Spinning the Reels
In November of 1943, 16-year-old Lesley Giles sent a letter to the editor of The Advertiser, South Australia. “Sir,” she wrote. “I understand that a certain amount of publicity is necessary to raise the money for the Fourth Liberty Loan. It is an excellent idea to have films for this purpose, but I think the picture I Had a Son is an example of misguided effort.”
I Had a Son was produced and directed by Ken G Hall of Cinesound Productions for the Department of Information as promotion for the Fourth Liberty Loan, which aimed to raise more than £125 million from 750,000 Australian subscribers. In the film, a fictional Royal Australian Air Force pilot, Jim Forest (played by John Tate) narrates his own life and death as his veteran father (George Randall) quietly grieves the loss of his only son. “How small is the sacrifice we are asked to make … compared with theirs?” the film asks, its final frame a bald appeal for audience members to invest in the Fourth Liberty Loan.
For many, this subject matter touched a raw nerve. Lesley Giles was herself the daughter of a First World War veteran, Major Felix Gordon Giles. Her older brother, 407270 Sergeant David Arthur Giles, had been killed on operations in March 1942 while serving with No. 203 Squadron, Royal Air Force. She wrote, “People who have lost their sons do not want it driven home to them when they go to the pictures to try to forget. Those who have not suffered through the war do not take any notice of such a film, as they think it does not concern them. Surely better subjects could be chosen to help raise the money than trying to play upon people's emotions.”
The War Loan scheme, managed by the Commonwealth War Loan Office, appealed for Australians to invest in bonds that would return interest after the war. The first war loans offered to the Australian public in late 1939 and early 1940 were simply referred to as Commonwealth War Loans, with later appeals named Liberty, Victory, Austerity, and Security loans. The sale and promotion of war bonds was a major focus of the Australian home front and, even in the face of increased taxation and rationing, the scheme succeeded in raising more than £1 billion from the Australian public during the war. Much of this success may be attributed to the ceaseless advancement of each appeal through promotion and propaganda.
I Had a Son was only one short film of several produced by the Department of Information to promote the Fourth Liberty Loan. Other films included Back the Attack and Squander Bug, as well as a short personal appeal for contributions by Prime Minister John Curtin. The loan closed on 9 November 1943, raising more than £126 million – oversubscribed by more than £1 million from 560,000 Australian subscribers. At the time, this was the most successful Australian loan appeal of the war, and would only be surpassed by the First Victory Loan, which totalled more than £150 million at its close in May 1944. I Had a Son would continue to be screened throughout the rest of the war in support of further loan appeals. While such films were certainly an effective tool for revenue-raising throughout the war, for Lesley Giles, the calculated manipulation of personal tragedy was “a cruel thing to do, and should not have been allowed.”
I Had a Son, Back the Attack and Squander Bug may be viewed on the Australian War Memorial website at catalogue numbers F01360; F01331; and F01379