Michael Spencer, Part 2: Formation of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Montréal on July, 2010

Fraser. Now, how did you get into Film and Photo Unit with the Army?

Spencer.   Well, it was because I was called up. I was 21 or so. Grierson had agreed that none of the film board guys would get called up. But when I first met him, we were all excited about the ways in which the Germans had made all those fantastic movies. In particular, they had a very good camera which was much better than anything we had.  I expressed an interest in going to see that. Nothing happened for a long time; then I got called up. (I don't know whether he actually knew this.) Anyway, I finished my military training, they put me on a train and sent me to Halifax, then put me on a boat. And I'm walking around the deck on the second or third day, and who do I run into, but John Grierson?  What was he doing there? 

Well, he said he was going to go and take photographs. You see, he had put in the Film Act that the Film Board would be responsible for all photography.  So he went over to England and got an interview with Gen. Montague who told him to jump in the lake. He told Grierson that maybe that little camera was okay for civilians, but he was not going to run the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit with that! 

So, Grierson went back to Canada and put the Film and Photo Unit team together with four people…  Jack McDougall, who used to write documentaries, and a British cameraman named George Noble, a great man for telling jokes (the General was so impressed by George Noble that he would not go out to inspect the troops without making sure that Noble was there with his camera), and then there was a young man named Allan Grayston and myself.  And so we formed the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. Just the other day, they gave me a prize; I'm one of the few surviving members of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit.

F.  We just lost Chuck Ross recently. He was part of that. Did you run across some of those legendary war correspondents like Matthew Halton and Peter Stursberg?

S.  Oh yes, and Ross Munro.  Yes, of course, I wish I'd remembered Peter Stursberg, who got to be the father of Richard…[referring to Stursberg’s controversial years with the CBC and abrupt departure from his office as head of English language programming in 2010 at the time of this interview].

F.  Who's having his own adventures right now…  oh, Ross Munro, I remember he was the editor of the Edmonton Journal for a while.

S.  There was also a man called L.S.B. Shapiro. I don't know what he wrote for.  Yeah. We met them.

F.  It was quite a legendary time.

S.  The public relations people were responsible for carting these people around. They gave them jeeps; they wore uniforms with a little thing saying war correspondent. The commanding officer of the Film and Photo Unit was responsible for them; he was in charge of public relations. So I did meet some of them.  Ross Munro was the one that I remember the most actually.

F.  Were you in action at all..  posted to the front?

S.  No.  Well, I guess I should change that. I've recently been granted a pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs on the grounds that I was under fire. I suppose, in a small way, I was part of the military in terms of aggression; on several occasions there were shells falling all around, but nothing serious.

F.  So, after the war you came back to Canada and made that your home?

S.  Yes, my first marriage was to an officer in the Canadian Women's Army Corps. So, I came back with her and we established ourselves in Ottawa. And, of course, I went to work at the Film Board because they had offered me a very good job.

F.  No thoughts at that point of going home to England.

S.  None. The main reason was, of course, that I had been with those guys during the war. The Film Corps got to be quite a big outfit and I was with Canadians the whole time. I guess I became a Canadian by osmosis, by having all those contacts. And when I came back to the Film Board, I seemed to be more administrative; I wasn't overwhelmingly determined to make movies. I was more determined to help my friend Jim Beveridge, who was the Director of Production, to try to get things going. I got interested in administration, and moved into being a producer. I don't think I actually directed any pictures except the odd documentary. So, I consider myself to be a cultural bureaucrat. …  maybe you consider yourself to be one, too, Fil. [chuckling]

F.  Well, I've worked both sides of the street, as you know.  I can tell you which side I prefer. 

S.  We were talking about Stursberg earlier. There's a fine line to be walked between the demands of government money and government purposes and the demands of the audience. After all, if you're a filmmaker, you want people to be able to see your films, don’t you?