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Yet Another Bloody War Film

Another WWII anniversary has come and gone, and now seems to be a good time to look at that curious genre: the British war film.

The early years

To begin with, British war films were indistinguishable from those of other countries. Only the uniforms changed. The Boer War was represented on screen by some parades, long distance actuality footage and some extremely dodgy reconstructions. Plus a lot of flag waving.

World War One

The British government took a long time to be convinced that production of celluloid was anything more than a frivolous luxury. Cinema was still looked on as a pointless form of entertainment for the working classes which diverted vital resources from war production. Thanks to this attitude Britain, along with the rest of Europe, lost the battle against American domination of the film industry.

Even when the Government was finally convinced of the propaganda value of film, it never really got the hang of things. Britain Prepared was an epic documentary about the war effort but as Kevin Brownlow wrote in The War, The West and the Wilderness:

. . .Britain Prepared is unusual, if not unique, in the history of propaganda films. It is absolutely honest. It sets out to show a nation preparing for war . . . and it does so with an artless pride that is quite disarming. Nowhere is there an attempt to falsify a situation, or to suggest that the British are somehow superior to any other form of life.

Maybe in this honesty we can see the seeds of what would become so distinctive about the British war film.

The government supported other films, notably The Battle of the Somme and the untitled epic by Herbert Brenon which was eventually abandoned when the war ended before production did.

The inter-war years

The years immediately after W.W.I were bitter ones. The public soon realised that the promise of "A Land Fit for Heroes" was just empty rhetoric despite the slaughter and the sacrifice it had endured. Films were made reflecting this mood such as Comradeship and Reveille, but the mid-twenties production slump meant that few films were made at all. Anyway, the public preferred to see the war through American eyes with classics such as Shoulder Arms and The Big Parade, particularly since the British films were generally more concerned with the suffering of minor Gentry rather than the Common Man.

As the twenties drew to a close, relations with Germany were delicate and war films were frowned upon. The Government even tried to ban Herbert Wilcox' Dawn in which Sybil Thorndike played Nurse Edith Cavell. The quota boom brought some interest in the Great War from production companies. British Instructional Films made a couple of stabs at reconstructions, notably Tell England (the story of Gallipoli). Audiences weren't interested.

Throughout the thirties, British cinema ignored the First World War and only gradually turned its attention towards the coming war. The Lady Vanishes features a fictitious police state which is easily confused with Nazi Germany, but there were others where the villains were explicitly or implicitly Communist.

Our finest hour

With the coming of the second world war, British cinema entered its golden period. With the enemy the other side of the Channel and bombs raining down on cities throughout the country, the nation pulled together and British film makers found a common purpose.

Well, almost a common purpose. Powell and Pressburger of course were famous for their sympathetic Germans whether played by Conrad Veidt or Anton Walbrook. In their films, and in the films of others, Germans are frequently depicted as torn between duty to country and hatred of the Nazi system. For every goose-stepping, sloganeering Nazi automaton, there are several decent people too cowed or confused to fight against the system.

Maybe it was embarrassment at the difference between W.W.I. propaganda and the actual pointlessness of that war. Maybe it was Mosley's Blackshirts and the streak of anti-Semitism running through Society that made people feel that what was happening in Germany could easily have happened here. Whatever it was, Noel Coward could make film propaganda as powerful as In Which We Serve on the one hand, and sing Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans on the other.

The memory of Mosley's Fascists fuelled worries about the Fifth Column of spies which was supposedly working in Britain. The best serious expression of this worry was The Next of Kin but most of Britain's comics ended up fighting spies (though most also had fantasy sequences in which they could black Hitler's eye). Perhaps it's significant that those spies invariably turned out to be Upper-middle class (or maybe the film makers assumed the Working Classes were too thick to be traitors).

One difference between W.W.I and W.W.I.I. films was the lack of battle reconstructions. The speed of the war, and the outstanding documentary footage available made it difficult for fiction makers to impress the audience. There was also an awareness that the big set-piece battles weren't the whole story of the war. Total War meant that everyone had to "do their bit" and the film industry set out to glorify every section of the armed and auxiliary services.

For the first time ever, the majority of film makers were committed to showing, and celebrating, the lives of ordinary people. This change of attitude might have sprung from the shared sense of danger, or, more likely, because for the first time ever, middle-class film makers actually met working-class people. Whatever the reason, British films actually connected with British audiences. Even allowing for the shortage of American product crossing the Atlantic, the audience still preferred British films. 

The austerity years

In the immediate post-war years, there was a lull in production of the war film. Film producers were more interested in neo-realist dramas of working class life, while the audience was up for some escapist relief, preferably with Margaret Lockwood in nice frocks being beastly or Anna Neagle in nice frocks being romanced by Michael Wilding.

Granted, every tough noir-ish hero had a wartime backstory, and virtually everyone with a European accent had been liberated from a German camp, but few films took the war as a backdrop. Even in those that did (such as Green For Danger) there's a definite sense that this is past history.

The Fifties heyday

It wasn't until the Fifties that the film industry took to making war films with a vengeance. Given the time lag between wartime memoirs being written, published, successful and finally adapted for the screen, maybe it's not surprising that it took five years for the floodgates to open. What is surprising is how enthusiastically audiences took to them.

In 1950, the double-whammy of Odette and The Wooden Horse made the British top ten and suddenly everyone was making a war film. Many sub-genres sprang up each with their own conventions. Every branch of the services and every battle had stories that had to be told.

In the midst of these Boy's Own heroics, there were few roles for women. The occasional resistance leader or spy slipped through, and the odd glamorous nurse, but generally women were excluded from the action. Even A Town Like Alice seems more interested in the suffering of Peter Finch than the women P.O.W.s.

The war film had become Britain's answer to the Western. It examined masculinity and honour and the code that said "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do". American war films by contrast seemed childish and, if Errol Flynn was liberating Burma single-handed, downright insulting.

The decline

As the Fifties wore on, producers put more and more faith in the war story and began to make grandiose films celebrating (or commemorating) battles. Instead of telling fascinating stories they were more interested in recreating history. Films such as Dunkirk and The Longest Day were made - expensive, accurate and rather dull.

As the demographic profile of the audience shifted, the war film declined. Women were already sick of them. For the first time ever men outnumbered women in the cinema audience in the Fifties. With television providing a real alternative to the cinema for the thirty-somethings who fought in the war, the picture houses were left to young men who weren't interested in history lessons. They wanted action. Films where the only purpose for Germans was to go "Aargh!" as they died in a hail of bullets. Films like Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. Films with American heroes. Once again, British cinema had lost its audience.