New Faces Come Back

Archive: Screen Archive South East
ID No.: 4217
Title: New Faces Come Back
Date: 1946
Film-maker: National Film Board of Canada Production
Colour: Black & White
Sound: sound
Duration of complete item: 26 min. 40 sec.
Themes: Post-war Reconstruction


This partially-dramatised documentary traces the story of Jim, a flight engineer in the Royal Canadian Air Force who was badly burned during a Second World War aircraft accident. Jim undergoes reconstructive surgery and social rehabilitation at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. His experiences earn him membership in the notorious 'Guinea Pig Club'.


A welfare officer recounts the story of Jim, a member of the Canadian armed forces who arrived in England in 1941. Shots of aircraft fitters at work are followed by aerial images of nighttime bombing raids. A plane bursts into flames after a crash landing. A heavily bandaged Jim is then seen being taken by trolley from his hospital room to the operating theatre - the camera films from his point-of-view.

Images of gossiping women, private signs and closed gates are used to indicate a town unwilling to interact with the disfigured servicemen - the welfare officer enlists the help of an elderly local woman to help change attitudes.

Back in the hospital, Jim joins his peers on the general ward - the patients enjoy a group sing-a-long. Shots of medical procedures follow - reconstructive facial surgery and dental work, bandaging, a saline bath and physiotherapy help the men recover from their injuries.

The villagers offer their support - they read and write letters, play cards with the patients and attend a large garden party. Jim grows in confidence and takes a part-time job at an aircraft factory - his confidence is knocked however when a girl refuses to dance with him at the factory dance. Shots of the disfigured patients at a piano recital reveal badly burned hands and faces - some have pedicle grafts. Jim studies his face in a mirror after his bandages are removed.

In 1945 the multinational members of the 'Guinea Pig Club' enjoy their annual club dinner. After 3 years at the hospital, Jim leaves for home, joining thousands of other returning servicemen aboard ships.


New Faces Come Back, made by the National Film Board of Canada, acknowledges the work of Canadian servicemen and medical staff during the Second World War - it places them as part of a Commonwealth family working together to achieve military and medical advances. It also acknowledges the unprecedented sacrifices that they made.

The film was made at a time when disabled and disfigured servicemen were returning home en masse to countries such as Canada which had remained largely untouched by bombings. New Faces Come Back works to educate the viewer in the physical and emotional aspects of these injuries. The film is significant not only as a medical record but as a record of a politically sensitive post-war issue, and proves to be far removed from the pageantry, commemoration and jubilation which marked other official records of the war years and the immediate post-war era.

By narrating the story of 'Jim', the film humanizes the injured airmen, encouraging empathy for the individual. It also challenges the stigma attached to their physical scars by presenting them in a largely unsentimental and uncensored fashion.

In 1939 the plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe set up the Burns Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead. It was one of four units established in anticipation of high aerial warfare casualty rates. McIndoe and his Canadian associate Dr Ross Tilley introduced pioneering techniques which led the way in modern reconstructive surgery. The Unit grew quickly, servicing the needs of fighter pilots and bomber crews - nearly 650 men were treated during the War.

Importantly, McIndoe recognized that in additional to physical disabilities, emotional scars could have a debilitating effect on the injured men. He therefore encouraged group camaraderie and interaction with the local community. The ‘Guinea Pig Club’ developed out of this holistic approach. It was formed in 1941 and was named by the injured airmen who acknowledged with humour that they were guinea pigs in experimental plastic surgeries. Although decreasing in numbers with the passing years, the Club's multinational membership continues to this day.

A documentary about the 'Guinea Pig Club' was made in 2002 and another in 2005 to commemorate this pioneering unit.

New Faces Come Back (1946)

New Faces Come Back (1946)

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