David Lean | Lawrence of Arabia | 1962

Opens with just music. Polishing the motorcycle. Flashing lights on Lawrence’s face as he rides. Goes from Cairo, Egypt to Bedouin country… Arabia. Sent to find a prince and gather intelligence. Silence while Turks? approach. It is not a Turk, it is Ali. “Have you no fear, Englishman?” “My fear is my concern.” “Truly.” Lawrence’s friend and guide is shot.

“I think you are another of these desert-loving English.” Read the rest of this entry »


Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “Lest We Forget: Fame is the Spur” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

Fame is the Spur, 1947.

Election posted for 1923, featuring Ramsay MacDonald, Labour PM 1929-35.

After Labour government comes to power in 1945, the Boulting brothers make Fame is the Spur. Political, and recognized as such at the time. Not popular. About a Labour politician’s rise to power and fame, and his decline. Seen as thinly veiled portrait of Ramsay MacDonald. Most, including Labour government leaders, agreed message was: “It should not happen again,” and “Every man who sees this picture will want to go away and re-examine himself.” During 1930s, such a project would not have been considered because politics, particularly “references to controversial politics,” were banned by British Board of Film Censors. WW2 brought more flexibility and latitude into censorship system, resulting in several political themed movies: The Prime Minister 1941, The Young Mr Pitt 1942. BBFC, scrutinizing Fame is the Spur, found no insuperable problems, though pointed out: re Peterloo Massacre, “The actual scenes of fighting with the mob must be reduced to the minimum,” the word “blood” deleted from script, and required “forcible feeding should not be overstressed as torture” in scenes of Anna’s imprisonment as Suffragette. So, Boultings were able to make a political film. Most people simply didn’t pay to see it.

Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “5. What a Difference a War Makes: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943.

September 10, 1942, Churchill dubbed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a “foolish production” and “propaganda detrimental to the morale of the army,” and asked Minister of Information to propose measure to stop it “before it goes any further.” Minister points out, such measures would demand nothing less than “imposition of a compulsory censorship of opinion upon all means of expression,” and “I am certain that this would not be done without provoking infinite protest.” Churchill insisted. Rough-cut went to showing for War Office and Ministry of Information representatives. War Cabinet minute from May 10, 1943: “The Secretary of State for War said that the film had now been seen by representatives of the War Office and the Ministry of Information, who took the view that it was unlikely to attract much attention or to have any undesirable consequences on the discipline of the Army. In the circumstances, he had reached the conclusion that the right plan was to allow the film to be shown.” Movie shows that by the early 1940s, the world of the Boer War hero Clive Candy has changed. The conventions of gentlemanly sportsmanship are no longer appropriate, as Theo (Anton Walbrook) has discovered through German’s defeat in the Great War.

Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “4. Why We Fight: A Canterbury Tale” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

A Canturbury Tale, 1944, produced, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

At WW2 outbreak, all cinemas in Britain were closed. Reopened for morale boost. Feature films seen as not only escapism/entertainment, but information and instruction. Overseen by British Board of Film Censors and Ministry of Information. Lord Macmillian, 1st wartime Minister of Information, 1940, memorandum suggesting 3 things for propagandist feature films: 1) What Britain was fighting for 2) How Britain was fighting 3) Need for sacrifice. Industry creativity surged, projected Britain to extent not seen in 1940s. Initially, cinema reflected class-bound 1930s tradition. See Carol Reed, Night Train to Munich 1940, Rex Harrison upper-class hero. Most romantic, out-of-touch war movie was Ealing’s Ships With Wings 1941. Hostile press led Michael Balcon, head of Ealing, to decide to produce realistic war stories. Turned to only group in Britain familiar with real life: the documentarists.

HOW BRITAIN FIGHTS. Rise of movies with focus on comradeship, duty, self sacrifice, cooperation. San Demetrio-London 1943. The Bells Go Down 1943. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943. In Which We Serve 1942. The Way Ahead 1944 [scripted Peter Ustinov and Eric Ambler, dir. Carol Reed]. The Way to the Stars 1945. Women contribution to war effort movies: The Gentle Sex 1943, Millions Like Us 1943.

WHY BRITAIN FIGHTS. 49th Parallel 1941. What were we fighting for? England and Englishness. Books: The English People, The Character of England, Forever England. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were romantic, adventurous, controversial, innovative. Pop entertainment and high art. The Spy in Black 1939. A Canterbury Tale 1944. Rejoices in England’s past, country crafts, rural beauty, countryside, Cathedral.

Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “3. The Age of Consensus: South Riding” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

South Riding, 1938

Tradition of considering 1930s age of “dream factory,” where cinema offered escape from reality of hunger marches, fascist demonstrations, etc. Also seen as era of American “colonization” of British film industry. Revisionist history has shown political radicalism during period to be fringe, and general consensus was for legitimacy of the regime. This chapter looks at characteristic forms rather than institutions of 1930s British cinema during the “age of consensus.”

During 1930s, at least, British films were more popular with British audiences than often given credit for, and “Americanization” thesis must be greatly qualified. Also, 1930s British film usually divided into 1) “prestigious” productions–Korda’s epics– and 2) “provincial” comedies, Formby, Fields, Will Hay, etc. Former receives attention, and latter only rarely. But division is arbitrary: both types made with same intent, and both are rich historical sources. South Riding exemplary mainstrain 1930s film: “compromise and consensus, in the best interest of society and the nation as a whole, are largely what the film of South Riding is about.”

Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “2. The Sun Never Sets: Sanders of the River” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

Nina Mae McKinney, co-star with Paul Robeson and Leslie Banks in Sanders of the River, 1935.

By 1930s, Empire had moved from expansive phase to administrative phase. James Morris: “Most Britons still considered it, all in all, as a force for good in the world, and only a minority could conceive of its actually coming to an end.” None of major political parties contemplated its dissolution. Prominent vocal critics: left-wing intelligentsia, which is almost always unrepresentative of national opinion. Korda produced trilogy of imperial epics, after single-handedly putting British film on the map with The Private Life of Henry V.

Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “1. Feature Film and the Historian” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

Jeffrey Richards. Photo credit David Sillitoe.

FEATURE FILMS and the HISTORIAN. In the 1960s, historians began to use film: newsreel and documentary. But, those did not represent “reality,” as was often assumed. Productions were highly selective and controlled. Raymond Durgnat: “Far from being progressive, these films are, in spirit, just what they were intended to be: literally speaking, commercials for the EMB or the GPO or any other part of the Establishment, and therefore the status quo of– of all periods– the Thirties.” The real value of the documentary movement was as a training ground for directors who made feature films during the war, bringing patina of realism to fictional films. Feature films seen and enjoyed by bulk of cinema-goers, and received the least attentions from historians [as of 1983]. 1960s auteur theory argued for single artistic vision in film-making, assigned this to director, as part of desire to confer artistic respectability to film. Commercial films are more often artefact or product than art, and because of this more useful to the social historian. Films of Gracie Fields more valuable to social historian than W.H. Auden poems, or Virginia Woolf novels. 1970s, structuralism and semiology up, influenced film critics, mix of avant-garde English Lit, French influence, Marxist ideology, linguistics and psychoanalysis for conceptual approach. Reaction against this, and intention of this book, is to find inspiration and methodology in history. This development comes not from France but from the United States of America, finding its inspiration and methodology in history. It deals not in pure speculation but in solid research, the assembling, evaluation and interpretation of facts, the relating of films to the world, the search for an understanding through the medium of popular films of the changing social and sexual roles of men and women, the concepts of work and leisure, class and race, peace and war, the real determinants of change and continuity in the real world.” Calls approach “contextual cinematic history.” Emphasizes context of film production. “Already resulted in two authoritative and stimulating general social histories of the American cinema”: Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America, Garth Jowett’s Film: The Democratic Art. Lary May, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry. May’s method a key innovation: analyze content and structure of groups of films, box-office trends, stars and their appeal, contemporary reviews and reactions, staging, lighting and action styles, fan magazines, censorship, picture palaces, and locate these in political, social, cultural context. This is the correct approach. Also recommends: American History/American Films: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, O’Conner and Jackson. Essays attempt to explain how films document social history, and capture American state of mind, and illustrate film industry development. At present [1983], very little contextual history of British cinema. Exception: Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios. What of other studios? Rank, Gainsborough, Associated British, Hammer? What of British stars? Here, three main concerns. 1) Analyze what film is saying, via structure, meaning, via script, visuals, acting, direction, photography, music. 2) context re film industry and political and social situation that produced it. 3) reception and audience reaction. Also look at stars. Raymond Durgnat: “The star is a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself. The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its films stars.” On stars, see Durgnat, Films and Feelings p.138, Richard Dyer, Stars 1979, Edgar Morin The Stars 1960, Alexander Walker Stardom 1974. [By 1960s, film was ceasing to be a mass entertainment medium and becoming a sectional and minority one.]

On film censorship and its role, see in particular Neville March Hunnings Film Censors and the Law 1967, Nicholas Pronay “The First Reality: Film Censorship in Liberal England” in Short Feature Films as History, p.113-37, Dorothy Knowles The Censor, the Drama and the Film 1934, John Trevelyan What the Censor Saw 1973, Guy Phelps Film Censorship 1975, Jeffrey Richards “The British Board of Film Censors and Content Control in the 1930s” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 1, 1981 pp.95-116; 2, 1982 pp.39-48.