This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: CCE 334).


A view of Ceylon towards the end of the war, looking back over the period of defensive war, and to current preparations for the offensive.

General material on Ceylon's religions and economy (tea, rubber, rice) is followed by an introduction to one particular middle class family. Front pages of 'Ceylon Observer' trace opening of war; local and Empire troops, the civilian defence forces (various members of the family now seen as firemen, plot-room girl etc), and Fleet Air Arm all "waiting for the Japs". A good sequence on the Japanese air raid of April 5, 1942: air-air combat, ARP warden, ambulance/fire crews, shot down Japanese planes. Defence stays at the ready, although war situation eases: preparations for the offensive go ahead. Ceylon provides Jungle training ground for UN troops; supply convoys (Ceylon naval launch patrol); Air Force Hurricanes, FAA Martlets - closing sequence shows loading and aiming of a heavy gun, while commentary talks of task ahead.


Remarks: because the war is not over, the film rather falls apart after the air raid : the closing minutes, in spite of the commentary, feel rather like an anti-climax.

Credits: derived from interview with Bryan Langley by Philip Woods (letter of 8/11/2000).



According to B. D. Garga, Indian documentary film could be ‘described as a war baby, conceived by the British and nurtured by the Indians’ (Garga, 1987, 26). In the early years of World War II the British government instituted the Film Advisory Board, whose mission was ‘to produce films that would publicise the urgency and the requirements of the war-situation, and would appeal for popular support’ (Roy, 2002, 239). On 1 February 1943 the Government of India assumed direct control of this organisation, forming three new companies: Information Films of India, Indian News Parade and the Army Film Centre. Propaganda values were maintained. It has been argued that the majority of the films produced by these companies were made with the aim of trying ‘to dragoon an unwilling nation into the war’ (Narwekar, 1992, 23). Made by the Army Film Centre in 1945, Fortress Ceylon details the history and loyalty of Ceylon during the War. However it was not only created to boost Indian morale, as the film was also widely distributed abroad, including France, Belgium and Italy (Hansard, 17 January 1945).

Both India and Ceylon achieved independence in the aftermath of World War II. What is distinctive about Ceylon is that independence was ‘transferred through the electoral process’ and that this transfer was ‘peaceful’ (de Silva,K.M.,1981, 449). In part, this was due to the War itself. The island was of strategic importance: it became a target for the Japanese; provided a naval base for Allied forces; provided natural resources for the war effort; and was home to the headquarters of South East Asia Command. Such was the significance of Ceylon that the island’s civilian government was subordinated to military command. Ceylonese members of the government nevertheless supported the war cause. In return for such loyalty the British authorities on the island supported the campaign for self-rule (de Silva, K.M.,1981, 450-51).

This is to oversimplify matters, however. Ceylon was a diverse and occasionally discordant country, split along ethnic, caste and religious lines (de Silva, Chandra, 1987, 216-18). Colonial presence had complicated this mix, importing low-caste Tamils to the island to work on the tea plantations. Those campaigning for reform were themselves split, with various parties campaigning on different policies. Led by D. S. Senanayake, Ceylonese members of the government campaigned for Dominion status, while the Marxist and anti-war Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) wanted complete independence. The British government imprisoned the party’s leaders in 1940, only for them to escape to India during the bombardment of Ceylon. During their absence the nationalist Communist Party usurped much of the LSSP’s support.

The war had a dramatic effect on the Ceylonese economy. On the one hand, unemployment was alleviated as people worked either directly or indirectly for the war effort. 26,000 Ceylonese volunteered for the army alone. Most were employed in motor transport or clerical work, due to what was believed to be ‘their high standard of education and poor physique’ (Jackson, 2006, 318). On the other hand, there was severe inflation, which led to discontent among working-class and white collar workers (de Silva, K.M. 1981, 476). Ashley Jackson concluded that the war ‘deeply affected home society’, as it led to greater social mobility (Jackson, 2006, 319).



Fortress Ceylon serves a number of overlapping purposes. First, it introduces us to the country and people of Ceylon. Secondly, having introduced us to the people it informs us of their contribution to the war effort. Thirdly, the island’s strategic importance is stressed. The film argues that the Ceylonese gave wholehearted support to the war effort ‘just like people everywhere else in British territories’.

At the beginning of the film we are shown the geographical, cultural and economic diversity of Ceylon. We first see mountainous jungle and then a local man praying before a statue of Buddha. This religious image is contrasted with three images of Ceylonese women. Two of the women are situated culturally by the fact that they are shown eating local produce, a banana and a coconut. The third provides a further contrast. The previous images have been shot in the countryside, but she is standing on a city street. Her sophistication is illustrated by the fact that she wears sunglasses. Meanwhile, the commentary emphasises harmony. It informs us that ‘Ceylon is an island of many peoples. People with different histories, traditions, religions and politics and yet in all her towns and villages these people live side by side in peace’.

After being told about the diversity of the island we are then paradoxically shown a ‘typical’ Ceylonese family, the Mutis. This westernised family is far from average; they belong to the ‘elite’, a group that in Chandra Richard de Silva’s opinion ‘was small enough for virtually every member in it to know most of the others’ (de Silva, Chandra Richard, 1987, 216).  We witness the Mutis in positions of power at work, we see them receive the benefits of higher education, and we encounter the privileged indulgence of their leisure time. Thus the island’s resources and natural beauty are shown to best advantage. The Mutis provide a example of compliant Ceylonese during the War. The commentary had previously stated that prior to hostilities ‘life went on as usual’, indicating both the pre-modernity of pre-War Ceylon and the fact that conflict will bring changes. However, what we witness here is a continuation of the status quo. The family’s position of power is reflected in their wartime activity. A sequence in which one of Mr Muti’s sons had provided guidance to tea clippers is now mirrored by one in which Mr Muti ushers the local population into air raid shelters. By focussing on this family the film avoids the complications that a sustained survey of the island’s diversity would bring. We hear nothing of the political opposition and opportunities that the war helped to incubate.

The latter half of the film moves away from individuals and returns to the documentary aesthetic, giving a fairly dry account of Ceylon at war. First, we are shown the defence of the island. Here the film depicts the islanders assuming a greater degree of responsibility. We begin with the British forces in action, defending the island from attack; the Ceylonese meanwhile perform back-up duties. However, later on we see Ceylonese in positions that the Allied troops had originally filled – they now assume the responsibility for the anti-aircraft guns.

Following the bombardment of the island in April 1942, the Japanese military threat did not re-materialise. In line with Ceylon’s wartime role the emphasis of this film changes. We move from preparations for defence towards preparations for attack. The film concludes where it started, but somewhat anticlimactically, with jungle terrain. We are informed of the island’s similarity to Burma and its suitability as a practice ground for the battles taking place there. By the War’s end Fortress Ceylonhas been transformed into a training camp. Nevertheless, the film continues to press home its message. The harmony within the indigenous population is now extended to the Allied troops: we are shown representatives from diverse nations, promenading arm-in-arm.

Richard Osborne (May 2009)


Works Cited

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

de Silva, K. M., A History of Sri Lanka (London: C. Hurst & Co, 1981).

Garga, B.D., ‘The Indian Documentary’, Cinema in India, Vol. I, Inaugural Issue, (January 1987), 25-30.

Hansard, HC Deb 17 January 1945 vol 407 cc185-91W

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

Narwekar, Sanjit, Selected Speeches (New Delhi: Government of India, 1992).

Roy, Srirupa, ‘Moving pictures:  The postcolonial state and visual representations of India’, Contributions to Indian sociology, Vol.36, No.1-2 (New Delhi, London: Sage Publications, 2002), 233-263.




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
815 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Public Relations India Command
Langley, Bryan (Captain)
Langley, Bryan (Captain)
Production company
Army Film Centre, India
Langley, Bryan (Captain)