‘Talkies’ : Cinema at War

Despite the ongoing slow death of cinema theatres, the 20th century saw ‘talkies’ as an invaluable part of society. By WW2, Cinema had already been around a good twenty years and was immensely popular. In 1939 (a golden year for Cinema world-wide) there were multiple Cinemas all around Malta and even legislation enacted to regulate them. More so, infantry Battalions arriving in Malta, such as the Royal Irish Fusiliers, had their own ‘talkie’ equipment. In Marsa, the West Kents would also have Cinema apparatus, not to mention small cinema theatres nearby. 


Films released and shown in Malta before the outbreak of war

When air raids became commonplace, Malta’s Cinemas were quickly shut, only to slowly re-open as Malta braced for the extension of life at war. Some theatres (such as the Rex in Hamrun) applied to re-open only partially to hold shows a few times a week. The main preoccupation at the time was that people were not allowed to assemble in large groups or in confined spaces, both of which could lead to mass fatalities during an air raid. At the time, the main concern was people assembling in confined spaces such as movie (and regular) theatres. However, the continuation of cinema shows was regarded as essential to ease the heightened fear inherent at the start of war. A letter in July 1940 from the Government to Messr. G Caruana and Co. states that it is hoped “that the public will take advantage of the opportunity which you are affording them for entertainment in these anxious times”. 

Pre-war Cinema in Malta. Credit to 'Xi Tighdli Fuqu?' & Tony Callus

Cinema was also made accessible to those that needed it most. Certain fees were waived for schools or similar institutions. One request asks for an exception of payment on licence to operate a cinematograph as “a reward to the boys who attended Catechism classes”. In 1941, Brigadier Corkery also suggested lower fees for troops, who were already paying less for cinema shows compared to the average Maltese civilian. It is unclear if Cinemas had to stop completely in 1942, but this could certainly be true for the gruelling months stretching from February to May (and possibly more) of 1942. However, as early as July the Times of Malta lists Cinema shows happening in Malta’s major theatres. Not all Cinemas could keep screening films. There is some evidence to point at the Manoel Theatre/Cinema being used as a refuge for those who lost their house in the intensified bombing campaign. Others fell victim to the bombs even before, the most famous instance being the Regent Cinema disaster on the 15th of February the same year. 

The Regent cinema gets a direct hit on the 15th of February of 1942. Photo from Malta at War, Volume 4, by John Mizzi and Mark Anthony Vella
Battle for the Royal Opera House

In June of 1941, an interesting case emerged of two leading cinema operators arguing over the right to use the Royal Opera House (ROH). Capt. A. Caruana Ltd. applied to use the Royal Theatre as a cinema, owing to the loss of the Capitol (purchased just a few months before), Kingsway, and Regent Cinema to aerial bombardment. They also pointed out that their Rio and Rialto cinema in Cospicua were too badly damaged to be used. They had also invested thousands of pounds on super-films such as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘Pinnochio’ which they could only screen at the Manoel Theatre. Besides the loss of jobs the company’s struggle entailed, they also advised the government that “if ever opportunities for entertainment were called for, both for the civilian population and the services, such time is present”. A cover-letter further adds that Cinemas are of utmost importance to public morale, so that people could have “some innocent amusements to distract them from perpetually thinking about the war”. More so, that servicemen “might be kept away as much as possible from the bars”. We can also see in this letter a preoccupation of business owners for the vicinity of shelters, since the readiness of cover during an air raid affected where their customers would feel comfortable spending their evenings; certainly a concern of the struggling cinema at Manoel Theatre. 

A supporting letter the following month further adds that Mr. German, manager of the ROH, was involved in the first efforts to introduce “Talkie shows” in Malta. The ROH was equipped with cinematography equipment and infrastructure (at least since 1935), as well as the Manoel Theater. However, the internal governmental communication exposed a growing concern that if they were to accede to this request they could have set a precedent for all business lost to enemy action. Forebodingly, the scenario of the loss of the ROH was also considered. More so, between the Manoel and the Coliseum, Valletta was more than catered for given the reducing number of cinema-goers. Lastly, the ROH was also earmarked as a good location to temporarily house possible refugees.

Public Works plans from 1935 for the structural alteration to show films. National Archives of Malta, CSG02/11/1935

Soon after, a letter of complaint is filed by Pace Brothers limited, owners of 12 Cinema theatres, including some very famous names such as the Carlton, Orpheum, Regent, Rex, and Empire. Pace brothers had the biggest theatre in Valletta at the time: the Coliseum, with a capacity of a thousand people. In their complaint, they argue that the applicants already have a cinema at Manoel theatre which they do not use, and are only suffering losses by keeping their quality ‘western electric’ sound equipment in safe storage, offering an inferior quality of screening. Pace Brothers pointed out that they too had suffered losses and were barely profitable anymore, but were doing their best to import new and quality film, unlike Caruana (they claim). The latter had also recently been granted the forced sale of the Capitol which belonged to Pace Bros. The lease of the ROH would have been a second blow. Although Pace was willing to share the ROH, Government eventually decided to reject Caruana’s request.

Pre-war advert for Western Electric Equipment. Credit to Jonathan Boschen

This confrontation is a window into the life of Cinema operators in war-time Malta. One of the giants was certainly Pace Bros, operating a circuit of 16 Cinemas at the outbreak of WW2. They also imported films from a curated selection, even loaning some of them from premier distributors, paying careful attention to both public demand and the quality of experience. We can also see fierce competition between Theatres to keep their business profitable while constantly under the threat of losing their premises to an enemy bomb. The value of these Theatres increased ten-fold to the local population and British garrison, who depended on them for entertainment and to uplift their spirits, transporting them to fantasy or history, and made life tolerable, arguably, almost as much as their daily sustenance. 

Cinema after the Bombs

By 1943, projectionists were in short supply. One request to government asks if a lance-corporal Hollwood from the 4th. Battalion of the East Kent Regiment (Buffs) can stay on the island instead of joining his battalion departing from Malta (eventually fighting on Leros). The letter from the British Institute states that it is “impossible to find a competent unemployed projector operator”. It is not known if this request was acceded, or if Hollwood perished in the aegean. What one can certainly state is that cinema was still very popular and projectionists very much needed, especially as the siege of Malta was slowly lifting. In the same year, even prisoners were allowed “cinema shows”. 

A curious problem emerged in 1944 when it was discovered that some cinemas were playing anthems after screening while others did not. The Capitol and Majestic used to play the “The King” (the national anthem) at the end of cinema screenings on a gramophone, which was standard practice in British cinemas at the time. It was decided that it was too lengthy and tiresome to the audience to stand at attention to play both anthems at the end of a whole day of screening. Therefore, the Maltese national anthem (only declared so in 1941) and the first part of the U.K.’s national anthem would play over footage of the King. These trailers, however, only arrived after the war. It would seem that this practice did not last very long, and was perhaps an attempt to bolster morale through such national imagery. One must also mention that newsreels filled with footage of war in distant battlefields was also played before films. 

After the air raids stopped, Malta underwent a period of economic and social malaise. In every sense of the word Malta was damaged, perhaps mostly so physically as collapsed buildings became staple in the island’s landscape. By 1944 some theatres, such as the Windsor, still lay unrepaired. Others, such as the Carlton in Sliema, recovering from recent fires, were slowly coming back to life. Despite the lack of Ju88s and Stukas in the air, the quantity of materials that reached Malta was still insufficient. Therefore, reconstruction works such as the Carlton were deemed as non-priority repair. Official correspondences claim that building material for this project such as timber was withheld except for lime which was “in very abundant supply”. One cannot mention post-war reconstruction without Dominic Mintoff, and he features directly in the history of Cinema reconstruction as well. In Paola an “ambitious project” for a Cinema and skating rink, with Mintoff as architect, mysteriously obtains all necessary building materials. Mintoff and three contractors involved were eventually prosecuted and fined, revealing that permits for materials were in fact obtained for private dwellings.

The Carlton in Sliema on fire in 1944
The Films

It is clear that Cinemas could be found everywhere in war-time Malta and after, but what exactly were people watching? Heritage Malta’s recent publication of Jinx’s diary, the Times of Malta, and other sources give us a clear window into the Cinematic world soldiers and civilians alike lived in parallel to their everyday life. One can suggest that it was more than a mere escape and much closer to a source of influence and interpretation on local and international affairs. Much like films nowadays, films back then helped them understand their own society, besides being an expression of reality itself. We can only ponder on the effects such films had on the garrison and population’s perspectives and outlooks. 

Films released and shown in Malta between 1940 and 1943
The Moving Image

It is very hard to empathise with the lived experience of such a Cinematically oriented era. That being said, there are some memoirs which not only list films but also describe the experience of Cinema during war. Some clear hints can be found in Dennis Barnham’s recollections, which are well worth quoting at length: 

Perhaps it was to cheer myself up, perhaps to satisfy my curiosity about a Maltese cinema or to indulge the nostalgia for films which I associate with home and England and peacetime, that when I noticed placards outside the local cinema, advertising that Green Hell was showing today, I walked across to the grille, behind which a fat red-faced man in shirt sleeves was selling tickets, paid my one and fourpence and went inside.

I waited on a hard seat in the balcony for the show to begin; a breeze shook the tarpaulin that was stretched across a gaping bomb-hole in the roof, letting long narrow shafts of dusty sunlight pierce the gloom; sunlight also streamed in through the door below as more people arrived. I watched some giggling girls take such a long time in seating themselves in a row of stalls. I watched some young men in dirty lounge suits and trilby hats sauntering to and fro in front of the girls. Finally some impatient children tugged a reluctant curtain across the door. There was “a thunderclap of noise—from the gramophone! First some military bands playing marches, followed quickly by hot dance tunes. Now I have an absolute aversion to military music and I do not like jazz, but I was astonished to find myself inhaling the music like a perfume—it was beautiful. Next came a repetitive noise that rasped and rasped and rasped and rasped until someone scurried over to lift the needle. Just as suddenly the film began. I was bewildered to see the flickering images in black and white and grey: I couldn’t understand what was happening, but after a time I rediscovered the idiom—but the music, the light orchestral music that accompanied the film, it overwhelmed me. I was so overcome, as I leaned back in my seat, that tears burst from between my closed eyelids, rolling down my cheeks. Not having heard music for weeks and weeks and weeks, I continued crying silently; the music seemed to be wrenching my starved soul in such an agony of ecstasy that I could stand it no longer: I had to open my eyes and look. 

“Film stars. Faces like old friends from home. The film was about an expedition through a jungle swamp, which my imagination, frustrated by the black and white flickering screen, rendered in squelching green and soggy brown. Friends indeed—within a few minutes they were busily at work, indulging that noble pastime of blasting to pieces the sculptured relics of an ancient civilisation, in their greedy hunt for gold. Monument after archaic monument toppled, shattered on the moonstone steps. As the hero “rested from this vandalism, with the heroine nestling closer and closer into his arms, “Intermission” was flashed in front of us.

During the interval I grew vaguely annoyed at some children climbing over the seats for, as my row was not fastened down, I sat in imminent danger of a back-somersault. I also glimpsed several soldiers cuddling Maltese girl-friends in the rows behind me. I thought of the dilemma of the soldiers: returning to England early in the war, after a full tour of overseas duty, they have got caught up in this Malta siege; they must be despairing of ever returning to their wives, fiancées, and sweethearts again. The black and white screen reawoke to a close-up of pouting lips and continued passion: just as suddenly the ominous words: “Air-Raid Warning” were flashed upon it. “My heart turned sick but the film continued. It showed the ancient ruins decimated, the gold found, a bloody battle with natives hurling poisonous darts from one side of the screen and the explorers firing their hot guns from the other, and it ended peacefully with a picture of a well-timbered Elizabethan drawing–room, with the Europeans, uncomfortably clad in dinner-jackets, lifting their glasses in a toast to “Adventure”. Outside anti-aircraft guns were firing salvo after salvo and we could hear the fainter clap, clap, of shells bursting high above us.”

If Barnham’s memoir says anything about cinema in war-time Malta it is that it provided a homely and pre-war experience where all the comforts of life lay. It also evocatively points out the psychological release music could have had on war-stressed individuals (something which is also noted by other wartime accounts). More so, besides reaffirming the fact that Cinema was  popular during WW2, and that it helped people forget the war, ‘talkies’ were also a favourite location for romance (even after the war). Lastly, Barnham’s reference to the orientalism of natives with arrows versus explorers and Europeans can point at the influential images cinema projected into individuals. Such scenes and films provided a repertoire of imagery from all around the world, historical periods, music, and literary figures hitherto only experienced as printed images, text, or radio broadcasts. The real depth and connection the medium of the moving image provided people during the siege is yet to be fully studied.  

The Old Rialto in Cospicua, Hammet studio, unknown source or date

CSG-01-1136/1939- ‘proliferation of cinema owners’

CSG-01-2581/1937- ‘Legislation on Cinematography Film’

CSG-01- 2568/1940- ‘Opening of Cinematography Theaters’

CSG-01-2385/1940 ‘appreciation of the action of cinema owners in re-opening their cinemas’

CSG-01-1117/1941- ‘Exemption from payment of fee in respect of talking cinematrgraph machines, the director, St. Alphonsus Salesian Oratory Requests.’

CSG-01- 890/1941. ‘Reduction in Cinema Admission Fees.’

CSG-01-1882/1941. ‘Messr. Godfrey Caruana. Edgar Baldacchino, and Raphael Said request permission to use the Royal Opera House (ROH) for the Exhibition of Cinema Shows to the public.’

CSG-01-3182-1943 ‘Cinema Shows for Prisoners’: May, ‘periodical cinema shows for prisoners of good behavior.’

CSG-01-3161-1944: ‘Rebuilding of Cinemas damaged through enemy action’.

LGO-915/44, ‘Playing of the national anthem at the end of cinema performance.’


Ben Jinx, 2023, ‘The War in Malta as I saw it’, Heritage Malta.

Dennis Barnham, 2016, ‘Malta Spitfire Pilot’, Grub Street.

Teatru Manoel, ‘The 20th century’, teatrumanoel.com




Nikolai Debono, on behalf of Battlefront Malta