable, efficient, and effective power system, prepared to exploit its apparently limitless resources, and actually able to deploy forces throughout the world’ (Jeffery, 2001, 306). Conversely, the War helped to signal the Empire’s end. The British campaign was undertaken as a crusade for freedom and democracy against the forces of fascism, and the fall of Singapore in February 1942 prompted a new wave of propaganda, promoting the idea of ‘partnership’ and ‘colonial development’ with the aim of securing colonial support (Jeffery, 2001, 313). Ultimately, such promises helped to lead the British towards the promise of self-government for colonial countries: Jeffrey claims that ‘the ultimate cost of defending the British Empire during the Second World War was the Empire itself’ (Jeffery, 2001, 327). 



The Battle for Freedom is not regarded as being one of the more distinguished films that Dylan Thomas worked on during the War. It is compiled from existing footage derived from newsreels, the War Office, the governments of Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and ‘other sources’ (‘Battle for Freedom’); in David Berry’s opinion the film ‘smacked of a dutiful assignment and aroused no great critical interest’ (Berry, 1994, 189). The film is nevertheless a worthy object of study. Despite the fact that it is not Thomas’s best work, it does provide evidence of his descriptive skills. He is particularly effective at articulating the menace of the Axis forces, which ‘threaten more dangerously each moment of the dark, dangerous day that is war’. Moreover, the film and the language that Thomas employs are of interest because of what they reveal about the British Empire and the War at a particular period in time.

This period is made clear in the opening line of commentary: ‘The third year of the second world war and loud and savage from their recent victories, the Axis powers are now grimly confident that world domination lies within their clutch’. The film then enumerates the triumphs of the Axis partners: ‘Germany has conquered Europe’; ‘Italy obeys, stabs and betrays’; ‘Japan has torn away the islands of the Far East’. The overt aim of the film is to encourage the mutual support of Britain and the Empire countries in the ‘battle for freedom’ that is the Second World War. In doing so it emphasises the gravity of the situation: Empire countries are described as being ‘ripe for the picking’; there is talk of ‘the living death of slavery under fascism’. The film also stresses the level of the support that is being provided by these countries: the portrayal of the aid that is being given is morale boosting for audiences both at home and abroad.

The filmmakers use the Axis advance to tell an additional story: it provides them with the opportunity to portray the British Empire in the most positive light. The film begins by outlining a series of opposites. Images of destruction, military aggression, and regimented obedience are used to demonstrate what life would be like under an Axis Empire, and the commentary talks of the rule of ‘bayonet and gas bomb’. In contrast, to illustrate life in the British Empire countries, we see footage of schools, hospitals and laboratories in which the local people are given positions of authority. Here the commentary talks of ‘weapons of science to fight against disease and suffering’. It is argued that Axis rule will lead towards ‘drugged’ and ‘chained’ slavery, while British rule will lead towards ‘full independence and self-government’.

The film is fulfilling several propaganda purposes here. As it informs the people of the colonies that ‘they shall achieve that freedom and independence already known by the great peoples of the Dominions’ a second meaning to the film’s title is introduced: the people are being told that, if they join the battle for freedom against the Axis countries, they will also ensure the battle for freedom in their own lands. This message of independence is also presumably directed towards American allies, amongst whom the British government wished to convey an image of ‘constructive imperialism’ (Jeffery, 2001, 325). The film is also looking towards a British Commonwealth, rather than a British Empire, and in outlining the resources of these countries as well as the willing support of their peoples, it is demonstrating to all partners the present and future benefits of this arrangement.

The second half of the film covers the wartime contributions of various Empire and Dominion countries. The most interesting of these portrayals is of India. Unlike several other British or Indian governmental films of this period, The Battle for Freedom is open about the Indian political situation: the portrait begins by acknowledging the ‘refusal of the Cripps proposals’. It nevertheless quickly turns to a positive outlining of Indian support. On screen there are images of Indian military volunteers; meanwhile the commentary reinforces the film’s message of freedom through battle: the film’s various audiences are informed that ‘a successful Japanese invasion would mean slavery, would mean that the certainty of the British promise of India’s independence would vanish like smoke’.

Richard Osborne (June 2010)


Works Cited

Ackerman, John, Dylan Thomas: The Film Transcripts (London: J.M. Dent, 1995).

Berry, David, Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994).

‘Battle for Freedom’ [Ministry of Information document. National Archives file: INF 6/469 ‘Battle for Freedom’].

‘Broadcasting House Memorial’,

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

Keith Jeffery, ‘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.

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).




Technical Data

Running Time:
14 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1241 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Ministry of Information
assistant film editor
Burbeck, Edith
commentary spoken
Stevenson, Kent
commentary written
Thomas, Dylan Marlais
Osbiston, Alan
film editor
Osbiston, Alan
music composer
Alwyn, William
Wright, Basil
Production company
sound recordist
King, Harold