Look Again #2 – Hugh Stewart



Imperial War Museum – Hugh Stewart

In the lead-up to the release of Marc Karlin-Look Again here are a collection of portraits focusing on the people Karlin documented in his films.

Hugh Stewart was a film editor and latterly a film producer. After graduation from college he joined Gaumont-British Picture Corporation on an apprenticeship scheme working as an assembly cutter. After impressing Alfred Hitchcock, he was asked to supervise the edit on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Speaking in 1999, Stewart recalls the the production,

When he (Hitchcock) came on stage for the first day of shooting, he put the script down and said, “Right, another one in the bag.” Not that he had any disrespect for the making of the film, but as far as he was concerned, he knew the film so well, it was already in his mind. The Albert Hall sequence was the major example of it.

In the story the mother, Edna Best, went to a concert at the Albert Hall. As she sat there she realised that an assassin was going to kill an ambassador sitting in the Royal Box. The assassin had also stolen her child, so she was there with a double purpose. The words of the chorale being performed included the phrase “Save the Child,” which was an ingenious underlining of the second motif which was in her mind, though not in the visible action. Hitchcock made a variety of shots, and the author had the task of piecing them together, using the music as a frame-work.

And here Stewart recalls his editing work on a Michael Powell production.  A similar occasion had arisen during the making of “A Spy in Black,” a good film made by Michael Powell in 1938. A German “U” Boat, with Conrad Veidt as Captain, was making its way through a minefield outside the Orkneys. The quality of suspense was very necessary, so a few chart inserts were shot, some underwater submarine shots were found, and a delightful couple of days were spent working up a sequence.

When war broke out in 1939, he immediately joined the Royal Artillery. He was commissioned in the AFPU (Army Film and Photographic Unit) in December 1940 and led No 2 AFPU in covering the Allied landings in Tunisia in November 1942. A year later he co-directed Tunisian Victory (1943) with John Huston and Frank Capra.

Later, as head of No 5 AFPU, Stewart and his combat cameramen covered the British D-Day landings, the Caen breakout, the Rhine Crossing and the Battle of the Ardennes — as well as the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

When Belsen was voluntarily turned over to the Allied 21st Army Group on April 15 1945, Stewart was head of No 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). As such he was under strict War Office orders to remain with the British Army as it advanced further into Germany. But realising the significance of the scenes at the camp, he decided to go over the heads of his superiors and make a direct appeal to Eisenhower, arguing that it was vital to prepare a cinematic and photographic record.

Eisenhower overrode the War Office, and in the days after the liberation Stewart and his team undertook the harrowing job of filming the camp. Towards the end of his life Stewart said that not a single day had gone by without him remembering by sound, sight and smell of what he witnessed during those few days. Later he was consulted by the research team for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).

Before contributing to Schindler’s List production, Hugh Stewart appeared in  Marc Karlin’s For Memory (1982) co-produced by the BBC and BFI. It was a film about the fragility of memory. Ironically, this film about memory was forgotten by BBC, only being broadcast at a sleepy Easter slot in 1986. Karlin had been extremely unnerved by the miniseries Holocaust (1978), Hollywood’s serialisation of the genocide starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, portraying the (fictional) Weiss family of German Jews.  Karlin found the series an offensive account of the holocaust, writing in his notebook: how could a documentary photograph die so soon and be taken over by a fiction?

This line of thought is expanded upon in an extract from For Memory’s commentary,

For some, ill-prepared to deal with the transformation of a sacred memory into a fictional melodrama, the images of Holocaust were a desecration, the betrayal of what had been considered an untouchable testimony to those events. But for others, these new reminders were the best that could be done to save these memories from the threat of oblivion. In the space of one generation, photographs and documents were judged to be no longer able to carry the weight of the events they once portrayed.

Marc Karlin approached Hugh Stewart, together with his AFPU camera Joe Perry, in 1980 and asked them to recount exactly what they could remember about that day in 1945.

For Memory begins, like other Karlin films, a fade in on a subject, without caption or a guiding voice-over.

Further Reading






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