The Electronic Journal of British Cinema

Fifties British Cinema (continued)

by Robert Murphy

Note: This article has been divided into three parts: Part1, Part 2,
and Part 3 (Appendix and notes).

Copyright is retained by the author

Part 2

One experience which all classes did share in the 50s was National Service. Conscription was introduced by the Labour government in 1949 and abolished by the Tories in 1960, to the relief of all concerned. Its unpopularity made it an ideal butt for film comedy and was early exploited by Brian Rix in Reluctant Heroes (d. Jack Raymond, 1952) and Frank Randle in Its a Grand Life (d. John Blakeley, 1953). Service comedies remained a staple of the 50s film industry - Privates Progress (d. John Boulting, 1956), Carry On Sergeant (d. Gerald Thomas, 1958) and Operation Bullshine (d. Gilbert Gunn, 1959) were hugely successful - and at the end of the decade the Kinematograph Weekly was still expressing satisfaction that service comedies are 'as safe as the Bank of England'.

What strikes one about 50s war films is not the success of a particular cycle of films - POW camp films, stiff-upper-lip naval dramas, heroic flyer films, resistance movies, service comedies, commando-raid action pics - but the success of a wide spectrum of different types of war films and the very low rate of failure. Despite the competition of over 300 American films a year, a remarkable number of British war films were included in the top box-office films each year, and few were expensive flops. The public's taste ranged from the restraint of Angels One Five (d. George More O’Ferrall, 1952) to the technicolor splendour of The Bridge On the River Kwai; from the romantic daredevilry of Reach for the Sky to the grimly uncompromising The Cruel Sea; from the visceral sensationalism of Hammer's Camp on Blood Island (d. Val Guest, 1958) to the gentlemanly heroics of The Battle of the River Plate (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1956); from unwieldy epics like Dunkirk (d. Leslie Norman, 1958) to slick Anglo-American co-productions like Cockleshell Heroes (d. Joe Ferrer, 1955).

Various reasons have been advanced for the popularity of war films in the 50s. Lindsay Anderson considers that:

with Britain’s position as a world power becoming less and less assured and her traditional political values beginning to be questioned (as evidenced by the break-up of the Empire and the mishandling of the Suez affair), there was an apparent instinctive desire on the part of the public to have its national confidence and pride bolstered by some substitute means. Hence the nostalgic harking back to a time in the recent past when issues were clear-cut and Britain’s greatness though under threat was self evident and confirmed by victory. (7)

Roy Armes comes to similar conclusions. For him 50s war films ‘offer evidence of a reaction against contemporary social changes, a nostalgia for the fixed hierarchical society of the armed services and the firm, unquestioned virtues (fortitude loyalty courage) of the war period.’ And he dismisses them as ‘archaic memories of a self-deluding era’s retreat into a cosy never-never land.’ (8) Raymond Durgnat puts in a plea for stiff upper-lip naval films like The Cruel Sea, Yangste Incident (d. Herbert Wilcox, 1957), Sink the Bismark (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1960) and The Battle of the River Plate, praising their ‘emphatic abandonment of simpler, gallanter notions about war and fair play for something more humiliated and realistic.’ But he goes along with the idea that war films served as a substitute for the real thing:

The ignominies of pre-war appeasement seemed to carry an obvious moral with respect to Stalin. But the prospect of World War III was so unappetizing that anxieties could agreeably be fed back into movies about World War II which was undoubtedly justified, and over, and won (9).

Armes and Anderson, trying to rescue British cinema from the stiff upper lip realist tradition, have little sympathy for films like The Dam Busters (d. Michael Anderson, 1955) and The Cruel Sea. Critics writing long after that tradition had expired could afford to be more dispassionate. Nicholas Pronay, for example, sees fifties war films as usefully cathartic:

They did their job in the scheme of things, the job which fiction film in particular could be expected to do for the people of the culture of which it formed a part. They allowed the people in the audience to re-live vicariously their experiences, the fears, guilt and dilemmas of their own particular war; and to catharsise psychological sores still festering. (10)

The Second World War, like most wars, was fought by very young men ( the average age of Battle of Britain pilots was twenty-one) and for those who survived it was likely to be the most traumatic and dramatic period of their lives. War films allowed an opportunity of re-living and coming to terms with that experience. And for the generation who grew up surrounded by bombed-building sites and tales of the war, these films allowed a glimpse into that fascinating world which they had been too young to experience directly.

The fifties was a period of prosperity and full employment. Wage levels rose faster than prices and the 1944 Education Act opened up educational opportunities and encouraged a degree of social mobility. But if most people had ‘never had it so good’ they didn’t take prosperity for granted. Respectability, deference, caution, consensus marked the fifties, but beneath the tranquil surface lurked the dreadful, exciting events of the war. Films provided an opportunity to safely return to those events - though for men much more so than for women. And as a generation gap opened up between parents and children, war films were one of the few things that fathers could enthusiastically share with their sons.

There is another reason for the popularity of British war films in the fifties. They were something the British film industry did well. Unlike musicals or Westerns or gangster films, war films didn’t seem to be the exclusive preserve of Hollywood. Britain’s role in winning the Second World War, though less important than was believed at the time, was significant enough to fuel a body of often exciting and sometimes serious films. Like the horror films that began to emerge from Hammer studios after 1957, fifties war films constituted a genre.

Films made between 1939 and 1945 are of a bewildering variety: home front melodramas as different as Millions Like Us and A Canterbury Tale; divergent attempts to capture the reality of war in films such as In Which We Serve and Desert Victory. They share common themes, promote similar ideological messages, but except in their striving towards reality, they have little in common stylistically. Films made in response to an ongoing situation don’t have time to build conventions. Fifties war films are less formula-bound than one might suppose, but they share codes, actors, visual style and they can be corralled into coherent groups. By looking at three films - The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky - in more detail it may be possible to draw some tentative conclusions.

The Cruel Sea, directed by Charles Frend who had made another popular naval drama - San Demetrio-London - in the midst of the war, was extremely successful with both the critics and the public. In contrast to the carefully balanced class divisions of In Which We Serve and the cheerful everybody pitching in together feel of San Demetrio-London, The Cruel Seal is unrelentingly middle class. The one officer who is not a gentleman, used-car salesman Stanley Baker, is quickly moved on, and the crew are reverently deferential to their business-like captain Jack Hawkins. There is one dangerous moment when the placidity of Hawkins’ order is threatened. After making the difficult decision whether or not to blow to smithereens a group of ship-wrecked British sailors along with the U-boat lying directly underneath them, somebody mutinously shouts out ‘Murderer’ at the unhappy Hawkins. We are not expected to agree: the Captain's actions are carefully framed within a 'war is hell' context and we are hardly allowed to empathise with those rather comical figures optimistically bobbing up and down on the waves before being so ignominiously scuppered. It is Hawkins, the hard man with the heart of gold, whom we sympathise with as he gets impressively drunk to drown the pain.

In The Dam Busters, the horrors of war are glanced at and then cleverly side-stepped. Despite its quirky realism and its clever structure (Durgnat talks of ‘its bold, original architecture of disappointment and loss’), The Dam Busters gives a misleading picture of the role of British bombers in the war. The raid on the dams was successful, though the breaches were soon repaired, but the casualty rate was unacceptably high. Ten of the nineteen planes were lost, fifty-six of the hundred and thirty-three men and the squadron’s consequent reputation as a ‘suicide squadron’ made recruitment difficult. More important, this sort of strategic bombing was considered futile by Air Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris. Barnes-Wallace's bouncing bomb was visually spectacular but his ten ton ‘Grand Slam’ was considered more useful by Bomber Command. While the USAF developed long-range fighters to accompany its bombers on daylight precision bombing raids, the RAF concentrated its efforts on the night bombing of civilian targets with dubiously impressive results: I35,000 died in the Dresden fire storm. Even within the film though, pathos for the victims of war is displaced. Our sympathies are evoked not for the 749 Russian prisoners of war drowned when the Mohne dam was smashed, nor even the fifty-six men lost on the raid, but for the victim of a traffic accident: Guy Gibson's beer-swilling dog 'Nigger' (11).

Reach for the Sky is similarly distortive. Closely following Paul Brickhill's biography, the films long first half is devoted to Douglas Bader's exploits in the early 30s. Despite the loss of both legs he manages to engineer his return to the RAF at the outbreak of war and rapidly rises to become a squadron leader. Having established Bader's reckless courage and dogged determination the film proceeds to unquestioningly endorse his romantic attitude towards the war. The Battle of Britain was won by Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding's coldly realistic strategy of sending small groups of radio controlled fighters to make accurate hit and run attacks on the huge fleets of bombers sent over by the Luftwaffe. Dowding was well aware that in one to one combat between fighters the more experienced German pilots were likely to come off best. As Len Deighton points out:

For years pilots had been coming from the training schools at the rate of 800 per month and a high proportion of German crews had flown under combat conditions in Spain, Poland and France. Their tactics were tried and tested and their flying skills incomparably better than those of the RAF squadrons. (12)

Dowding was convinced that Britain would lose a war of attrition in which each side merely sought to shoot down the maximum number of enemy aircraft. He continually discouraged futile heroics and stressed that the main aim was to break up the German attacks and prevent the bombers from inflicting decisive damage on their targets. Bader, endorsed by his ambitious section controller Leigh-Mallory, advocated ‘big wings’ of five or more squadrons which would fight pitched battles with the Germans and act on their own initiative rather than under orders from ground control. It was a view more in tune with the myth of ‘knights of the air’ fighting chivalric individual combats than the reality of swooping down on the enemy from a superior height and shooting him in the back. Once the Battle of Britain was won, the political appeal of this myth made it expedient to sack Dowding - who had allowed German fighters to range across Southern England unchallenged and to promote Leigh-Mallory and make Bader into a national hero.

Neil Rattigan asserts that fifties war films were a ‘reflection of the last ditch effort by the dominant class to maintain its hegemony by re-writing the history of the celluloid war in its own favour.’ (13) The RAF was much less rigidly class-bound than the Army and Navy - of the 3,000 Fighter Command crew who fought in the Battle of Britain only 200 were public school educated. But in the films working class characters appear to exist only to polish shoes and start engines and in Reach for the Sky the waitress who captures Bader’s heart turns out to be a wing commander’s daughter in mufti. If 50s war films are skewed towards the middle class, how does one explain their wide appeal to working class audiences? The answer must lie mainly - as Christine Geraghty points out - in their celebrations and explorations of masculinity. ‘By taking on narratives which concentrate on men at war, the films almost inevitably negotiate questions of courage, fear and the desire to survive.' (14) In doing so, issues around class tend to be submerged. The emphasis on active service, the absence of home life, the use of actors like Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More, whose gritty or breezy professionalism is much less class specific than the clipped suavity of Clive Brook or Noel Coward, steer the films away from the dangerous waters of class. Thus More’s Bader gains the respect of his squadron not by patronising chat or innate class superiority but by a display of dare-devil acrobatics and a brash dismissal of the bureaucrats who get in the way of ‘the real business of killing Huns'.

50s British war films were not made by an industry so desperately in decline that it needed to play safe. Very few of the films are merely formulaic. The POW camp dramas The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, Albert RN and Danger Within are directly comparable, but they each have marked peculiarities and the service comedies range from sentimental situation comedy - (The Baby and the Battleship, d. Jay Lewis, 1956) to knockabout farce (Its a Grand Life and Reluctant Heroes), from satire (Privates Progress) to vulgar humour (Carry on Sergeant).

The popularity of British as against American war films in the 1950s indicates that it was the myths around Britain’s achievement in the Second World rather than a celebration of war as such which attracted audiences. The concentration on the contribution of officers rather than men is very noticeable in most serious British war films in the 50s but changes in society made a return to the populism of the 40s impossible. A handful of films can be accused of romanticising or glamorising war, but the predominant tone is one of subdued realism - the much despised stiff-upper-lip being often used as a convenient short-hand for necessarily suppressed pain, bitterness and fear. As Christine Geraghty explains:

In the films made during the war, fear is a natural emotion which can be overcome with the help of the group. In the 50s war films, fear is a personal weakness which should not be admitted to. Fear is thus repressed but erupts dramatically when a man breaks down. The isolation of the masculine world of war can be understood in this context as an attempt to maintain an invulnerability which is necessary for heroism. (15)

Films with a sourer and more cynical attitude to the war began to emerge at the end of the decade. Anthony Asquith’s Orders to Kill (1958), Val Guest’s Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and Jack Lee’s Circle of Deception (1960), for example (16). They became increasingly prevalent in the 60s - The Long, the Short and the Tall (d. Leslie Norman, 1961), Reach for Glory (d. Philip Leacock, 1962) The Victors (d. Carl Foreman, 1963), The Hill (d. Sidney Lumet, 1965), How I Won the War (d. Richard Lester, 1967), The Long Day’s Dying (d. Peter Collinson, 1967) - but they failed to achieve the commercial success of epics and action pictures such as The Guns of Navarone (d. Lee Thompson, 1961), The Great Escape (d. John Sturges, 1963), The Heroes of Telemark (d. Anthony Mann and Gil Woxholt, 1965), and Where Eagle’s Dare (Brian G. Hutton and Yakima Canutt, 1968). These were international rather than specifically British films and that intimate involvement - less nostalgia perhaps than a necessary re-emersion - in the specifically British experience of the Second World War seemed to have run its course in the cinema. But at the end of the 70s came a revival, with films such as Yanks (d. John Schlesinger, 1979), The Dresser (d. Peter Yates, 1984), Hope and Glory (d. John Boorman, 1987) and Memphis Belle (d. Michael Caton Jones, 1991), and a fascinating trilogy of television plays - Licking Hitler (d. David Hare, 1978), The Imitation Game (d. Richard Eyre, 1980) and Rainy Day Women (d. Ben Bolt, 1983). Television series dealing with or set during the Second World War continue to proliferate, indicating that its place in the British collective psyche is perhaps as significant and as durable as that of the Wild West for Americans

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