Reflections on the Golden Screen

The Silver Screen

The question is "what constitutes a British film?" - in the early years of Ealing Studios and so on a British film was easily identifiable by stock British actors, a plot which was centred around London to keep the costs down and a boring script.  The lack of ambition in film-making ignored completely the rich history of Great Britain and concentrated on dull kitchen sink dramas or yet another Dicken's adaptation, with the emphasis on education rather than entertainment; for many years British films were more like attending night-school than going to the movies.  Over the years, things have improved greatly and American and French actors play parts in British films, American Directors take charge of British films and its now far more difficult to identify a wholly British film; I don't want to get into a debate about whether films are wholly British or not so the following films may have American actors or Directors but are essentially British in subject matter. 
Hollywood movies with all their inaccuracies were at least entertaining but British Cinema, apart from a very few exceptions was pretty dull and extremely formulaic.  For many years every single actor in England had an upper class background.  Why this should be so reflects the class distinctions extant between the wars and up to the 50's.  It was only after this time that working class actors and actresses started to get parts in British films and prove to be far more accomplished than their predecessors ever were.  Prior to this you would have some upper-class twit portraying a toilet-attendant or some such and speaking in Oxford English with a "h " missed out here and there and that was their idea of working class.  Even worse than the accent was the fact that any "working cove" was invariably deemed to be as thick as a brick and patronised accordingly.
But the real howler was always the maid who was invariably as daft as a brush and never seemed to have any home life.  Not only that, because they had never set eyes on a two up or two- down terrace or been in a semi the screenwriters assumed that everyone in England had a maid so you will invariably see feather dusters everywhere in English films of this era.  And the very worst part of this scenario is that audiences everywhere watched these mangled distortions of themselves without a murmur.
Another constant which runs through these black and whites is the "boyfriend" of the heroine who is invariably in his forties or even fifties, sports a flip-brim trilby and is overweight.  His redeeming qualities, if they can be said to be such, are his upper-class background and his pots of money - this doesn't say much for the heroine who is usually 30 years younger than her boyfriend; impoverished and from a working class family who speak Oxford English she plays tennis to keep her spirits up while avoiding the constant attentions of her creepy beau and is of course as chaste as the driven snow.
The classic examples of all of this run through every George Formby film he ever made and without ever knowing it George opened a window into just how class ridden England was at that time.  No matter what the setting, the formula was always the same - the girl always sees through her boyfriend's evil intent in the nick of time, returns to her working-class roots in the form of a bumbling but loveable George and looks toward a golden future of tennis and chips for the next 40 years.
 The main theme of all these films is of course George's clowning and most audiences were content to see it on those terms but it is revelatory at how they accepted the class distinctions as the norm.




Brief Encounter  (1945) Director David Lean from a  play by Noel Coward
This film is one of the most stultifyingly boring films ever made and is still doing the rounds today, generally accepted as a classic of the British cinema.    There are even people who travel to  Carnforth railway station where the film was shot and taking geekdom to its ultimate one or two of them actually re-enact scenes from the film with themselves as players; just how a film mainly set in a drab and depressing railway cafe where they sold drab and depressing tea and buns and outside was a drab and depressing rain could ever inspire the dog-like devotion this film inspires is completely beyond me.  Brief Encounter again brings into focus class distinctions common at that time with the two leading players part of an acting clique closed to anyone with a regional accent .  How the middle- class- but- married doctor Trevor Howard could fancy the middle- class -but- married Celia Johnson of the bulging eyes and Olive Oyl figure is beyond me but fancy her he did and audiences queued for miles for a slice of this suburban angst.  Even if she had been a reincarnation of every femme fatale who ever made a movie her strangulation of the English language grates like glass on a blackboard and I strongly suspect that most of the ladies who went to see this film did so to gaze upon the courteous and refined Trevor Howard feeling an affection for him something akin to the way they felt about the family doctor.  The only redeeming feature of this picture that I can see is that the trains ran on time which is a heartwarming slice of yesteryear but hardly worth the entrance fee.          to your customer
Apart from George Formby and Gracie Fields providing some light relief most of the black and white films in the 30s and 40s were serious stuff. In fact many British films of that era have the strange quality of being an extension of school lessons as if movies had to justify their very existence by being educational.  There seemed to be a sense of British self-conscious belief that if a film deviated from some serious theme approved by the establishment then it was accordingly frivolous and therefore degenerate.  Nobody seemed to notice that it flew in the face of Ars Gratia Artis or if they did then they did'nt care.
Goodbye Mr Chips {
1939 }  was an unashamedly sentimental homage to our English way of life epitomised by the Public School system.  Robert Donat and Greer Garson were outstanding in a film rightly acclaimed as a classic of the genre.  An unfortunate consequence of Chips was that it was so successful that it spawned endless numbers of copycat scripts, some good but most very poor and for a long time it was a case of Chips with everything. 
Even as late as 1948 the Boulting Brothers were squeezing the last pips from the subject with a film called
The Guinea Pig.  The film began reasonably enough, leaning slightly to the view that class barriers were coming down and a working class lad at a Public School was a social experiment worth following.  From that point onward the whole thing degenerated into a homily on the virtues of cut-glass accents and stiff upper lips and capital punishment and ended up as an embarrassing Pythonesque re-mix of Chips.  Sad to say, Richard Attenborough as the Guinea Pig, bursting out of his school uniform, sold out to the establishment.  One thing that stands out is just how difficult it was at that time for anyone without a Public School grounding to get to University no matter how high their ability - in fact, when I think about it, I never knew anyone who went to University from my area or era.
So, if you were not into slapstick and a return to school days did not appeal then Hitchcock's adaptation of John Buchan's
The 39 Steps  {1935 } was perhaps 39 steps more in the right direction.  Robert Donat playing the innocent engineer caught up in a web of intrigue has charisma and charm in abundance.  Combined with a picaresque and action - packed plot the film plays well even today.  Kenneth Moore did it again in the 50s just as successfully and you could argue forever which is the better version.  One scene in the Kenneth Moore film is hilarious, when on the run he stumbles through an impromptu speech at a girls school and this scene alone shades it for me.
Great Expectations made in 1946 by David Lean was an excellent adaptation of the Dickens story with John Mills as Pip
and Jean Simmons as Estella while Moira Shearer did the impossible managing to make ballet popular with
The Red Shoes.
Not to be outdone, Dirk Bogarde attempted a far, far, better thing as the degenerate Sydney Carton who famously sacrifices himself in a final act of redemption on the guillotine in
Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities (1958)
Noel Coward chipped in with a patriotic war-time propaganda effort In
Which We Serve {1942 } with John Mills to the fore as a chippy cockney sailor and all in all, cinema audiences of that era must have been the best educated and patriotic, not to say brain-washed in the whole of the western world.    They were even happy to be shown to their seats.
The concluding impression I had then and still do, is that for a country rich in history and event, the British film industry was and is remarkably insular in choosing both subject and content for its movies.and while the above films have their merits the meandering boredom of
Brief Encounter  was a low-point.

The Charge of the Light Brigade  (1968 )  Director Tony Richardson
Fortunately Trevor Howard went on to better things  and he was the complete antithesis of all that his doctor in Brief Encounter engendered when he played Lord Cardigan in The Charge of The Light Brigade - irascible, garrulous and lascivious as he led his 600 cavalrymen into the Russian cannon.  Actually, this film portrays the Crimean War in a very realistic manner, keeping strictly to historical fact and exploring the dynamics of each relationship faithfully.  Again, class distinctions are very much a part of the film but in this instance they are portrayed just as they were in Victorian times with the lines drawn distinctly and rigidly and the lower classes accepting their lot placidly as if it had been pre-ordained from on high.  Norman Rossington's portrayal of a dishevelled and weary cavalryman after the carnage of the Charge has him saying to his superior " Go again Sir ? " which emphatically illustrates the relationship between officer and soldier ---a relationship which carried over into civilian life.  The stock players were still in evidence with John Gielgud playing Lord Raglan and the ultimate " luvvie"  Vanessa Redgrave, playing  Clarissa and overall the clique of RADA actors translated easily into their aristocratic roles.  For some strange reason the Director added complex cartoons to the film which acted as intervals between scenes but it did not work at all and jars with the overall seriousness of the film.  The film is far superior to the previous "Charge" which starred Errol Flynn and inevitably Olivia De Havilland but the definitive Charge of the Light Brigade  is waiting to be made.   I always find it quite incredible that less than half a mile away from where I live at least 3 members of the Charge are buried in our local Church cemetery.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred

                    Alfred Lord Tennyson
Relief of the Light Brigade by
      Richard Caton Woodville
It is fair to say that the films of the 50s and 60s echoed the changing times.  Nevertheless, although grittier and wider in content there was still an overriding penchant to give out a message or explore in depth  some  social scenario  -it seems that they just could not bring themselves to have fun. 
The Bridge on The River Kwai  by David Lean, combined William Holden and Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins in an exploration of the effects of life in a Japanese prison camp.  Made in 1957, the film was uncomfortably close to reality and too soon after the war for many people but it was an excellent study of a British officer under pressure in an intolerable situation.
Yet another study of an officer under pressure was the little-known 
Tunes of Glory {1960}, an excellent psychological drama where Alec Guinness was never better as the odious and thick-headed Lt. Colonel Jock Sinclair in charge of a Scottish Regiment. John Mills plays the new commanding officer, Colonel Barrow,  who Sinclair resents and despises for his upper-class upbringing - class distinctions were a theme which had not yet gone away.  Sinclair is too stupid to foresee any consequences to his constant undermining of Colonel Barrow's position and the situation leads to tragedy for both men.  Great little movie with two great actors honing their skills in readiness for greater things.
Another great little movie of this era was the superb adaptation in 1962 of Melville's novel, 
Billy Budd.  Terence Stamp excelled on his debut as the stammering, young seaman whose life was made a misery by Robert Ryan's Master-at- arms during the Napoleonic Wars ,so much so that he won a Golden Globe for Best Young Actor.   Although Moby Dick  is generally acknowledged to be Herman Melville's masterpiece, there's no doubting that as a book it's also very long, very dark and very difficult to wade through, which might put many people off the rest of his work.  However, none of the remainder of Melville's work is similar to Moby Dick and Billy Budd is an exceptional book and film describing the iniquities aboard ship in the British navy during the Nore and Spithead mutinies - given the hardships the sailors endured the only wonder is that they did not mutiny earlier.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning  Director: Karel Reisz

The 1960's were the beginning of an incredible change in the social life of the British people - teenagers in the guise of Teddy Boys prowled the streets, Mods and Rockers roared through the streets and fought in coffee bars, Rock'n Roll was born and a younger generation emerged from the stifling post-war austerity.  The teenage rebellion was pervasive, fuelled by a still sultry Elvis and films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
 As ar as British films went, everything changed when a slimline Albert Finney, a delicious Shirley Anne Field and a hard-edged Rachel Roberts played out one of  the forerunners of the "angry young man" crop of films in Alan Sillitoe's  Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Albert Finney played a factory-hand striking out at everything and everyone in a blind rage at his ordered life of work and pub which struck a chord with millions of factory workers throughout the country; after all, he had everything he could want - a steady job, the obligatory binge in the  pub at the weekend and a nice girl friend.  The vague rage inside that there could be so much more and that it was perhaps a life unlived had its counterpart in James Dean's Rebel Jim Stark who when asked what he was rebelling against asked "what've you got" .  Rachel Roberts is Finney's female counterpart and they both find solace in an illicit sexual liaison which finds her eventually pregnant with a jealous husband to face, a situation which many women watching in the darkened cinema would have identified with.  Rachel Robert's is largely forgotten today but at the time her  performance was a tour-de-force suggesting a real life knowledge of the subject matter.

Nothing that went before in British films had approached Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for its gritty approach to life and more pertinantly the cast were all working-class with not a "luvvie" in sight.  There's no doubt that even a few years previously this film would have never been contemplated within the closed ranks of the British film makers - lfe was changing fast and there was no going back.
Room at The Top  (1959) could be described as an English version of A Place in the Sun  (1951) with Laurence Harvey as an angry young man with a precise knowledge of his problems and a willingness to do something about it which involves wooing the daughter of a wealthy factory-owner .  The problems arise when ambition turns into ruthlessness and from then on it all starts going wrong, and in common with Montgomery Clift's character, the whole charade ends in tragedy.  While Monty Clift's character in
A Place in the Sun has  gets to have an affair along the way with every schoolboy's dream girl Simone Signoret which is not a thing to be treated lightly. 

The educational ethos was still present in films such as Thomas Hardy's Far from The Madding Crowd  (1967) but with players such as Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie nobody was complaining and even heavy dramas such as D.H.Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) was acceptable mainly due to the presence of Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed but in retrospect Lawrence is grossly overrated as an author and it's only the salacious aspect of his novels which ever brought him into the limelight.
But just to  reinforce the changes that were taking place there was actually a British musical !   -
Oliver  made by Carol Reed in 1968.  The inspired casting went a long way to making the movie into a class act with Ron Moody superb as Fagin, Jack Wild the epitome of an Artful Dodger, Shani Wallis as an appealingly pathetic tart-with-a-heart and best of all Oliver Reed was evil incarnate dripping malevolence in his wake accompanied by the no less malevolent Bullseye, his dog.  It had been a long time coming but this was great stuff from the British cinema.  At long last the stars had roles they could get their teeth into and entertainment had for once taken precedence over angst.
 

                
were talking to your customer
Zulu (1964)
Things became even better in 1964 when mine and many other people's favourite British film of all time burst onto the screen with unprecedented impact; the Director was Cy Endfield and the film was Zulu. The subject matter was the siege at Rorkes Drift in 1879 when a 3,000 strong force of bloodthirsty Zulu warriors fresh from the massacre at Isandhlawana were looking for fresh conquests.  The few hundred soldiers at the isolated settlement decided to remain and fight a holding action rather than be caught out in the open and the film concentrates on the ebb and flow of the battle in a fascinating and realistic enactment of the siege.  Michael Cains interpretation of a typical British officer of the era is on the face of it a scathing representation of a foppish, self-serving and class-ridden individual but as the film unfolds his Gonville Bromhead's anachronistic eccentricities and depth of character become endearing.  There is a great deal of irony in the fact that Michael Caine, a product of the London East End and fresh from a working-class Cockney background was chosen to play the  aristocratic Bromhead with the cut-glass accent.  Stanley Baker, playing the pragmatic  Lt. John Chard was the perfect foil for Caine while James Booth was perfect as the chirpy Cockney Henry Hook.  Richard Burton was chosen for the narration and once again his laconic and liquid tones added gravitas  to a film already replete with tension.
The battle scenes are second to none with the fight in the hospital where Hook won his V.C. the most exciting of all.  But just as nerve-wracking are the intervals between the action when the ever diminishing force regroup time after time.  The Zulu warriors as individuals are truly impressive but when the waves of Zulu regiments appear filing over the veldt  walking increasingly faster until they break into a run and finally racing forward with the battle cry Usuthu! the effect is truly electric.
Many scenes are memorable but the one that stirs the blood is when the formidable army of Zulus stand on the hillock ready to attack and banging on their shields with their assegais, chanting their battle cry, Usuthu, and stamping their feet in unison, have all the effects of an approaching train with all the trepidation that engenders. The fear in the ranks of the soldiers is palpable until the largely Welsh regiment respond with a stirring rendition of Men of Harlech.
I have seen this film many times and it stands as one of the most exciting films of all time.  Rorkes Drift has become legendary and whenever we watch such re-enactments of historical events there is no doubt that each and every one of us imagines ourselves on the field of battle and always in some heroic role.

Zulu was a difficult act to follow and sadly it was a one-off.  There are no British films after this that I can think of which hold a candle to it.  Cy Endfield had set the standard and thrown down the gauntlet and nobody has to date picked it up despite there being many other such battles throughout Britain's Imperial history. 
It has been said that the British press made much of this battle in order to minimise the catastrophe which had taken place at Isandhlwana a few hours earlier.  Critics of the film are in a minority but some have pointed out that the depictions of Hook, Chard and Bromhead are incorrect.  Whether this is true or not Zulu remains the most exciting and authentic version of the battle that we are ever likely to see

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Zulu Dawn ( 1979) : Director Douglas Hickox

Although Cy Endfield did not direct the film, he did write the screenplay - strangely, Zulu Dawn was released exactly 100 years after the battle of Isandhlwana which is the central theme of the film.   Although Rorke's Drift as featured in Zulu  was undoubtedly an epic siege in which uncommon heroism was shown in the face of overwhelming odds the fact was that it was used by the Victorian media to deflect the debacle at Isandhlwana which had taken place the previous day of the 22nd January, 1879.  Isandhlwana has been compared to General Custer's massacre at the Little Big Horn, just 3 years previously, and it's true that there are many similarities; both Lord Chelmsford, the British Commander-in-Chief and Custer split their forces leaving each separate unit vulnerable to attack, both commanders were unaware of the superior numbers of the enemy that they faced, both were unaware of the fighting spirit of their enemy  and both were guilty of blithely soldiering into enemy territory without scouting ahead sufficiently.
Zulu Dawn is a prequel to Zulu and focuses on Lord Chelmsford's march into Zululand following a political debate invloving Cape officials who pursuade themselves and others that Cetshwayo and the Zulu Nation must be defeated if Britain is to succeed in South Africa.   It was an imperial arrogance of which Britain can take no pride and again has parallels with the manner in which the Sioux and Cheyenne of the American great plains were robbed of their lands and their place in the world.  However,  unlike many American Western films which paint Custer as a heroic victim, Zulu Dawn makes no pretensions that Isandhlwana was anything but a humiliating defeat and makes it clear that Lord Chelmsford (played by a haughty Peter O'Toole) was an arrogant and incompetent commander.
There were heroes at Isandhlwana, notably the one-armed Colonel Durnford, in charge of the Natal native Contingent.  Durnford is played by Burt Lancaster, who was surely chosen for the part for his "star quality" and although Lancaster does have the necessary gravitas for the part, he falls victim to the same affliction which occurs at regular intervals in the ranks of Hollywood stars - Americans just cannot do Irish accents.
There were two other heroes at Isandhlwana, namely Lt. Melvill and Lt. Coghill who attempt to rescue the battle standard on horseback.  In an exciting and breathtaking race through hordes of Zulu warriors, both officers are finally killed while crossing the Buffalo River- later both men were awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses.  However, it is possible that once again all is not as it seems  and there is a suggestion that, just as would happen at Rourke's Drift, the attempt to rescue the standard was used as a heric motif to deflect attention from the debacle of the battle of itself - in fact, Sir Redvers Buller who had himself been awarded V.C. among other honours, criticized the award, stating unequivocally that no British officer should ever leave the field of battle while his men were still fighting.
Having said all that, both Zulu and Zulu Dawn are excellent representations of historic events with the former film in particular one of the most exciting and stirring films ever made.  It is surprising that the British expoits in South Africa have not been revisited -there are plenty more thrilling events to be filmed, not least the death of the Prince Imperial and the battles with the Matabele.

' It would of course be wrong to dismiss one of Britain's finest film Directors on the evidence of a single film and It is true to say that am in a minority in disliking everything to do with Brief Encounter.  Most of David Lean's 17 films have been major successes from the early days of interpretations of Noel Coward's patriotic writings and Charles Dickens' novels although it has to be said that Lean was a great practitioner of the educational school of Directing.  However, following Dr Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia I was beginning to warm to David Lean after his aberrations with Celia Johnson so that when Ryan's Daughter came along total redemption followed.  Robert Bolt wrote the story, loosely based on and inspired by Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and David Lean turned it into a magnificent film.  Set in the West of Ireland in 1916, the infamous Black and Tans are led by a Major Doryean { Christopher Jones } suffering from shell-shock which manifests itself whenever Doryean is under stress.  Sarah Miles in possibly her best-ever role as Rosie Ryan falls for the young Major and they have an illicit affair.  Illicit because Rosie is betrothed to Shaughnessy, the staid and passionless schoolteacher played by Robert Mitchum who for once gives some inkling of the actor that he could have been.  At first the role fits perfectly with Mitchum's wooden acting persona but he comes into his own later in the film when Rosie's infidelity comes to light and Mitchum reveals depths previously rarely shown in his sympathy for her plight.  Trevor Howard is excellent trying to keep his recalcitrant flock in order but John Mills stole in behind everybody and claimed the Oscar for his portrayal of Michael, the village idiot.

If this film had been made today, there would have been naked  bodies writhing everywhere because "the audience demands it ."  I don't think the audience does demand it and neither did David Lean when he said ;
"To suggest sex and leave it to the audience is much more erotic than showing it all. Sex is imagination ".
This was great stuff and a breathless audience awaited more but Lean chose to wait 14 years before making another film - possibly his best. the subtle interpretation of  E.M.Forster's 
A Passage to India. box. Remember to keep your wording friendly, approachable and easy to understand as if you were talking to your customer
London Boulevard (2010)  Director William Monahan
Although the Director is American, the film itself, set in London, is British through and through.  When Harry Mitchel (Colin Farrell) is released from prison vowing never to return he is welcomed back by his old associates as one of their own and soon comes to realise that leaving a life of crime won't be as easy as he would like to believe.  Harry's re-entry into his old life is akin to entering a netherworld peopled by all manner of villains, rogues, layabouts, addicts, muggers and thieves of every persuasion  and this is where the strength of the film lies as every single one of them is a study in themselves; Eddie Marsan is typically creepy as the corrupt Detective Bailey; Stephen Graham plays Danny as a cunning bottom-feeder in the underworld hierarchy, while Ben Chaplin's Billy Norton lives in fear of Rob Gant (Ray Winstone) who reigns over all by means of an uncompromising viciousness towards anyone who stands in his way.  There are many more of these Runyonesque characters throughout the film but perhaps best of all is Harry's drug-addled sister Briony.  Briony is a brilliant character study of an addict prepared to use any method she can to obtain her drugs and the mercurial and fey broken-doll, fast losing her looks, as played by the highly under-rated Anna Friel, could hardly be bettered.  The entrance into this maelstrom of criminality of the naive Indian Dr. Raju (Sanjeev Bhaskar) only serves to emphasise just how much of a den of thieves he has unknowingly walked into. 

As Harry reluctantly finds himself drifting back into his old way of life and worse still is inveigled into working for the murderous Gant, in a chance meeting he is offered a job as an "assistant" to an actress named Charlotte.  Played by Keira Knightley, Charlotte is a sad and desperate figure, whose fame has all but destroyed her and surrounded by wealth and fame she has become a recluse with her only friend Jordan, played by David Thewlis, vainly trying to keep a baying crowd of paparazzi away from her door.  The enigmatic Jordan is the strangest character in the whole film and we never really understand what he is thinking or find anything about him - all we know is he is fiercely loyal to Charlotte and in his own strange way has little time for any of the expensive trappings which surround her.  As Charlotte and Harry slowly fall in love, they both see a way of escaping from their mutual difficulties and plan an escape to Los Angeles together.  In any conventional film the credits would already be rolling, but in the streets of Monahan's London, life was never that easy and the ending comes as quite a shock.

In a sad postscript to the film, in real life, Keira Knightley has been constantly harassed and stalked by a deranged fan for months on end leaving her as shaken as the character she plays in the film.  The culprit has been taken to court but Keira is moving house.