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Emeric Pressburger (left) and Michael Powell filming in 1950. Photo: Flickr/Ninian Reid

Emeric Pressburger (left) and Michael Powell filming in 1950. Photo: Flickr/Ninian Reid

British Cinema during WW2 presents us with a more complex picture of an important historical period than we might expect, argues Martin Hall

It has become something of a cliché to refer to Britain’s cinema in and after the war as its ‘golden age’. The decade produced very high box office takings, a vertically integrated[i] studio in Rank to rival those in Hollywood, and a range of films produced that is considered unmatched in any other period. A selective list might include Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942); The Way Ahead (Carol Reed, 1944); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943); The Wicked Lady (Leslie Arliss, 1945); The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945); Listen To Britain (Humphrey Jennings, 1942) and Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). There were also musicals with Gracie Fields, and incredibly popular comedies with such stars as George Formby and Old Mother Riley. Another list of a dozen equally famous films could be thought up in minutes.

However, as John Ellis[ii] has argued, there wasn’t really a sense at the time that this was a complementary body of work that could be seen as indicative of a particular period in a national cinema. That came later, and can be considered as part of the way in which the period has been framed since then more generally: nostalgic; romantic; unified. However, what makes the consensus on the cinema of the period different from its more generalised historical equivalent on, for example, actual military operations, the home front, and Britain’s role in winning the war, is its relative difference from the cinema depicting the period, specifically the military operations, that came after it. While there were interesting war films made in the 1950s, 1960s and onwards, they do in general terms display more of a tendency towards triumphalism, presenting a war largely won by those trained to do so on the playing fields of the public schools of England. This view should be considered as an example of what Fred Inglis has referred to as ‘fixing the past’.[iii] This is not the case with many of the films made during the war, which tend to present working class people as central to the war effort. It is also the case that there are films made during this period which questioned the prevailing narrative then and since regarding Britain’s role in the world.

In the context of VE day, particularly this year, given the Covid-19 crisis, and the inevitable avalanche of at least partial propaganda that we will be subjected to, let us consider what kind of world the films of the 1940s presented for audiences, and what kind of cinematic schools and traditions coalesced during the period. After that, we will consider two of the films above in some detail: Went the Day Well? and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They are perhaps the most contrasting of the films listed above that directly address the war, and are therefore useful in thinking about this era. Let’s begin with a selective look at the filmmakers.

Cavalcanti (as was Jennings) was part of the British Documentary School, and had worked for the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit under John Grierson. The unit had been set up in 1933 and the filmmakers who coalesced around Grierson had moved there en masse from the EMB (Empire Marketing Board) Film Unit. Despite the inauspicious name of the EMB, its film unit under Grierson had made a number of both formally and politically radical films, the most famous of which is perhaps Drifters (John Grierson, 1929), a film about North Sea herring fishermen. It was first shown in a double bill in a private film club with Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925), which was banned at this point in the UK (until 1954, in fact). The GPO continued in similar vein, with Grierson functioning as its full time organiser, producer and recruiter. It produced such work as Night Mail (Basil Wright & Harry Watt, 1936), the Brazilian Cavalcanti’s Coal Face (1935) and Jennings’s Spare Time (1939). To continue with this brief history, the GPO became the Crown Film Unit in 1940 and worked directly under the Ministry for Information. 

It’s worth commenting that the terms ‘realist’ and ‘documentary’ were to some degree used interchangeably in the 1920s and ‘30s, and much of British Cinema’s critical tradition has focussed on films that sit within the social realist form. This has taken in the British New Wave of the early 1960s, the cinema of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bill Douglas, and more recently Andrea Arnold, Shane Meadows and Clio Barnard. While this isn’t the place to get into a discussion of the limits of realist forms of representation, it is worth commenting that realism has a tendency to resolve contradictions for the spectator as part of its presentation of a discourse of truth.[iv] This does mean there can be a lack of contradiction in such films, which means they don’t necessarily ask the viewer to question actively what they’re seeing. However, what the realist films of the 1940s do have in common is being ‘socially extended’[v], meaning they present a broad-ranging social view that extended into the working class, one that is perhaps missing from some of the more revisionist films that come later.

On the other hand, Powell and Pressburger could never be accused of not asking questions of the spectator, nor of any kind of rote social realism; indeed, their decline in the 1960s can be put down to the fashion for all things realist at the time, and critics’ dislike of fantasy when it has a British face, as opposed to an American one. Powell had a background in quota quickies[vi] in the 1930s, but was influenced by the cinema coming out of Europe in the silent era, in particular post-WW1 German Expressionism. Scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger, who was Hungarian, had a somewhat romanticised view of English life, and if that tendency can be seen in the films they made together as the Archers, it comes from the émigré. Few of their films could in anyway be described as ‘socially extended’, and the working class characters in their films are somewhat thin on the ground; still, they have been a favourite on the left for many years, and, despite their non-realist style, can be thought of as political filmmakers. Indeed, Derek Jarman described Powell as the only British filmmaker to ‘make a clear political analysis’.[vii]

Our realist text for consideration, Went the Day Well?, based on a Graham Greene short story and made for Ealing Studios, presents an archetypal southern English village in the middle of the last century. It was made – as was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – in the period between the failure of Dunkirk and the D-Day landings and is a product of what John Orr describes as ‘the culture of suspicion in a country that had been heavily bombed and feared invasion’.[viii] It reflects worries in the Ministry of Information that the population was becoming blasé about this threat and can be seen as a direct attempt to counter that. The film presents a microcosm of rural life at that time: there is the landowner; an educated middle class comprising the squire, the vicar, his daughter and a few others; small business owners; a working class and peasantry of land girls, transplanted cockneys, a poacher, delivery drivers and a sailor and his family. The film begins and ends with a typical rustic figure addressing the audience as if the war has already been won, with this simply being one of many tales to tell.

The idyll presented is subverted, though, by the arrival of Nazis in disguise. With the exception of Nora (Valerie Taylor), the vicar’s daughter, it is the lower class characters who realise that the newly-arrived British soldiers on exercise are actually Germans, in the vanguard of an invasion. A German chocolate bar is found; a soldier claims to be from Manchester but doesn’t know it has a Piccadilly, which he thinks is only in London, and their telegrams use continental numbers. Moreover, it is Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), the generally sympathetic manor house owner, who is blind to the threat and initially dismisses talk of fifth columns and traitors in the midst. More to the point, the fifth columnist turns out to be Wilford (Leslie Banks), the local squire. The message is that treachery is to be found everywhere, even among the most supposedly respectable members of society.

Amidst the suspicious villagers, it is the women who take the lead, and try to get messages out to neighbouring areas. The Germans are presented as both brutal and untrustworthy, and therefore as Nazis – the film is very much part of the effort to convince the population that there was no distinction between Germans and Nazis. They are willing to shoot anyone who tries to escape and indeed announce that the children will be shot the morning after the initial escape attempt is made.

In contrast, the English inhabitants are unified in their good sense and discipline: Mrs Fraser sacrifices herself to save the children in her care; Tom (Frank Lawton), the sailor home on leave leads the fightback from the church; the postmistress (Muriel George) is killed attempting to get news out to the world, and George (Harry Fowler), the cockney evacuee, is shot in the leg escaping to the next village to get help. He escapes due to the efforts of Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the local poacher, whose craftiness is key in distracting the German sentries. The beacon of English rectitude that is the vicar’s daughter, Nora, who was in love with Wilford, shoots him dead towards the end. Everyone understands the need for Total War, though its final depiction in the climactic battle is made ambiguous in visual terms: the Germans and the British at the manor house shooting at each other are of course in the same uniforms, and it is very difficult to tell who is on which side. The message is clear: anyone can be anyone. A uniform or bourgeois respectability tells you nothing about someone’s intentions.

What is important about the film is its attempt to represent the trials and tribulations of the home front. It depicts shifts in population brought about by conflict and addresses the issues of spies and fifth columnists without being sensational, melodramatic or lurid. This is to be expected, given the history of the director. While being a propaganda film, it does allow for nuance, and the realist shooting style means that it feels like a slice of life, rather than a dramatisation of themes necessary for the war effort.

On the other hand, Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, made for Rank, is clearly a dramatisation of ideas, rather than a specific story presented in semi-documentary style. Taking its title from a series of Evening Standard cartoons, which depicted a clownish upper-class soak of an officer, the film presents us with the whole life of a man, in flashback, taking in the end of the Boer War and WW1 and bringing us back to the present, in which the previously retired General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) is back in action, training the Home Guard.

Its central idea is this: the English public school tradition of fair play, approaching war as if it were a game of cricket between gentlemen, is dead, if it had ever existed. Clive learns this from a number of sources, but primarily from his best friend, Theo (Anton Walbrook), a retired German officer and escapee from Nazi Germany currently living as an enemy alien in London. We are presented throughout with both the limits and the positives of Clive’s worldview: he refuses to believe there were concentration camps in South Africa back in the 1890s, and indeed his meeting Theo is occasioned by him striking a German who suggests such a thing. Theo and Clive have a duel and become best friends afterwards, with the former going on to marry the English governess (Deborah Kerr) with whom Clive is in love. Throughout, the idea of ‘home’ is central and is referenced in a number of different ways:  a place of refuge; of love; something under threat in Britain, and destroyed in Germany.

The film begins with an exercise in which a young officer uses his initiative to get one over on Clive by beginning his dummy invasion some hours earlier than he was meant to; right from the start, the film makes it clear to the viewer that a new, hardened attitude is required if fascism is to be defeated. Indeed, it is dedicated to ‘the New Army of Britain, to the new spirit in warfare, to the new toughness in battle, and to the men and women who know what they are fighting for and are fighting this war to win it’. By the end, having had a radio broadcast cancelled at the BBC, and been sternly lectured by Theo, and lastly chastened by his defeat in the military exercise, Clive has understood what is required.

Powell and Pressburger’s radical decision to use the device of a friendship between a German and an Englishman in 1943 did not go down too well with the War Office, who, as suggested above in the discussion of Went the Day Well?, were much more comfortable with films that stated that no such distinction between German and Nazi existed, which was considered to be a key facet of the Total War in which Clive is reluctant to engage. Churchill attempted to get the film stopped in production, and there is still much debate regarding why he did not succeed[ix]. Of course, Clive’s career path mirrors to a large degree Churchill’s, and in many ways we can see him as an inversion of the war leader.  The film was a success at the box office, which suggests that ruling class fears regarding its content were either misplaced, or that, despite the official view then and since, many British people understood that Nazism did not mean that there were not good Germans.

The film has fantastical elements throughout: there is the flashback structure, uncommon within the genre, the passing of time being shown through the device of presenting Clive’s growing gallery of animals he has shot, and the conceit of having Deborah Kerr play three different women: Edith Hunter, the governess; Barbara, a nurse in WW1, whom he marries, and Johnny, his current driver. They are three different women but signify one idea: the importance of love and of grasping it when it is presented to you. The film is shot in glorious Technicolor, which itself makes it unique among the list above.

It also is unbending in its anti-Nazi politics, while making it clear that ‘British fair play’ is an approach not fit for purpose. The key scene in this regard is when Theo, recently arrived in London as a refugee and not yet back in touch with Clive, is summoned to an interview, in which it will be decided if he can stay or not. He attempts to persuade his interlocutor that he is an anti-Nazi, tells him that he and his now deceased wife had lost their children to Nazism, and that neither of them had come to her funeral. The camera cuts to a close-up and Theo says ‘Heil Hitler’, while close to tears. He speaks passionately about his hatred for the Nazis, and it is this, plus Clive turning up to vouch for him, that earns him the right to stay.

However, this scene is no simplistic paean to the supposed values of British democracy: in the WW1 section of the film, in a scene with other German soldiers at Victoria station, we have seen Theo, who has been to dinner with Clive and a selection of the ruling class, describe his fellow guests as ‘children’. This is not meant as any precursor to Nazi thinking, but as an analysis of Britain’s misplaced sense of faith regarding its own imperial role in the world.

It is of course impossible to present a full picture of the breadth of British filmmaking during WW2 in a piece of this length and I have not attempted to do so. What is the case is that even a look at just two films presents a picture of a nation far less sure of itself than the one that will be presented upon the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe this Friday. In Went the Day Well?, we see the ability of ‘the common folk’ to take matters into their own hands and fight fascism; in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, we see the concrete limitations of Anglo-Saxon fair play when faced by the Nazis, as well as a sharp critique of equating political ideology of any kind with the concept of national characteristics. It might be well to remember that in the coming days.


[i] This refers to a studio having control over production, exhibition and distribution.

[ii] John Ellis, ‘The Quality Film Adventure: British Critics and the Cinema 1942-1948’, in A. Higson (ed.), Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), pp. 66-93 (66)

[iii] Fred Inglis, ‘National snapshots: fixing the past in English war films’, in I. MacKillop and N. Sinyard (eds.), British cinema the 1950s: a celebration (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 35-50 (35). I must confess that I am taking Inglis’s phrase out of context here, for the purposes of making an argument regarding difference. In truth his essay is a threnody to various English national characteristics which he sees as exemplified by a selection of films made immediately after the war and in the subsequent decades, taking us right up to A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977).

[iv] See John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Routledge, 1987) or John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) for useful discussions of this tendency. Readers will note that both books concern television, but the type of realist filmmaking we’re discussing here has been more common on the small screen since the 1960s, not least because its audience was always ‘socially extended’, as Williams discusses in the essay referred to below.

[v] Raymond Williams, ‘A Lecture on Realism’, Screen (1977), Vol, 18. No, 1, 61-74 (65)

[vi] The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which came into force the following year, insisted on 7.5% (20% from 1935) of exhibited films being British for a 10 year period, with the idea of stimulating production. This meant that many studios pumped out films quite quickly in order to meet the quota. Furthermore, while the term has a pejorative aspect to it, many of Powell’s films during this era were of a considerably higher standard than the average quota quickie.

[vii] Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 1991), pp. 216. Jarman also describes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as ‘the finest English feature’ in the same comment.

[viii] John Orr, Romantics and Modernists in British Cinema (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[ix] For a full discussion of this affair, see James Chapman, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Reconsidered’. Available Online. http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/43_Blimp/Blimp02.html

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