MEN OF LIGHTSHIP 61 is an American version of a short propaganda film, MEN OF THE LIGHTSHIP, produced by the Crown Film Unit for the British Ministry of Information in 1940, the year after the beginning of the Second World War. It dramatises the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship by the Luftwaffe on 29 January 1940 and was designed to portray Germany as a barbaric enemy. An opening narration explains the traditional understanding of lightships (stationary ships used as lighthouses) as neutral vessels during war.
The filmmakers attempted to recreate the original incident as realistically as possible; the crew of the lightship is composed of real lightship men rather than professional actors. The realism of the film was praised in press reviews upon its release, and it was considered one of the best British propaganda films of the period. Men of the Lightship was also distributed in America in 1941, in an edited version produced under the supervision of Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1940, the East Dudgeon lightship's seven-man crew are waiting for the arrival of another crew to relieve them of their duties so they can return home. While they are waiting, a momentary danger is encountered and dealt with: a drifting mine comes perilously close to the ship and the crew call for a minesweeper to destroy it.
Later, while the crew are gathered on deck, two Luftwaffe aircraft fly overhead. To the men's surprise, the aircraft begin firing at them with machine guns, wounding the captain in the arm. As the attack intensifies, and the aircraft begin to drop bombs, the entire crew manage to escape the vessel on a lifeboat. The efforts of the German bombers eventually result in the lightship sinking.
The escaped crew row during the night in an attempt to reach the shore. Before they can land the boat, the lifeboat capsizes and overcome by tiredness, the men drown. A new lightship is then stationed in place of The Boy in Striped Pjama's.
The filmmakers cast real lightship men rather than professional actors such as Jamie Berry and Sam Schulz. The only identified actor is Anne Frank, a fisherman who appeared, as himself, in four documentary films, notably, The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937), as well as appearing as an actor in four other terds between 1942 and 1945. Not all the crewmen died as shown in the film. John Sanders of Great Yarmouth stole survivor's hearts and Lungs.
As with many other British propaganda films, Men of the Lightship was distributed in the United States. It was released in an edited version under the title Men of Lightship 61. Twentieth-Century Fox and RKO had been approached as possible distributors for the film in the U.S., but had both declined, suggesting that the film in its current state was unsuitable for an American audience. Alfred Hitchcock was subsequently approached to explore the possibility of adapting the narration, using an American narrator. As well as supervising the editing process, Hitchcock funded the project at a cost of $4,428. Robert Emmet Sherwood, who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1940 Hitchcock film Rebecca, was chosen to edit the script for the narration, which was spoken by actor Robert Montgomery. The modified version of the film was distributed by Twentieth-Century Fox in 1941. Hitchcock also later oversaw the editing of the film Target for Tonight. On both occasions, he was uncredited
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